Park revitalized by 52 People for Progress, a local volunteer group
52 Park is unique for the passion and hard work of the community that saved it from deterioration. The park, in the Longwood section of the Bronx, might have been in indistinguishable from other vest-pocket parks if not for a surprising advocacy effort by a dedicated group of volunteers called 52 People for Progress, Inc. (52 PFP). When it was built in the mid-1950s as a traditional Robert Moses-era playground, 52 Park contained a wading pool, basketball courts, and a small park house. When much of the South Bronx burned in the 1970s, those structures decayed and the park became a menacing place. Although it is owned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, since 1980, the volunteers of 52 PFP have been partners in its management and revitalization.
52 Park, aka Playground 52 LII, is named for its across-the-street neighbor, M.S. 52 (formerly P.S. and I.S.)....
52 Park, aka Playground 52 LII, is named for its across-the-street neighbor, M.S. 52 (formerly P.S. and I.S.). In 1958, the City assumed control of the site and developed it into a school playground for what was then P.S. 52. This playground was one of roughly 700 renovated or constructed under the auspices of Robert Moses, who served as the City’s Parks Commissioner from 1934-1960.
The school, park site, and surrounding neighborhood have long served as stomping grounds for distinguished New Yorkers, including Major Abraham Legget, officer in the Continental Army, and his son, William Legget, both writers who respectively published Revolutionary War memoirs and a collection of sea stories. In the 20th century, M.S. 52, then an all-boys junior high school, educated a young Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, as well as scores of men who became key players in New York’s Latin music scene. Legendary musicians who met while matriculated at M.S. 52 (and who played stickball together nearby) include Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Manny Oquendo, and Orlando Marín. The neighborhood was also home to comedians Milton Berle and Red Buttons, as well as renowned Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem and Fernando Ferrer, Bronx Borough President.
Carlos Ortíz, a photographer who grew up in Longwood in the 1960s, remembers hanging out at the park,
“As I was playing basketball at Junior High 52 on the weekends, Milton Cardona, who is a very famous conga player now, and other musicians used to play congas in the park. There would be jam sessions. So as we were playing basketball guys would play music. And it wasn’t like one or two congas–it was like six or seven or eight congas and sometimes people would sing.”
During the 1970s fiscal crisis, the South Bronx’s physical landscape was decimated by reduced municipal services, property abandonment and arson, and increased gang and narcotics-related crime. At the same time, the City’s park attendant corps was dismissed. Known as “Parkies,” these trained recreation specialists had been placed in parks to supervise and support children, and direct them in organized games.
By the 1980s, the neighborhood around the playground was characterized by vacant buildings, abandoned lots, and a moderate level of housing construction. The park—once a popular social and cultural hub—deteriorated and was abandoned by all but drug dealers and crack vials. In 1986, the property was officially transferred to the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. However, for the last four decades, it has been managed in conjunction with a dedicated and beloved group of volunteers from 52 PFP.
Distraught by the derelict state of their childhood playground, four Longwood locals–Al Quiñones, Fred Demera, Eduardo Rivera, and Victoria Medina—founded 52 People for Progress and 52 Park, a community-based organization dedicated to renovating the site. Established officially on May 25, 1980, 52 PFP figured that their mission could be accomplished within a year. Thirty-nine years later, their endeavor has evolved into a multifaceted commitment to improving the neighborhood, and is still going strong.
52 PFP’s first initiatives included arranging trash removal from the park and an adjacent abandoned property, commissioning and mounting a mural near the handball courts, and lobbying the Parks Department to renovate the park house and again staff it with an attendant. Quiñones, Demera, Rivera, and Medina held initial meetings and monitored the park’s restoration from the men’s comfort station bathroom. This served as their unofficial office for two years, until Parks granted them permission to use the attendant’s area. With city permits, they cleared the property of remaining debris and dangerous objects, plant vegetation, and repainted park structures. Consequently, 52 Park’s buildings have long sported an inviting tropical blue, unlike those in other City-owned green spaces.
In 1989, the City broke ground on a $1.1 million restoration of the .93-acre park site. The project yielded new playground equipment, game tables, spray showers, handball walls, drinking fountains, and trees. It also included the restoration of an adjacent .7 acre parcel of land acquired by Parks three years prior, which was developed with a new basketball court and an outdoor amphitheater.
To be sure, most of these changes would not have been approved without intense pressure from 52 PFP. Originally, the restoration was to include only the cheapest structural elements and minimal improvements to the handball courts. However, 52 PFP felt that an amphitheater was critically important to organization’s nascent educational and cultural programming. Custom designed by landscape architect Lee Weintraub, 52 Park’s amphitheater and infrastructure were considerable victories for the neighborhood.
The amphitheater, which was officially opened in 1990 and seats 250, is called El Teatro Miranda, after Ray Miranda, a 52 PFP volunteer and police officer who was tragically killed in a traffic accident. El Teatro Miranda has been the site of the 52 Latin Jazz Series. Held every summer from July through September, and produced by 52 PFP, the Series is now a signature Longwood community program, and has included performances by Charlie Palmieri, Jimmy Sabater, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez, Tito Nieves, Orquesta Broadway, and Manny Oquendo’s Libre. 52 PFP has also presented a range of performances and events at the theater including community talent shows, Saturday morning children’s shows, and sporting events.
