In early 2020, the park officially changed its name from East River State Park to Marsha P. Johnson State Park to honor the legacy of the notable LGBTQ+ activist and 1969 Stonewall Uprising leader.
Weeks later, all parks in the city closed with the onset of the pandemic. Even still, the New York State Parks Department moved forward with plans to renovate and redesign the park, with construction slated to begin in early 2021. Then controversy ensued.
The redesign, which would include the installation of a large, plastic mural on one of the park’s two concrete slabs, drew the ire of community organizers and activists.
Some officials, including members of Community Board 1, also criticized the decision to close a major park for construction in the midst of a pandemic.
Many others, however, criticized the proposed redesign for failing to properly honor Johnson’s legacy. The organization “Stop the Plastic Park” formed in response, and demanded that the Parks Department abandon its redesign in exchange for a new design that would reflect Johnson’s well documented love of flowers.
Additionally, the group demanded that the design process be opened to input from the North Brooklyn and LGBTQ+ communities.
The Parks Department listened, and held the first of several planned Public Design Workshops to determine the park’s future. The event was held over Zoom this past Wednesday, which coincidentally was International Transgender Day of Visibility.
The workshop featured presentations from the Parks Department and Starr Whitehouse, the landscape architecture firm overseeing the redesign, before accepting input from attendees.
“When the park was renamed in 2020, it was the first New York State park named after a member of the LGBTQ community,” explained Leslie Wright, New York City regional director for State Parks. “This hearing is to ensure that the commemorative and interpretive parts of the park honor Marsha’s legacy.”
The event speakers also explained that some of the original redesign concepts — including the infamous plastic mural — have already been withdrawn.
“The park is undergoing a transformation already to the basic infrastructure, but these won’t fundamentally change the way the park looks yet,” Wright continued. “We want it to become a landmark for tolerance and visibility, but it is also a valued neighborhood park.”
Community input began after the initial comments, and reflected concerns about both the park’s commemorative and community aims.
“I just want to make sure the memory of Marsha is being honored,” said Anika Dorsey Good, Johnson’s great-niece. “That means green space, flowers, vibrant colors, I don’t think concrete slabs that take up the park are necessary.”
Good also suggested including services for the LGBTQ+ and homeless communities as part of the park’s programming.
Many comments, however, were focused on the famous Smorgasburg food festival that takes place in the park on Saturdays. Multiple vendors voiced their concerns about the way the redesign could affect their future business.
“The size of platform B [one of the concrete slabs currently in the park] is very important to Smorgasburg,” explained Susan Povich, founder and owner of Red Hook Lobster Pound. “Especially in the post-COVID world. If we shrink the size of platform B we will have to shrink the number of vendors at Smorgasburg.”
Charles Carlotti, a wood-fired pizza vendor at Smorgasburg, expressed a similar sentiment.
“The way the market is set up, all the vendors have an equal opportunity to make money,” he explained. “The other spots where we do Smorgasburg don’t even come close to comparing to that spot.”
However, both vendors were clear that they still want the redesign to honor Johnson’s legacy.
“Maybe a portion of the proceeds [from Smorgasburg] could go towards the community,” Carlotti wondered, “maybe a scholarship fund in Marsha’s name.”
“This park is an important statement on diversity and tolerance,” Povich agreed, “maybe we could come up with something like the Imagine Garden that honors John Lennon.”
Kelly Bolling, a LGBTQ+ representative from the Governor’s Office, got in the final word during the hearing.
“The park could be a safe space that offers a reprieve from violence,” he explained. “There are studies that green space correlates with a decrease in violence. That would be a great way to honor Marsha P. Johnson.”
Two more public workshops are planned for April 3. Additionally, Starr Whitehouse promised to seriously consider public input, and will hold public review sessions for a new design proposal on April 20 and April 24.
All events will be held at 90 Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, unless inclement weather forces them to be held virtually.