A park in Flushing that was designed by the Parks Department to honor African and Native Americans buried there over 150 years ago is not living up to its promise.
That’s the assessment of Martins Field by Mandingo Tshaka, of Bayside, who fought for 15 years to convert the neglected site into a place of remembrance for the 1,000 buried at the former paupers cemetery. “This is hallowed ground, like Ground Zero, and should be treated as such,” he said.
Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), who helped broker a deal between Tshaka and his supporters and local residents around the park, who wanted a playground there, is also incensed that the intent of the park is not being followed. “There has been hateful vandalism there,” he said. “The park is for passive reflection and anything else is just unacceptable.”
The $2.7 million park renovation was completed late last year. It includes a playground in one corner and paths and native plants in the remaining 3-1/2-acre park on 46th Avenue, between 164th and 165th streets.
The site features a stone wall with four names etched into it symbolizing those buried there. There is also a circular stone sitting area with an etched medallion in the middle that tells a brief history of the park. Nearby is a Parks Department plaque with a more detailed history.
But shortly after it opened last November, vandals set a fire in the playground and started destroying interior fencing. Many of the stones from the wall have been knocked over. Bicycle skid marks are visible on the stone sitting area and youngsters have been seen roller-skating there and playing baseball and soccer in the open area.
Tshaka blames some of the problems on the Parks Department for changing the design. Plans originally called for an earth mound and sundial in the center of the park to discourage visitors from using it as a ballfield.
He added that dogs are taken in and urinate on the grass. “It’s a travesty,” Tshaka said.
He and other members of the newly organized Martins Field Conservancy want more of a police presence to deter vandals and others breaking the law.
Robbie Garrison, a conservancy member, said Friday that her group was trying to reach out to the community for help because neighbors are not calling the police when they see illegal activity at the park. “Why would you let someone come in and destroy what looks so nice in front of your own homes?” Garrison asked.
Although there are official signs saying bike riding, ball playing and dogs are not allowed, conservancy members say they are ignored. Tshaka believes additional signs on all gates might help, but “the community knows playing is not allowed there.”
Another part of the problem was that the park gates were not being locked at night, as promised, until Tshaka complained to the 109th Precinct last week. Since then, the gates have been locked around 5:30 p.m. every day and opened the following morning as a courtesy by the manager of the nearby Flushing Cemetery.
Parks workers said Friday that even with the gates locked, vandals had gotten in the night before and knocked down some of the interior fencing between the playground and the rest of the park.
Liu noted Monday that the fencing was inappropriate and will be changed to match the 7-foo-high iron fencing around the perimeter of the park. “We have alerted the precinct about the problems and Parks is working on the rest,” he added.
A Parks Department spokeswoman would not comment on the problems at Martins Field, saying that vandalism was a police matter.
Mary DeNicola has lived on 165th Street for over 50 years and has seen youngsters digging around the fencing to enter the park at night. “It’s terrible,” she said.
David Copell, who also lives on 165th Street, said vandalism has been on the rise at nearby Kissena Park as well. He believes it’s vital that the gates at Martins Field be locked at night.
Copell has also seen youngsters playing ball and soccer in the open area. “Signs aren’t adequate,” he said.
Nevertheless, Copell is happy with the improvements that were made at Martins Field. “The plants are growing nicely and the playground is used,” he added.
According to official records, the former cemetery was used from 1840 to 1898, when the city became incorporated. The city was required to protect and maintain burial grounds but instead allowed construction of the playground there in 1936.
Persons wishing to join the Martins Field Conservancy, should call Tshaka at (718) 224-2357.