‘Criminal and unconscionable’: North Brooklynites slam six-month state park closure for Cuomo pet project

Marsha P. Johnson Park
The mural proposed for Marsha P. Johnson State Park.
New York State Parks

Members of North Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 lambasted State Parks honchos for closing Williamsburg’s Marsha P. Johnson State Park for six months to make way for a pricey facelift of the waterfront open space, which some said was little more than a vanity project for Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Are we really getting one day’s notice in COVID — as the city is possibly facing more lockdowns — that our park is going to be closed for six months,” said board member Ryan Kuonen at the civic panel’s Tuesday virtual meeting. “In a normal year that would be insanity, during COVID it’s criminal and unconscionable.”

Officials with New York State Parks will close off most of the 7-acre park at Kent Avenue and N. Seventh Street starting this week until June for a $14 million overhaul which includes a large brightly-colored mural honoring Johnson, a LGBTQ rights icon of the 1969 Stonewall uprising in Manhattan.

The space outside the dotted line and the dog run will remain open.New York State Parks

While Kuonen and many board members supported a tribute to the activist, she said the state should put its scarce resources toward helping needy New Yorkers rather than lock down park space amid the pandemic. 

“As we’re entering into an austerity budget essentially they’re pushing this through to get it done fast so the money can be spent on this and not, I don’t know, maybe housing, food — real things,” Kuonen said. “It just proves that they’re trying to push this through because they need to get it done so Governor Cuomo can have a big event and pat himself on the back.”

A section along the park’s northern edge and its dog run will remain open at the site formerly known as East River State Park throughout the park closure.

Cuomo renamed it after Johnson in February and announced in August that the space would be getting a new look, but the state didn’t tell locals until Tuesday that the park would be largely off-limits for half of 2021 due to construction. 

The project includes infrastructure upgrades, such as a brand new solar-powered park house with two gender-neutral restrooms, along with several art installations and decorated “gantry walls” with text telling the story of Johnson and the LGBTQ movement, according to Leslie Wright, the state agency’s regional director for New York City.

The project includes a new solar-powered park house with two bathrooms.New York State Parks

“This is all happening very quickly, it’s thanks to the governor’s realization that this was a place to invest, not only invest dollars for the benefit of the park but invest dollars to honor the namesake of the park,” Wright told the community board on Jan. 12.

But board members said Cuomo and Albany bureaucrats were imposing their vision while bypassing community input for the space that once housed a shipping dock and railroad and where old tracks and cobble stones still remain. 

“I feel like by gubernatorial edict we’re having this park design shoved down our throat,” said Steve Chesler. “I’m all for commemorating and educating and celebrating Marsha P. Johnson, but I feel like this is not the way to do it. This totally violates the spirit of the accidental playground, the industrial fabric, and the industrialism of this park — and it’s blinding on the eyes.”

‘Blinding’: Locals said the brightly-colored mural did not suit the industrial history of the park.New York State Parks

The revamp also led to longtime local event space and bar Biba losing their small backyard concession space from the park, as CBS News previously reported, after Parks officials declined to renew the owner’s lease, saying they needed the entire concrete slab for the new mural.

Mark Nagawiecki, who owns Biba and its three-story brick building surrounded by the park, said the agency was trying to push him out and asked the board to write to Cuomo in support of his business. 

“I have been on that corner for 45 years, back when that same government was actually harassing Marsha P. Johnson,” said Nagawiecki, who moved to the neighborhood from Poland in the 1970s. “Please stand in support of an immigrant-owned small business that is struggling to survive gentrification and COVID.” 

Kuonen, the community board member, noted that she also works for Nagawiecki as an assistant.

Wright claimed that they needed to renovate the entire slab, despite an old rendering showing Biba’s backyard intact alongside the mural. The image has since been removed from the agency’s Flickr page.

An earlier rendering, which has since been taken down, shows the mural allowing space for Biba’s backyard concession.Provided

“The mural will cover the entire slab, we’re restoring both slabs so that they’re smooth. You know they’re old and they’ve got a lot of cracks… they need to be refurbished,” Wright said. “Biba, like anybody else in the community, can apply for a park use permit to use parts of the park, including parts of that patio, so just know that that is a wide open possibility for them or anyone else in the community.”