It began, as dreams often do, in a park playground. Maria Fitzpatrick, MSW ’14, often took her 4-year-old son to play in McGolrick Park, a long-neglected park in the heart of Greenpoint, a historic and culturally diverse neighborhood in North Brooklyn.
Greenpoint’s identity has been thrown into flux by hyper gentrification. While the neighborhood’s desirable waterfront real estate has been the subject of extensive rezoning and renovation, including new parks, McGolrick Park remained overlooked and underserved. Jungle gyms rusted. Broken gates left the park open for visitors after dark. Shards of glass accumulated around its overgrown edges. Parents and their children abandoned McGolrick in favor of newly renovated playgrounds in the rezoned waterfront district, leaving the park an open space for vandalism and drug use. Fitzpatrick, who did not consider herself a community organizer, nevertheless felt compelled to action. “This was not a project I chose,” she said. “It sort of came to me.”
In a stroke of synchronicity, as Fitzpatrick was brainstorming, her Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, of New York State District 50, sent out an announcement in November 2013, for an upcoming Participatory Budgeting Session for Brooklyn’s District 33. Ten NYC Council Districts have a Participatory Budgeting program, where residents become directly involved in deciding how to allocate $14 million of taxpayer money. As the NYC Participatory Budgeting website proclaims, the program allows for a “new kind of democracy.” As Fitzpatrick described it, “Participatory budgeting helps politically non-savvy citizens come up with bids that can succeed.”
Successful bids depend on the support of the community. So Fitzpatrick mobilized. She put a notice on the McGolrick Park Association’s Facebook page announcing her intention to pursue funding for the playground and asked for help. Two local mothers joined her cause, and the three attended the Parks Department Participatory Budgeting Feasibility Meeting together in November 2013. The NYC Parks Department representative in attendance was receptive but estimated the cost of renovating the park to be $2 million, beyond the scope of participatory budgeting. Undeterred, Fitzpatrick attended two community meetings, where she discovered another funding source: the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund (GCEF). She submitted a pre-proposal for fiscal partnership with the Open Space Alliance for the North Brooklyn Conservancy for Parks, her first foray into grant writing.
The GCEF initially dismissed the proposal, but Fitzpatrick refused to concede. After her proposal was refused support, she wrote to the Fund’s administrators and her local elected officials. She learned quickly that community organizing is “very complicated, and requires lots of letter writing.” After generating some positive responses from her advocacy, she reached out to other community members to reform a defunct park advocacy group for McGolrick Park, which became the McGolrick Park Neighborhood Alliance. She and the other mothers wrote to Councilman Steve Levin and asked for his help. In a brilliant stroke, to ensure that he understood the necessity of the renovation project, Fitzpatrick staged a meeting with Levin inside McGolrick Park so he could see the state of decay for himself. The group’s ability to request a larger bid for their project in the Participatory Budgeting Process was supported. The gambit had paid off. After sign posting, letter writing, survey taking, approaching Brooklyn’s Community Board 1, and launching a social media and flyer-distributing campaign in Polish and English, the bid went to the community for a vote. With 649 votes, the group came in third in District 33’s Participatory Budgeting Campaign, and received $450,000 towards the renovation of McGolrick Park Playground. The Parks Department is working with elected officials (including the City Council and Borough President) to seek the additional funding necessary to fully fund the project, $350,000 for the first stage of the renovation, meaning that Fitzpatrick and her group had secured $800,000. Another round of budgeting will take place next year.
For Fitzpatrick, the success of her budgeting bid holds far broader implications than a renovated jungle gym. “Greenpoint is a very complicated neighborhood because of its diverse demographics,” she explained. “Many people in the neighborhood feel outside of the political process.” And despite the many strengths of the neighborhood, and it ongoing hyper-gentrification, poverty levels remain high. Citing numbers from Insideschools, Fitzpatrick said Public School 110 (on the corner of McGolrick Park) has a 53 percent free lunch rate for this year. Nearby Oliver Perry School has a 100 percent free lunch rate.
“The younger the children are, the more concentrated the poverty is, which is statistical proof that we have kids in this neighborhood that need green open space and need a place to go, because their parents don’t have the resources to take them other places,” said Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick explained that there are people who have been in the neighborhood for decades who are politically disenfranchised. “And it’s like the broken window theory: the shabbier something gets, the lower the standard of care gets,” she said. “I wanted the kids in my neighborhood to get a share of the equity that’s going into these neighborhoods and have a sense of inclusion, to put them on an equal level with the children in other parts of Brooklyn. Because the message they’re being sent by having their park neglected makes them feel marginalized and excluded. To have all of the remediation money going into waterfront development, and none of it to McGolrick Park is not environmental justice for this community.”
Reflecting on the project process, Fitzpatrick expressed her gratitude to the NYU Silver School of Social Work for giving her the tools she needed to tackle an unwieldy political system. “The information, skills, and empowerment I received at NYU made me feel like there’s no reason I wouldn’t do this. The Silver School of Social Work taught me to see the bio-psycho-social environment and make decisions about how to pursue treatment or take civil and community action.”
And the success of her first foray into community activism has motivated Fitzpatrick to continue given her a positive experience in the political process. “It’s been very empowering and has taught me that community government wants to do what they are supposed to do, but the community also needs to advocate for itself and work with them. You just have to learn to be a little more of an activator. Because of what I learned in the MSW program: to see systemic discrimination and to understand the privilege of my education and the NASW code of ethics, to be a change agent, I was able to identify a window that I could step into and create a space to get attention focused on a problem.”
Read a Daily News feature on Fitzpatrick’s proposal.
By Penelope Yates, MSW ’15