North Brooklyn Parks Alliance, the non-profit conservancy that helps to operate park space in Brooklyn’s Community Board 1, is celebrating 20 years of all things parks and open spaces.
In honor of this special anniversary, the team has been sharing memories on Instagram. And to make things even more exciting, NBK Parks Alliance will be hosting its annual gala this Thursday (tickets of which are still available here) featuring performances by Ladyfag and DJ Eli Escobar. We caught up with the team to learn more about the non-profit’s history and get updates on its future.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Congratulations on 20 years! How does it feel to reach this milestone?
Executive Director, Katie Denny Horowitz, : I mean, honestly it feels fantastic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, because for non-profits, there’s a certain kind of evolution that most non-profits have, where they go through a maturing phase, but I think the timing is really ideal in that the whole city is kind of transitioning at the same time, where we’re in this post-pandemic world. There’s a lot of new priorities now, especially as it relates to climate change, that a lot of parks and environmental non-profits are looking at, where moving forward, folks might have been thinking about 20 years ago, but it certainly wasn’t informing policy or park development in the way it is today.
It’s also not a coincidence, but it’s about 20 years since this neighborhood started considering and really moving forward on the rezoning. Now we’re almost a generation into that, and instead of focusing on the waterfront access master plan, which this organization was focusing on then, now we’re focusing on how can we finish building these spaces. We have access, but it’s not complete, so how can we finish it? And how can we maintain the spaces that have been developed over the past 20 years, and how can we sustain that maintenance over the next 20 years.
Those are the kinds of things that we’re thinking about now, while also looking away from the waterfront and more inland, how can we continue transforming land into green space or open space because our district has so few spatial opportunities left?
NBK Parks was first founded as the Open Space Alliance. When did the name change happen?
Horowitz: It was the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn until 2018. The reason was primarily to create a greater emphasis of place. We were known as Open Space Alliance or OSA, and that didn’t really represent the neighborhood that we served. It could have been the name of an organization anywhere in the United States, or anywhere in the world. We wanted to make sure that we’re not just focusing an alliance in any neighborhood, but really North Brooklyn. And that’s what that was about. It was the Parks Alliance because we’re, first and foremost, a parks conservancy, but an alliance because we are an umbrella group of so many different organizations, volunteer groups, civic institutions that we’re apart of, both here in the neighborhood but also across the whole city, so it represents the neighborhood, the spaces we serve, and the coalitions that we build.
This fall, NBK Parks Alliance will launch a Business Improvement District formation process. What’s the goal behind that?
Horowitz: We have, in the last year, which is another reason why celebrating 20 years is so exciting and maturing as an organization, because we’ve grown from just a few people — at one point, I was the only employee and then I had two employees for the first year of the pandemic, now we’re at almost 20 staff members — and what we’re doing with the increased capacity is increasing our services throughout the neighborhood. We’re doing a lot more direct maintenance and a lot more operational and horticultural support of spaces in a broader geographic area.
What we’re looking for in this BID formation that we’re launching next month is, again, trying to expand and sustain those services. When you look at the history of BIDS, which traditionally are non-profit, private-public partnerships throughout the city, North Brooklyn is actually the only neighborhood with such a dense, commercial activity that doesn’t have a BID in the entire city.
So I think it’s right for increased services, because when you walk down the street, the drastic cuts to the city, and we’re facing increased budget cuts. People are really frustrated by the kind of quality of life as reflected in their public spaces, the maintenance of street trees, the maintenance of some of our green spaces, and so we’re really looking to increase the quality of life by improving public space in the area, and we can do that with another sustainable revenue stream through a BID.
Your annual gala is coming up, is there anything special you’re doing to celebrate 20 years?
PR & Fundraising Manager, Karrie Witkin: The 20th anniversary gala is at Under the K Bridge Park, where we’ve had it in previous years. This year, we’re activating the park in a special way though programming with an opera company that does immersive opera, so we’re having performers transition from cocktails to the awards ceremony by emerging from the garden beds.
Because we’ve had House of Yes and Ladyfag perform there over the summer, and they’re a big part of our programming, we’re having House of Yes performers assist in moving the crowd to the stage and they’ll be working in tandem with the opera singers. We’re honoring Ladyfag because she is going to be a partner in the space next year, and she’s a resident of Greenpoint. As a new mom, and a heavy park user, it’s opened her eyes to how much maintenance the parks require and how much she values that. We’re honoring our founders, which is an important part of our story. Our founders are Joe Vance, Brooklyn Brewery which is representing Steve Hindy, and Norm and Elaine Brodsky. Norm was on our original founding paperwork for the organization.
And then our Eco Warrior Awards are focusing on PTAs that bring our kids to the park to engage. It’s going to be very “us” in that it’s very eclectic and fun and high and low entertainment, all merging together, and past and future.
What accomplishments do you hope to be celebrating 20 years from now?
Horowitz: We approached the district, and I take very seriously the mandate of a district-wide parks conservancy. We’re the only conservancy in New York City that is district-wide, so our mission is to serve all of Brooklyn’s Community Board 1, which is ambitious. So my focus is really on these sustainable funding streams. How can you support all of these different spaces in such a broad geographic way? What we’re trying to do is build support to be able to finish and maintain the waterfront parks, but then not forget the parks inland. In 20 years from now, number one, Bushwick Inlet Park will be open [laughs] fully, complete, and open and well-programmed and have an endowment that supports the ongoing maintenance of it in the next generation. And every single park as part of the rezoning will be finished. Box Street Park is breaking ground, and that was always a major promise. It’s a lot smaller than Bushwick Inlet Park but still incredibly important that we can add infrastructure. There’s a lot of talk about new dog runs in North Brooklyn. We’ve got one coming in McCarren Park, one coming as part of the Box Street development. And again, not just finishing the parks that have yet to be complete, but then also, building sustainable funding streams to be able to maintain them, so all of these parks created through the last 20 years, through this enormous, at the time historic, rezoning effort are well-maintained for future generations.
Horticulturally, our goal is to create as much native habitats in these spaces as possible. And that goes into something else we’re gonna be highlighting at the gala, which is horticultural, green elements at Under the K, which are not really well-known at all. At this point, we have a natives nursery at Under the K, that we established and cultivated just over the last nine months, that at this point is going to be able to service smaller parks throughout the district, by providing native plants of a variety of species to those parks, so we can start establishing pollinator gardens throughout Community Board 1, in a more strategic way. And a three year seed exchange program with the Green Belt Native Nursery out in Staten Island, again with the idea of cultivating native seeds to be able to distribute them in a broader scale.
Witkin: Also, as part of the BID, there’s also a vision of doing more sidewalk and street tree planting and providing horticultural services for our Open Streets, so greening and creating biodiversity not just in the parks, but in the neighborhood and in the corridors connecting our parks.
Horowitz: And really approaching it in a systemic way, so we’re not just looking at parks, but we’re looking at the streets in between parks, and how we can make those safe and green. And, of course, not to omit the elephant in the room, which is what New York City is going to look like in 20 years as it relates to the shoreline and climate change, and how these waterfront parks are going to fare during that process. The hope, of course, is through having green infrastructure at our shorelines that could help mitigate some of the potential new flood plains or storm surges, but only time will tell if these resiliency efforts that we’re putting in place now are going to work or be effective in the next [Hurricane] Sandy or the next 100 year storm.