Aug. 15, 2013 By Christian Murray
The non-profit group that has been doing much of the gardening and landscape work at Gantry Plaza State Park for the past 15 years is in serious decline.
The group’s membership continues to dwindle as its long-serving volunteers grow old and newer residents fail to join. Membership has halved since its inception and if current trends continue the organization will soon no longer exist.
Nevertheless, next month the Friends of Gantry will be celebrating its 15th anniversary at Riverview Restaurant (details below). The organizers hope that the event will help them recruit new members and raise funds.
The group, in its heyday, was formed shortly after the state completed the first phase of Gantry Plaza State Park in 1998, which at that point was just a little over 2 1/2 acres in size, a fifth of the size of what it is today.
When the group formed, it was comprised of mainly CityLights’ residents since that building was one of the few developments in the neighborhood and factories were located where many of the apartment buildings are today.
“The new park was desolate and kids would go down there and smash bottles… and prostitutes would go over there from Queens Plaza,” said Bill Bylewski, the president of Friends of Gantry. “We had meetings with the police and more than 60 people would show up.”
In those early years, Friends of Gantry would organize concerts in the plaza and would take charge of ensuring that the gardens were tended to.
As new residents came to the area, the problems stemming from the park’s desolation faded away. The group’s role morphed into park gardening.
Bylewski said that the state did not have the resources to take care of the plants and shrubbery. “They took care of the trash and graffiti and made sure things worked but that was about it.”
The state parks department did not have anyone on site that knew how to tend to the gardens—nor had the resources to do the work.
Therefore, many of the plants died as ragweed and mulberry bushes took root. In the early 2000s, the group had about 60 full time members and its numbers were growing.
“We used to work every single Saturday,” Bylewski said. As time marched on, the group started to work every second Saturday as many long-term members grew older.
Despite this, the park continued to expand—stretching farther north. In 2009, the park doubled in size when the northern section was added.
However, as the park grew larger and more residents flooded into the neighborhood membership in Friends of Gantry began to decline.
The group sent out a mass mailing to thousands of residents asking them to join. Bylewski said the group received one response. It was from a woman who said she would not join under any circumstances—since her dog was not allowed on the park.
Today, the group has about 30-members, which consists of about 10 core members.
In its quest to maintain the park, Bylewski said that group formed an alliance with New York Cares, the large non-profit known best for its winter coat drives.
New York Cares sends volunteers out—some from Astoria and Sunnyside—every second Saturday to help boost numbers. “We ask for 20 volunteers and we get 10 to 12,” Bylewski said.
Bylewski said that most residents are unaware of Friends of Gantry very existence and don’t realize that it is responsible for a lot of the upkeep of park.
“I guess we are a victim of our own success,” Bylewski said. “People just don’t notice the need for us.”
LOCATION: Riverview Restaurant
ADDRESS: 49th Avenue and Center Boulevard
DATE: September 12, 2013
TIME: 6pm to 8pm
For more information on the event, please click here