52 PFP also developed two community gardens on the park’s grounds. The first, named in honor of Bill Rainey director of the local Police Athletic Lesgue and a mentor to many of the young people in the neighborhood, was established in 1984 The other, now ? years old, was designated the Demera-Santiago Garden after one of 52 PFP’s founding volunteer members..
In 2017, 52 Park underwent another round of renovations that included a newly designed amphitheater and new basketball courts. Despite the forward progress, 52 PFP stays vigilant. The organization, which incorporated as a non-profit, boasts a volunteer roster of nearly 75 members who ensure that the park remains a thriving community gathering place. Their shifts, often scheduled on weekends and in the evenings after work, include duties like cleaning the site, monitoring the bathrooms, and making sure that the play equipment is safe for the many neighborhood kids who use the park. Al Quiñones, one of the group’s original founding members, retained a significant role in the work of the organization until his passing on December 3, 2019. In a 2000 interview, he estimated that the group had contributed over fifty thousand hours of volunteer time in its first two decades. Thanks to the efforts of 52 PFP’s volunteers, Quiñones asserted that 52 Park is not only the best in Community Board 2, but in the whole of the Bronx.
Why do the members of 52 PFP continue to devote so much of their time and energy into maintaining the park, especially when they get little or no compensation from the City and the Parks Department.? Nestor Sabater, who has been a volunteer since the early days of the organization notes,
“By doing what we do in the park, it was a statement we made, not only to the community but to the City. And that is: we realize that we could not wait for someone else to take care of our community, our park. And when I say ‘our park,’ it is because we are the ones that invested all our lives to this neighborhood and this community. We don’t own this park, but in spirit we do. We don’t own the land, but this is indeed our park. “
Interview with Al Quiñones, James Melendez, Nestor Sabater, Gilberto Narvaez, Randy Joseph and Bobby Rodríguez by Elena Martínez, July 8 th , 2000.
Interview with Carlos Ortíz by Elena Martínez, December 21 st , 2000.
"I.S. 52 Playground/Park," The Trust for Public Land, July 1991.
"People for Progress," by Janet Schumacher, Green Guerilla Report, Summer 1987.
“Playground 52 LII,” City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation, https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/playground-52-lii/history
"P.S. 52 Playground: Paradigm of Progress," The Daily Plant, City of New York Parks and Recreation, Vol. VII, #1483, September 15th, 1989.
In 1980, a young man came to me and asked me to help organize an organization that would help improve the quality of life in the community in which I used to live in. Because I still had alot of love for the place I grew up in, this inspired me to do whatever was necessary to do just that, improve the quality of life within the community. As a member of this newly developing organization, I learned to help organize events that helped others understand what was needed to be done in order to enjoy a park that served many neighborhood children. It was very important to me that the park be free of broken glass and garbage. It made me very proud to see children playing in the park without any fear that they would get hurt because of broken glass or a fence that had parts of it sticking out. As a result, many people got involved and participated in organizing events such as painting, cleaning and recreational activities. Many residents started to come into the park, sit at a bench, and enjoy watching the people using the park. That alone gave me a sense of accomplishment.
If we do not get involved in giving back to our community, we cannot influence what goes on in public places such as our parks. It is important for everyone to understand that giving back will not only inspire others to get involved but also give a sense of accomplishment that no one can take from you. Many playgrounds are built but some of those playgrounds do not have people who care enougn to say, "Lets take care of it because it is where our children play." Some expect the Parks Department to take care of it, but with all the budget cuts the Parks Dept. cannot monitor every park they build.
At 52 Park, as many residents saw that there was a group that was indeed interested in maintaining and providing a service to them, they became interested as well. It was like a "pay it forward" kind of thing. As word of mouth spread, others got involved and now the organization has many supporters that give in many ways -- be it in labor or funds. People truly look forward to the Latin Jazz Series provided every Wednesday from July through September. It has become like a family reunion as many of the supporters no longer live in the community. Having people come to the park every summer to enjoy the music is something that cannot be measured in dollar and cents. It is something that has a special meaning to each and every individual who has continued their relationships with others by continuing to come by and get together. It is a gathering place that brings many people together. A place that brings a little happiness to many.
The physical details of this place matter because not every park has people who have dedicated over 50,000 volunteer hours to keep the place in the condition it is in today. The ampitheather is particularly important because the existing organization has provided music there to the community for the last 12 years. It has also provided the children in the community with many activities that are lacking in school and/or not within their reach if it were not for 52 PFP. The water sprinkler is something else that is loved by many as it is used daily in the summer to cool off from the heat. The handball and basketball courts are also used throughout the year by the youth. When it comes down to it, the entire park would be missed by someone at one point or another as it serves as a place to be enjoyed. It is a place where people gather to get together with their families and friends.
52 People for Progress has cared for this park for the last 26 years. We hope that some interested corporation or individual would fund and/or sponsor the Latin Jazz Series and/or recreational events. We struggle year in and year out to provide the Latin Jazz Series and recreational activities. At times many members put in their own money to complete the funds needed to provide the free service to the community.
I would recommend Alberto Quinones, Roberto Rodriguez, Frankie Vasques, James Medina and Mike Amadeo as contacts regarding this organization. They can be contacted via email at 52 [email protected] alo.com. I would also recommend John Roberts and Andrea Enser from Commnuity Board 2, and Former Bronx Bourough President Fernando Ferrer. (August 2006)
In the late 1980s 52 People for Progress organized this parks cleanup and revitalization, recruiting former and current residents. They continue to monitor and help manage the park today, hosting a range of events including Latin music concerts.