Thirty years ago, Morningside Park was not the sort of place many people spent a Saturday afternoon.
“You didn’t go in there, period,” Theodore Kovaleff, treasurer for the Broadway Mall Association, said. “It had been abandoned by the Parks Department and when you deal with a situation where moneys are lean, areas become orphans. Morningside Park was an orphan.”
And so a group of Columbia students set out to preserve and improve the overrun, crime-ridden area just east of campus.
Fast-forward 30 years, Friends of Morningside Park, as they called themselves, has worked to reinvent the park’s image while upholding the original vision of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Though the organization’s mission has changed little, its ability to affect change, promote safety, and gather the community in the park has never been stronger.
Current president Jacquie Connors said she loves her job because the Friends can “provide things that the Parks Department can’t afford to have in the park.”
At a 30th-anniversary fundraiser event last Tuesday, a group of donors, volunteers, and supporters gathered to celebrate the strides that the group has taken since its founding.
Over the past year, the Friends replaced broken tiles and old playground equipment and improved the landscape surrounding the 116th Street playground. The group also raised more than $4 million to fund the rebuilding of the 123rd Street playground. Construction is scheduled to start next summer.
“It’s not just that they advocate for building the playground, but also for upkeep,” Friends volunteer Melissa Chu said. “There are people in this organization that are being proactive about trying to continually improve the safety and security in the park.”
The Friends also work to recruit farmers for the Harlem Harvest Festival and the Morningside Park Farmers’ Market, which has set up shop on Manhattan Avenue on Saturdays for the past seven years.
Two shootings in the park area this summer have made safety a renewed priority. The Friends plan to apply the money raised at Tuesday’s fundraiser—approximately $10,000—toward the cost of additional security cameras, according to Brad Taylor, former Friends president and current treasurer.
Taylor credited the 26th Precinct with doing “a remarkably good job” at keeping the park and its surrounding areas safe. However, he acknowledged the fact that the potential for unexpected crimes remains, especially due to the park’s heavily wooded areas and rugged terrain.
Taylor said that he would like to see more foot patrols in the park. “Crime in the park continues to follow the year-over-year declines in the rest of the precinct,” he said. “Of course, in a sense, this makes every instance of crime more jarring.”
Over the next few years, the Friends hope to expand the safety presence in the park. “It would be really nice to build an organization where we had enough money so we could pay an individual to oversee it, similar to Central Park,” Connors said.
The Friends work not only to provide a safer environment but also to create a space where community members want to spend their time.
“There’s been reconstruction, but you can reconstruct as much as you want—if you don’t get the people in, you’re going to lose,” Kovaleff said.
Summer barbecues, annual events organized specifically for children and teens, renovated ball fields, and better lighting have all served to achieve this goal. The weekly farmers’ market also encourages visitors to purchase fresh produce and picnic in the park on weekends.
It’s a major turnaround from when Tom Kiel, CC ’82, founded the Friends in 1981 with his Columbia colleagues.
“The group was full of youthful energy at its founding,” Taylor said. “Our leadership is a bit older now, but we look forward to recapturing that energy by involving more student participation in our work.”
Currently, the organization consists of approximately 200 volunteers, drawn from a combination of corporate groups, student groups, and individuals.
In the past year, Columbia student volunteers from clubs such as the Kiwanis International - Circle K and the Lambda Phi Epsilon and Delta Sigma Phi fraternities have helped the Friends with their various outreach and upkeep projects.
“One of the best parts of working with Friends of Morningside Park [in its early days] was to see a student organization get involved and really try to change the park and make it a better place,” Connors said.
Speaking to guests last Tuesday night, Taylor praised the group’s grassroots efforts.
“The park didn’t need a major renovation—it just needed a little help and someone to take care of it. … Ordinary citizens coming together to advocate for a dog run, a new playground, renovated ballfields, better lighting, and increased security are what has turned Morningside Park around.”