A long-neglected park in the Bronx, New York, has become the center of a dispute between a group of local artists and the city’s park authorities. For the past year, members of the North Bronx Collective, a group of artists and activists living in the neighborhood, have been independently restoring Tibbett’s Tail, an overgrown and polluted public park stretching between 234th Street and 238th Street, to make it accessible to the community. Among their activities, they have used the park as a meal distribution site for food-insecure families in the Bronx who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But on March 27, NYC’s Parks Department installed a lock on a gate to the fenced park without any previous warning, barring the activists access to the site.
The North Bronx Collective was formed in March of 2020 by a group of socially engaged artists and scholars: Alicia Grullon, Vani Kannan, LoriKim Alexander, Lucy Mercado, and Francheska Alcantara. Focusing on mutual aid, they partnered with a local church to serve 1,000 meals every month to vulnerable communities of color in the North West Bronx. Last August, the artists and a group of volunteers started cleaning up Tibbett’s Tail, then a dumping ground for waste from neighboring buildings. Later, they opened another food distribution site at the park while also remediating its lead polluted soil and nurturing its flora, which includes medicinal plants and 80-year-old trees of an endangered species.
In September, the collective received a donation from New York Restoration Project for installing raised garden beds (planters), a rainwater catchment system, and seating facilities to allow residents to enjoy the park. In a few months, they transformed the park from a desolate dump yard into a welcoming community hub. They also distributed face masks made by artist Laura Barbata to community members and planned educational programming on healthy eating, composting, among other activities.
In an online petition released last week, the North Bronx Collective asked for the public’s support and solidarity in the face of “red-tape roadblocks and thinly-veiled threats from Parks.”
“We ask for your support to help us defend our right to continue work to heal the land and make it accessible to our communities,” the petition says. “In the context of a new round of land grabs by gentrifiers and developers — mirroring what happened in the 1970s in The Bronx — keeping this space open to the community is crucial for land liberation work in this city.”
The activists say that they had been transparent about their work in communications with Community Board 8, Partnerships for Parks, the Bronx Parks Commissioner’s office, and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation since January 2021.
In a series of email exchanges with the collective, several officials expressed their support of the group’s initiatives and suggested helping them to adhere to city protocols. However, some of the officials took issue with the planters, saying they require special permits and offering to relocate them to another park. Since January, members of the collective have been waiting for a meeting with the Bronx Parks Commissioner Iris Rodriguez-Rosa. They hadn’t heard back from the commissioner’s office until last week after they were locked out of the park.
In a statement to Hyperallergic, NYC Parks said: “Due to several concerning environmental safety hazards, we have closed this site. We have scheduled a meeting with the North Bronx Collective and are committed to working to determine next steps.”
“Nowhere in the correspondence has there been a mention of locking the gate or preventing us access until the status of the project is discussed,” Grullon told Hyperallergic in an interview.
Grullon, a Bronx native who is known for her political artistic practice and her activism in groups like the People’s Cultural Plan, has been engaged in restoring the park since 2015 when she started the group Friends of Tibbett’s Tail. When the pandemic hit, the group was incorporated within the framework of the newly formed North Bronx Collective.
“We have been safely working in the space consistently for over a year now during a pandemic doing the work the Parks & Recreation Department has neglected to prioritize for years now. This is not a matter of true public safety,” she said.
“It is a matter of the decentering of the community in what is supposed to be a community space,” she continued. “For decades now, Parks was not concerned about the safety of the space leaving the land abandoned, uncared for, and allowing the immediate BIPOC neighborhood’s streets to remain filthy and trash-ridden. Our commitment to safety and accessibility has been at the heart of our biweekly cleaning efforts.”
“All of our plans for the spring disappeared,” she said, bemoaning the abrupt suspension of a community-based project that was “uplifting people’s spirits.”
According to Grullon, other gardening groups in disadvantaged communities across NYC have faced similar treatment from the city’s parks authorities.
“It seems to be a pattern of intimidation,” the artist said, adding that thwarting efforts to restore local parks and gardens belongs to a “larger narrative of surveillance of BIPOC communities that already lack natural space.”
“We need to look at places like Tibbett’s Tail as sites for cultural and artistic creation,” Grullon said. “These green spaces are able to transform the lives of people around them.”