It may be a hazy West Village memory now, but there was a time in the recent past when some local parks were not the well-kept, well-used green spaces they are today, but sometimes barren or forbidding places.
Now Christopher Park — a .19-acre triangle formed by Christopher, Grove and West Fourth Streets — will be next to get some TLC and an upgrade, if a group of neighborhood volunteers is successful in its effort to make the spot clean and green. The Christopher Park Partnership has come together in the past year to identify needs, galvanize volunteers, and put in the sweat equity needed — even midday on this 86-degree Wednesday, when a corporate group repainted the 130-year-old wrought iron fence.
“This really should be the gateway to the West Village,” says Andre Becker, a member of the volunteer board who has lived on Washington Place with his partner for 20 years. He got involved last summer, when he noticed the park’s less-than-pristine condition and went looking for the caretakers. As these stories often go, he ended up becoming one of them. The triangle is a public city park, and the Parks Department does important basic work, Becker says, but they can always use a hand from interested locals.
The core volunteer crew, augmented by the seasonal It’s My Park days when more helpers pitch in, has been busy removing masses of ivy gone wild, plus overgrowth that obstructed sight lines and made the park too welcoming to late-night drinkers. Now the ivy is gone, the greenery is trimmed, an exterminator bade the rats goodbye, and the park is being closed at dusk, not midnight — which means it’s much cleaner in the morning when the gate is opened up again. Over 1,500 bulbs were planted at “It’s My Park Day” in the fall, which paid off in a riot of tulips, daffodils and irises this spring. The color is the difference your average passer-by would notice, says Becker: “That really caught people’s attention.”
The park is best known for the George Segal sculpture Gay Liberation, of a life-sized female and male couple in natural, affectionate poses. Installed in 1992, it is America’s only public monument to the gay civil rights movement (as opposed to AIDS memorials and the like), according to Becker. And it’s in fine shape because the Parks Department’s monuments conservation team has taken good care of it, he says. Right across the street is the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the gay rights movement (currently being memorialized with the Stonewall 45 exhibit, which is cosponsored by GVSHP).
In fact, the park’s decline may be tied to events in the gay community. “The park fell into disrepair due to dwindling community involvement,” Becker wrote in an e-mail. “The park was last renovated in the early 1980’s when a community group raised more than $100,000 to refurbish it. No one is certain what happened to cause the group to fall away; however, we do know that several prominent members, including the landscape architect for the redesign passed away from AIDS. It was a sad time not only for LBGTQ folks but for the neighborhood at large, and the park was at the epicenter.”
The Partnership’s next big goals are to install an irrigation system and remediate the soil. It’s trying to raise $50,000 to pay for that, as well as new plants, tree guards, pest control and more. This Sunday, June 22, the park is hosting an open gardening day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. for people to get dirty and get to know each other. The new interactions are one of Becker’s favorite things about his new role as community gardener: “I’ve met literally dozens of neighbors I’d never known in 20 years of living down the block,” he says.