Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park, a West Harlem green space that was built in response to community allegations of environmental racism, is getting a $26 million makeover.
The 28-acre park, which commands dramatic views of the Hudson and the Palisades, was built atop a sewage treatment plant, making it the only park of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, according to environmental justice activists.
“The Harlem community deserves access to green space, top-notch sports facilities, and recreational opportunities,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement announcing the improvements.
The renovations will include a $19 million overhaul of the locker rooms in the athletics and aquatic facilities, which is set to begin this month and be completed by the spring. That process will overlap with a $5 million resurfacing of the outdoor track and replacement of the turf field, which is visibly worn and in need of repairs.
State parks officials said the park suffered from “age and heavy usage” as it is the most heavily trafficked state park in the city, with approximately 3 million visitors a year. On any given day, depending upon the season, the site is a bevy of activity – with swimming, skating, basketball, track and field training, soccer and football drills, outdoor concerts, picnics and a community garden – with picture-postcard views in nearly every direction.
Ron Schramm, an economist who teaches at Columbia University, was taking a walk through Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park on a recent Friday with his grown son Mark and dog Bo, and recalled coming to the park when it was newly built in the early 1990s.
“In fact, the day I got married, we were living here, and I ran around the track in the morning, just to work off a lot of excess worry and energy,” he said, noting the precise date: Oct. 28, 1991. “I was very calm and chill the night of the wedding, so that was nice.”
Schramm said that although he and his family had moved further uptown and visited less often, he was happy to hear about the renovations.
“It has always been a fantastic park, and I hope they continue to invest in it,” he said.
Schramm noted that the park had been built “as a sweetener” for the local community, which had maintained long-standing opposition to the construction of a sewage treatment plant. Environmental activists said the sewage treatment plant had not originally been slated for the area.
In an archived recording of a walking tour of the park, the late Cecil Corbin-Mark, who served as deputy director of the group WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said the plant was originally planned for West 72nd Street, but was relocated due to “resistance of the landlord lobby” and residents of the largely white Upper West Side.
The fact that it was moved to the mostly Black and Latino neighborhood of Harlem without meaningful input from the local community made the plant, in Corbin-Mark’s words, “a poster child for environmental injustice.”
That indignity was compounded in the years after the plant was built, when area residents suffered from a stench emanating from the plant, which processes hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage per day. The administration of Mayor David Dinkins agreed to a $1.1 million settlement as a result of a lawsuit and made needed improvements to the plant.
While older residents of the area are aware of that history, for others the park is simply a nice place to play or introduce their kids to new forms of recreation.
Allandra Washington was seated outside with her 1-year-old son while her 6-year-old daughter was learning to ice skate on the rink with other children. Washington said they made the trek from their home in the Bronx three times a week, a journey made easy by the bus that stops at the park’s entrance.
“It’s very quiet, for the most part,” she said as the sun set over the park. She added that she was originally wary of sitting outside during the winter but came to realize the park was a welcoming space and that everyone came with “good intentions.”
“I feel safe to be out here.”