“People got together. They heard our voices.”
After many showcases organized by Harlem Arts Festival (HAF), we take it for granted now that the last weekend of June will turn Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem into a colorful explosion of friendly sound, sights, and fun. The Festival serves up a buffet of music and art with artists who live and work in the neighborhood, drawing thousands of strolling listeners and viewers.
Still, many festival-goers may not understand just how much effort has been put into making the host park as hospitable as it is now.
Efforts to undertake major changes for the park and the immediate neighborhood—known as Mount Morris Park—started around 1980. That’s when Patricia Pates Eaton moved in and, with a few others, posted hand-written signs in the area to get neighbors to gather and tackle common issues. Recently, Ms. Eaton—former Principal Conductor of the All-City High School Chorus and Co-Conductor of the Brooklyn Ecumenical Chorus of Bedford-Stuyvesant—was feted by Manhattan Community Board 10 with its first Volunteer Community Service Award, and she talked about the years of her volunteerism.
“Every other house was a drug house, and there was trash everywhere,” Ms. Eaton recalls. “Now, I was excited about living in Harlem… (but) Marcus Garvey Park across the street looked like a wasteland. Walkways were filled with broken glass,” and trash and drugs marked the nearby streets. “Burglars were our next-door neighbors.” Once invited, community residents became immediately interested, and the group started to meet regularly with police, sanitation, and other city officials. “They heard our voices,” she said.
Among other things, the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association (MMPCIA) made friends with park commissioners, who assisted in efforts to clean and improve the park, Ms. Eaton explained. The group designed the playgrounds, demolished buildings on the east side that had been drug centers, and oversaw the original renovation of the center and Fire Watchtower. They held jazz concerts to raise money to renovate the Harlem Library across from the park, and house tours to show off the beauty of the homes.
According to its website, an all-volunteer Marcus Garvey Park Alliance vowed to stop illegal activities that were keeping neighborhood residents out of the park and turn one of the city’s oldest parks into a greener, safer place that attracts a stream of cultural events.
“The Alliance is planning with community-based organizations to fix the Acropolis that holds the historic Fire Watchtower.”
The Alliance called together neighbors, arts, cultural organizations, and other community groups to revitalize the amphitheater, create outdoor performance spaces, and take advantage of a sizable green area for general recreation. The family of former Broadway musical legend Richard Rodgers, which underwrote the Amphitheater in 1970, contributed more money towards revitalization.
Now the Alliance is planning similar partnerships with other community-based organizations to fix the Acropolis atop Mount Morris that holds the historic Fire Watchtower. With the City Department of Parks & Recreation, the Alliance has helped guide spending more than $16 million to re-green the park, repair paved areas, provide an initial facelift for the Physical Fitness Center, provide a vehicle for the park staff, and collaborate with the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association to restore the watchtower.
One mainstay of the Alliance has been to build arts and cultural programming to the park, including HAF, films, an annual Dance Harlem festival, the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, and a series of public art installations. The Alliance also installed two book kiosks in the park and launched literacy-based programming to encourage reading by children.
The park is named after Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. (1887–1940). Garvey was a Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and speaker who earned worldwide fame in advocating for economic independence within the Black community and Black nationalism. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) in pursuit of promoting the return of Black people from the African Diaspora to ancestral homes. He founded a shipping and passenger line as part of his efforts. The movement came to be known as “Garveyism,” and eventually would inspire others from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement to promote emigration, or at least a sense of Black nationalism.
The park was an open area in the early colonial period, when Dutch settlers called it Slangberg, or “Snake Hill,” because of its reptiles. British fortifications were built here to guard the Harlem River during the Revolutionary War. Later, local residents successfully convinced officials to preserve the area as a public park. It opened as Mount Morris Park in 1840.
Today in the park, there are two playgrounds, a public swimming pool, fields, green space, and classes for young people in a community center. The 47-foot, cast-iron Fire Watchtower, now a landmark, was erected in 1856—a time when fire was capable of destroying a city largely built of wood.
For Ms. Eaton, it’s simple: “People got together. They heard our voices.”
Enjoy the park.