If she had to choose, Maxine Webb’s favorite part of Morningside Park would be the Carl Schurz statue overlooking Harlem on 116th Street and Morningside Drive.
“You just got a bird’s eye view from the south side to the north side,” she said. “You’re in the middle of everything.”
“That’s my Times Square right here,” she said.
Webb, who lives in the Bronx, has worked at Morningside Park for the past 10 years as one of only two employees permanently assigned to the park. To Webb, Morningside Park is more than just her workplace—it’s also where she first learned how to take care of plants and where she fell in love with the neighborhood.
For nine years, Webb was sponsored by the Greenacre Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports city parks. But after funding fell short last year, members of the Friends of Morningside Park were only able to gather the funds necessary to sponsor Webb through the end of the season.
After finishing in January, Webb, 46, is now unemployed, but the Friends are raising money to continue sponsoring her job.
“We’d love to have her be around,” Brad Taylor, the president of the Friends, said. “This is the first time when Friends of Morningside has been in a position to underwrite funds for a worker.”
Taylor said the Friends will be organizing fundraisers to help support Webb—which will require a significant amount of money.
The 30-acre park “needs a lot of help,” Webb said as she walked through the park in the freezing cold on Friday afternoon, enthusiastically gesturing toward different species of trees, bushes, and flower bulbs.
As she’s seen Morningside Heights and Harlem change over the past 10 years, Webb said she has tried to make the park’s plants as diverse as the people living nearby.
“The whole area’s changed,” Webb said. “You’ve got a whole new multiculture around here.” She said the trees and shrubs she added to the park were of “all the different species around the world.”
Webb was one of two permanent employees at the park, and groups of volunteers or seasonal workers would come in as needed. Part of Webb’s job as an assistant gardener was to train them.
“Every six months you get a new crew. And every time you get a new crew you have to train them,” she said. “They’re brand new, totally oblivious to gardening, so you have to train the people first, before you put a tool in their hand. It’s a hard job and we don’t have too many people doing that.”
Every morning, Webb surveyed the park with the crew and checked for fallen or loose branches, which pose a threat to pedestrians. Then she started her main task for the day, which in the spring and summer involved weeding and cleaning.
But what Webb really likes to do is plant.
“I love planting,” she said. “I love planting the bushes and the shrubs. I love planting and teaching people how to plant and maintain their plants. And I love to see part of nature come back, just taking care of the Earth.”
She points to a chubby squirrel running past.
“You’d be surprised the little things they plant in the park,” she said, referring to various berries and nuts park employees plant. “The animals can really nourish off of them.”
Webb came to the park in 2003 as part of a city program that trained people in gardening and landscaping skills. Her first teacher, Joe Spano, eventually became her supervisor and now works as the district’s gardener and horticulture trainer.
She says much has changed in the last 10 years. In addition to a major renovation and the removal and replanting of large areas of the park, the work Webb and her coworkers have done—like removing some trees and bushes where people could easily hide—has also made the park a safer place, she said.
“It’s come a long way,” she said. “Ten years, 15 years ago, you couldn’t even walk through this park. The students from Columbia couldn’t even walk through this park because it was filled with drugs, with prostitution, with homelessness.”
“Now the students want to cut through the park, and why not?” she said. “It’s a beautiful park.”
She’s also seen some strange things happen in the park. Webb recalls a few years ago, somebody put an alligator in the pond, and the workers had to remove the animal.
As she passes a parked van, people inside start screaming, “Hi Max,” “How are you doing?” and “Good to see you!” She smiles and waves as her former coworkers drive off.
Now, she spends her time helping her family with her gardening skills. Last week, she helped her mother—who taught Webb how to plant when she was young—plant some bulbs in her garden in Philadelphia. Her relatives in North Carolina always ask her to assist with planting trees and shrubs.
“I try to keep up my skills when I’m out of here,” she said.
If she doesn’t continue to work at Morningside Park, Webb said she’d like to go to Cornell and study agriculture.
“I would really want to learn more about the soil and the earth, so I can really get in touch with this gardening and landscaping,” she said.
Otherwise, she said she wants to keep working for the park.
“I love the people I work with. I love to do what I do,” she said. “I love Morningside. It’s the first park I worked for and the most beautiful park. It’s basically the heart of the community.”