Pandemic Doesn't Stop Volunteers from Sprucing Up Local Parks

Friends of Duane Park volunteer Dave Benken trims the park's hedges. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

May. 08, 2020

Visual respite is still to be found in local parks this spring. And for three of those small green spaces, Tribeca Park, Duane Park and Finn Square, the work of volunteers who lovingly care for them has not flagged.

“The garden could care less whether there’s a pandemic,” said Julie Matsumoto, whose advocacy years ago led to the transformation of a once hard-surface eyesore at Beach Street and Sixth Avenue into a verdant oasis.

So once the weather turned warmer Matsumoto and another nearby neighbor, Don Thomas, who she credits with doing the lion’s share of the work, have resumed caring for the gardens, weeding, pruning, picking up trash, cutting back and replanting ground cover, and battling a recent emergence of rats. Last weekend, Thomas planted a tiny dogwood at the east end of the shady park. “If it does take and grow,” he said, “it will bloom really beautifully, so we’ll have another color in the park.”

The pandemic hasn’t altered Thomas’s nearly decade-long passion for caring for the park. Even at the “at-risk” age of 73, he said, “I feel like this is one of the safest activities, because when you’re in the garden you’re very far away from anyone else. So it hasn’t changed how I work there at all.”

“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” he added. “And these days I find it more important than ever.”

A few blocks away, the Friends of Finn Square—Jessica Raimi, Patty Aakre, Travis Brown and Jeannette Rossoff—have been keeping the greened triangle at Varick and Franklin Streets spruced up. Mostly, said Friends co-founder Jessica Raimi, that’s meant weeding and keeping it free of trash. But for her own sense of well-being, she said, it’s also meant enjoying outdoor solitude. “I can go there and I can work by myself and nobody’s going to go near me, so it’s very safe and I get to be near green stuff.” 

And with less vehicle traffic, she added, working in the garden is more peaceful these days. “I can actually hear the birds better.”  

In Duane Park, a sign hangs facing the corner of Duane and Hudson. “Thank you to all our heroes and helpers!” it reads. Carla Bauer, a graphic artist and member of Friends of Duane Park, created it for the Friends group. But her primary job these days is as one of a few volunteers who pick up trash on a rotating basis.

“Everybody says to me, why don’t you go upstate to your country house,” she said. “And I say, no, I feel more anchored here. And I think the park is a big part of that.”

Volunteers completed most of their major work in early March—cleaning up and removing leaves and ornamental plants—just before the pandemic hit. “It just happened that we were well-timed, I suppose you would say,” said Friends board member Karie Parker Davidson, though the city’s shutdown meant the cancellation of two of the park’s annual events. “Our volunteer efforts are more graphic [referring to the new sign] and social media based,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep people together.”

For Dave Benken, volunteering means keeping the hedges trimmed and doing occasional maintenance work. Other than wearing a mask, he said, working in the park “is not too much different.”

“It’s nice doing normal things,” he added, “at a time when nothing else is normal.”