Marsha P. Johnson Park state park closed for six months on Jan 15, for improvements. Residents and local officials lament the timing, given the need for open spaces in the midst of a pandemic and lack of notice to the community.
The park is located in Williamsburg and was known as the East River State Park before Gov. Cuomo changed the name in Feb of 2020 to Marsha P. Johnson state park. Johnson was a transgender woman of color who was also a pioneer of the LBGTQ civil rights movement and a prominent figure in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Johnson continued her activism until her death in 1992.
Once the site of a major rail-to-barge shipping facility mostly for the Domino sugar factory, the park was abandoned for decades, until the 1990s, when Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents organized to oppose the construction of a major new waste-transfer station. The site was converted into a park in 2007 and now serves as a way for Williamsburg’s residents to have access to fresh air, open space, and sunlight at the waterfront of the East River.
The park was closed with little notice surprising locals, who welcome the proposed improvements – a new park house with public bathrooms, classroom space, and a park ranger contact station. The renovations also include refurbished concrete event pads, new park furniture, a modern stormwater management system, and an art mural, which will honor Johnson’s life.
However, the closure of the 7-acre waterfront park along the East River comes when communities need public parks most as a way of escaping the confines of their apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As our city confronts the second wave of the pandemic, denying access to parkland in a neighborhood with some of the least open space in the city is completely unacceptable,” said Assembly Member Emily Gallagher who represents the area in a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo.
In her letter, Gallagher calls for the project to halt its work until the end of the pandemic and create a local engagement with residents and community organizations on the park designs.
Gallagher added that the closing of the Marsha P. Johnson state park does not honor the legacy of Marsha P. Johnson, who was also an AIDS activist, and an occasional sex worker, who was also frequently harassed by the police.
“Instead, we might pay tribute to her incredible life by repealing the state’s ‘Walking While Trans’ Ban, decriminalizing sex work, and securing healthcare for all,” said Gallagher.
The State of New York has also not tried to work with North Brooklyn’s community to explore opportunities for phased renovation while maintaining public access, North Brooklyn Neighbors claimed in a letter to Erik Kulleseid, Commissioner of NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
North Brooklyn Neighbors is a non-profit organization, that advances community-based solutions on issues of public space, through activism, education, and collaboration and serves the communities of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
“We understand that elements of the renovation project are worthwhile and important, particularly construction of the park house/ education center and upgrading stormwater management systems – but the case has not been made to justify full park closure,” read the North Brooklyn Neighbors’ letter.
The letter ends with a plea of strongly urging the Commissioner to halt the current closure plan and work with North Brooklyn’s community to work out a strategy that better meets the community’s needs.
A petition has also been started by Ryan Kuonen, a board member for the North Brooklyn Neighbors to keep the park open.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would close a park during COVID, let alone one that was so essential last spring,” wrote Kuonen.
The New York State Office did not respond to the request for comment in time for publication.