Photo: Joe Hirsch. A bio-waste disposal box at St. Mary's Park.

Mott Haven residents say the city parks department blindsided them by temporarily closing St. Mary’s Park Recreation Center in May without notifying community members, depriving young people of a safe place to exercise and spend their afternoons during the hot summer months.

Although many agree the facility needs to be renovated, they are frustrated that there are no indoor alternate programming plans for the hundreds of young people who use the facility.

At Community Board 1’s virtual monthly meeting on May 26, the Rec Center’s facility manager Sheroly Jones surprised the board with the news. 

“Unfortunately, the facility is temporarily closed at this time and will be for approximately 12-18 months,” Jones announced. “I understand the importance of the Rec Center, and am currently creating an outdoor plan, which will provide programming and events to keep the community engaged.”

Board 1’s Chair Arline Parks echoed other board members who said they were frustrated with the length of time it took the parks department to inform them.

“The issue is that [the Rec Center] services 700 children in the district,” said Chair Parks. “And how do you wait until the last minute to do it, announce it, and then not come in advance and say, ‘this is what we have planned alternatively’?”

Although parks officials say the closure can be offset with outdoor programming in the park—the South Bronx’s largest—some parents are nervous about their kids’ safety. Humberto King, 50, wanted to register the youngest of his four boys, Canaan, 14, for a membership with the Rec Center, so he could play basketball during the summer. With that option gone, however, King says he always comes with Canaan for walks at St. Mary’s, because he worries the park has become too dangerous for Canaan to go alone.

“You have people fighting at the park,” King said. “It would take an hour before someone of authority would come to stop it.” He didn’t find out about the closing until a recent casual visit to pick up scheduling and activity information, when park staff told him.

Crime in the park has drawn attention recently, including a recent assault and rape at knifepoint of a woman in broad daylight.

Additionally, open drug use in the park has alarmed some community members, who say that the city’s placement of three bio-waste disposal boxes, as part of the city’s Healing NYC initiative, encourages drug use on the grounds. The program was established as a means of combating the opioid crisis during the de Blasio administration. 

St. Mary’s is one of 16 Bronx parks where the needle dispensary boxes have been placed.

Some residents want the city to remove the disposal boxes, though they emphasize that their objective is not to punish substance users but to make St. Mary’s safer. 

“If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll walk right past them; they look like bird houses,” said Mott Haven resident Carmen Santiago, who has helped arrange and lead walking tours of the park with planners, academics and elected officials, to help draw attention to the boxes and drug paraphernalia strewn across the park. 

“We can’t even come into our park,” said Santiago. “We can’t play, can’t have a picnic; the needles are on the ground.”

The disposal boxes, Santiago and others contend, attract substance users to the park, but then the city doesn’t do its part providing complementary services for the drug users. 

The parks department did not respond to requests from The Herald for comment, but is expected to present its alternative summer activity plans at Community Board 1’s June 23 virtual board meeting.

“We’re anxious to find out what outdoor programming, what alternative programming, what resources, they’re going to have around that park, because it’s at the epicenter,” said Chair Parks.   

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