I Wish My Park Didn’t Have to Beg People to Volunteer to Pick Up Garbage

New York City’s parks are more essential than ever, but the city won’t allocate enough funding to maintain them.
August 4, 2020, 2:37pm
Prospect Park
Image: Aaron Gordon

I love Prospect Park. My wife and I love it so much we got married in it. Not one of those weddings at the fancy Boathouse or Picnic House that presumably cost a million dollars and have to be booked a decade in advance. We just walked into the park on an unseasonably chilly April day with a dozen of our closest relatives, stood in our favorite spot for ten minutes, and walked out married.

Which is why my heart swelled with sadness when I received an email last night from the Prospect Park Alliance, a non-profit that helps manage the park, asking me if I will volunteer to pick up trash

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both Prospect Park Alliance and NYC Parks have lost critical funding, and the park's seasonal workforce is significantly smaller compared to previous years,” the email said. “This combined with an increase in patrons has led to the park getting much more love than it can handle.”

This isn’t a case of bad actors littering with abandon. Parks have been just about the only place New Yorkers can go for fresh air, exercise, and a safe place to have some socially-distant hangouts with friends and family. The parks are being used way more, especially for meals and cookouts, so there is way more trash. Especially on weekends, the garbage cans in the park are often overflowing and a stiff breeze blows the trash around before it has a chance to be picked up. 

At the same time, the Parks Department has less money to deal with the increased usage. The city slashed the Parks Department’s budget 14 percent in a year our parks have never been more important

To be clear, volunteering in your community is great and anyone who volunteers to pick up trash in their local park—either through a civic organization’s efforts like the PPA’s or by simply buying a trash picker and a trash bag—is doing a good thing. But something has gone horribly wrong when a park that draws some 10 million visitors a year owned by the richest city in the richest country in the history of the world has to beg people to pick up garbage.

Instead, I see it as the flip side of the protests that have taken place in this city and around the country in recent weeks demanding an adjustment of institutional priorities away from armed police and towards social services and other forms of non-violent intervention. 

I spend a lot of time in Prospect Park, and one of the things I will often see besides lots of good dogs and lots of people having a good time is lots of police officers driving around the paved loop—which is ostensibly closed to vehicles—or in their idling cars as the officers scroll through their phones. This is such a common occurrence that Google Street View captured it. After I wrote most of this article to go take a break in the park, as if by the immutable laws of New York City priorities, a cop car drove by, weaving its way among the cyclists and joggers.

The cops will drive throughout the park, but in my years biking and walking around the park, I have only ever seen the cop cars parked on the southern half of the loop. That happens to be the part of the park that borders Flatbush, a predominantly Black neighborhood. I am sure it has happened, but I personally cannot recall an instance of a cop car parked in the northwestern portion of the park, which borders Park Slope, a predominantly white neighborhood. 

The protests were about a lot of things, including holding unnecessarily violent officers accountable for their actions and holding the police as an institution accountable to the people. But it was also about defunding the police to find a healthier balance between positive and negative interventions in our communities. Our elected officials did not do this and largely cut from other city services instead to fill a massive COVID-sized budget gap. Meanwhile, the NYPD raked in $115 million in overtime in just two weeks of protests, almost double the cuts to the Park’s budget for all of next year.

This isn’t to say I wish the city council funded trash pickup in the parks as a first order of business after defunding the police. There are obviously more important things to do. And there will be other parks, especially ones in predominantly BIPOC neighborhoods, that don’t have well-funded non-profits picking up the slack. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious we live in a demented and broken country. We pay cops to drive around in circles past the garbage no one will pick up.