Father Fagan Park, in Soho, has as rich a history as any of NYC’s storied green spaces. Named after a Rio de Janiero-born priest (1911-1938) who died in a terrible neighborhood fire after reentering his burning church to save two of his brothers, the small piazza-esque space holds a soft spot in the hearts of the local residents who share it.
But heavy tourist traffic, lack of attention from the city, and decades of dog pee have taken their toll. The park’s pavement is buckling in places, with bricks popping out dangerously, just waiting for a kid on a scooter or an elderly neighbor to take a dive. Plants don’t tend to thrive in the space, which is shady and lacks proper irrigation.
The park has a “rundown aura about it,” says Jen Sale, who lives just across the street from the park with her husband and young daughter. A drunk driver recently smashed right into the park, leaving one bench at such a disorienting angle that you’d think you’re in a fun home. Tourists stop by during shopping days, stuffing sandwich wrappers galore – and even new-shoe boxes – into the park’s trash bins, causing overflow. Trash collection can’t keep up. Cigarette butts are another big problem.
Why wait when you can start now?
Back in 2011, the city approved funding for a $1.5M renovation of the park, but plans have been bumped back again and again. It now seems work may not even begin until 2017. So in the meantime, Sale and longtime local resident Allen Massano, who works for the Department of Sanitation, are hard at work leading some grassroots developments of their own. They’ve just raised over $3,000 – exceeding their goal – for flowers and plantings that will thrive even without tons of sunlight and water, as well as some exciting programming (think art carts, “shred days” when residents will bring sensitive documents to be demolished, a visit from Soho Memory Project) that they hope will restore the park as a real neighborhood community space.
“What was in front of us was a solvable problem,” says Sale, who works in finance and has a background in public policy and fundraising. She served with Americorps after college, and it was an internship in the Mayor’s office that first drew her to NYC, years ago.
“It’s not that people didn’t care,” she says. “It wasn’t that there weren’t resources in the neighborhood. It just needed a spark of organization. And what keeps me going is – you read these headlines now, and you hear about refugees in Syria, the state of our political discourse. I can’t do much about those issues, but I can make this little park look nicer. If everybody just did a little something outside of their own comfort zone, the world would be a better place.”
See how good this looks?
Sale and Massano knew from the start that they’d need to begin by proving to their neighbors how much potential Father Fagan Park still had. It’s a familiar story. No one thinks they want a protected bike lane, until you get out the paint and try it out for a day. Then, suddenly, everyone wants one. Physical demonstration – or tactical urbanism – counts for so much.
“We teamed up in the belief that if we made the park look really good for a season, it would recast the park, we could raise the money eventually,” says Sale. And that’s exactly what they did, in 2015. They planted hardy Mums and decorative Kale, bought with money right out of their own pockets. Sale has since installed a water spigot at the foot of her brownstone, but until she did, Massano would patiently fill up a 2-gallon watering jug at the park’s dinky water fountain, then spread the hydration around. They were tireless, and their work paid off. The park looked great. Neighbors started to take notice. Seeing is believing, and so it’s no surprise that donor turnout, when they put up fliers and got to fundraising, was top-notch.
“Our oldest donor is 88,” says Sale. “Our youngest donor is 6. That was my daughter. She really wanted to see her name on the bulletin board, so she was not pure of heart in her motivations. But it was a great cross-section. It’s nice to set that kind of an example for her, that you help take care of the neighborhood around you, and if everybody just does a little – wow, look what happens. It looks a lot better.”
We’re proud to be supporting Sale, Massano, and the Father Fagan Park community in their work. “I don’t want to start a 501c3,” says Sale, “and to have ioby making it possible for neighborhood groups to do what they want to be doing instead of running an organization is really smart.” Well, we’re blushing.
To donate, to volunteer your time, or to learn more, check out the team’s ioby campaign page here. They’re excited to hear from you.
Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Feeling the cold in your bones? Are you a cyclist who’s dreaming of getting back in the saddle? While you wait for the ice and slush to melt, check out this awesome team in Memphis – they’re outfitting 16 young bike ambassadors, who’ll undergo the training they need to set an example and get their town pedaling.