The New York City government has 26 various departments, with at least one for nearly every letter of the alphabet—from the Department for the Aging to the Department of Youth—along with many dozens of various administrative services, offices, commissions, boards and units.
Representatives from many of those appeared before Community Board 8 over the past few months. In most cases, the officials came to face criticism about their work from local residents or to be called out by board officials.
The Department of Homeless Services, for one, caught its share of flak in late September, when board officials called for the resignation of its leaders over the use of the Van Cortlandt Motel as a homeless shelter and, according to board members, for reneging on the city’s promises to find other accommodations for homeless people.
The Department of Transportation has been accused of a variety of lapses, starting with its failure to repair potholed streets.
The Department of Health drew criticism from a preschool administrator just a couple of weeks ago for issuing what she called a tangled mass of rules and regulations and forcing the Spuyten Duyvil Preschool to break up its classes into smaller groups and separate childhood friends.
The Department of Environmental Protection has been embroiled in disputes with Community Board 8 for years, mostly over its plans for Jerome Park Reservoir. The department has been trying to turn the reservoir into a more closely guarded and utilitarian body of water; the community wants to continue enjoying the reservoir’s lake-like vistas and to gain access to its shores.
But among the array of city services whose envoys paraded before board officials and community gatherings lately, there is one department whose representatives seem invariably to have been well-received and welcomed: the Department of Parks and Recreation.
One of the projects the department completed in recent months was a “census” of trees that grow on public streets throughout the city. Much of the work was done by volunteers who recorded information about each tree. Then the department compiled the data and presented it to the public on an online map.
The practical and academic value of the census is to be gauged by research scientists or city planners, but finding a favorite neighborhood tree on the map and looking up its size and the estimated amount of pollutants it neutralizes has given residents many enjoyable moments.
Another Parks Department project, which is still ongoing, is a plan to improve a section of Van Cortlandt Park. The department got $4.2 million in funding for the project—and, unlike many other city agencies, it began its work by asking local residents what improvements they wanted. Only then did landscape architects and planners began drafting their design.
The Parks Department is also the agency whose urban rangers hold an array of free public events—from hikes, star-gazing and bird-watching outings to classes in navigating through a forest or talks about local history—in the city’s parks throughout the year. The goal, according to the Parks Department, is to connect New Yorkers to the natural world through environmental education, outdoor recreation and wildlife management.
That’s a laudable goal, and one that the Parks Department has been achieving. While commending the work of a city agency may feel like a sure-fire recipe for jinxing it, the oft-neglected Parks Department deserves praise for doing more with less, even going beyond its mandate to serve the higher good.
Take the case of the Christ Church tree.
Last spring, a stately street tree was upended by high winds and fell on Christ Church of Riverdale, shattering its stained glass window. The city’s Alice in Wonderland bureaucracy offered conflicting guidelings over how to deal with the stump protruding from the sidewalk. Trees are the purview of the Parks Department, which promptly cleared the debris from the church, but taking care of roads and sidewalks is the job of the Transportation Department, Parks officials said.
The church’s rector, the Reverend Andrew Butler, appealed to city agencies for months to have the stump removed, but it remained there. Finally, one city agency cut short all the bickering and said it would get the job done.
That agency was the Parks Department.