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Monday, March 2, 2015

Oliver Place - From Neglected Lot to Playground?

Piles of trash, and various other forms of refuse are routinely dumped into the abandoned space that is Oliver Place. By appearance a vacant lot, it is space acquired by the City of New York for a street that was never fully built. The community has repeatedly tried for decades to integrate this residual space into the fabric of the neighborhood, yet marginal activities and the City's bureaucracy have both proven resistant to the efforts. Fortunately, there are people who still have not given up.

This is a relatively dense residential area that is underserved by playgrounds. While much of the northern Bronx is well covered with parkland, this pocket of Bedford Park has long walks to take children to a play where they can play.

Underserved areas were identified in PlaNYC 2011 report

Title to Oliver Place was vested on September 6, 1897, yet after all this time, a large portion between Decatur and Marion Avenues has never been put to any positive use. The vacant lot is just one portion of the short two block length of Oliver Place, but it bisects it and sets the tone of neglect for the whole area.

Oliver Place is an "extra" street in the grid, filling in between East 198th and East 199th Streets. This unique position makes it more prominent, with a tendency to characterize the surrounding portion of the neighborhood.

In the midst of its neglect, Oliver Place is a fascinating place. It varies considerably within this short area: historic, relatively ornate paving; the vacant space; a sidewalk/alleyway; and a sort of dead end lined with garden beds.
The City is unlikely to ever finish building the street, since the grade change would make the roadway too steep for vehicular use. A step street to provide a better public realm and improved pedestrian conditions could be an option, but the City has shown absolutely no desire to expend the capital funds for construction. Nor does it seem to have the appetite for the ongoing maintenance and liabilities that would come with opening the space as a step street. Pedestrians have access through the right of way on an existing sidewalk/alleyway now, and the adjoining property owner is responsible for the snow removal, concrete maintenance, and any associated trip-fall lawsuits. Creating a step street would shift more burden to the City. Acting in its own corporate interests, the City is not inclined to take over those costs and liabilities.

In the late 1990s, the Bronx Borough President made some effort to address the derelict space. He proposed demapping the section of street, so that it could be used for other purposes, most likely a playground. After initiating the process, however, the effort was abandoned, much as the street itself has been. Supposedly the Department of Parks and Recreation got cold feet about spending money in this community.

As the status of the right of way has lingered in limbo, the community uses in and around it have ebbed and flowed. The City has made no meaningful effort to secure the site. There are the people who use it as a dump site, and others who organize periodic clean-up efforts. At times it has hosted a basketball hoop on the edge of the pavement and a chin-up bar was erected inside.

There is pedestrian access along the edge of this strip in the form of a sidewalk with a few steps letting onto the dead end section off Marion. This forms a sort of alleyway between the building and the fence for the vacant lot portion of the street. It sees regular foot traffic, but does not exactly exude a sense of safety.

Recently, the bodega on the corner of Decatur Avenue and Oliver Place, where the vacant lot sits, has had its walls covered with memorial messages for someone who died. These are commonplace throughout The Bronx, yet they can often be a point of different opinions. Clearly for the family and friends, this is a loving way to remember the deceased. For others, it is graffiti and glorification of gang violence. (Even when people die from other causes, many people assume that it was a drug dealer who was murdered, unless the memorial clearly indicates something different. Cancer victims, for example, often seem to be identified for precisely this reason.) Whoever Kenny was and however he died, the appearance of the corner combines with the conditions of the street space left derelict to create a perception that the neighborhood does not matter to those who run the city. A real "Broken Windows" approach would invest more effort in projects like converting this space into a playground, instead of focusing so much on stopping young men on the street.

On the upper level, dead end portion off Marion Avenue, a garage was being used as an illegal auto shop, while the rest of the house was allegedly converted into an illegal SRO. This house also illegally constructed a large concrete ramp for a private parking pad within the bed of Oliver Place. The encroachment remained for many years. Finally the City did step in to remove the concrete ramp after the wall became structurally unsound. Complaints about the SRO continue.

Across the dead end, there is a strip of space where the sidewalk should be, if the street were ever fully built out. Until a couple years ago, it had mature trees there, but work on the street for a new building in the middle of the block, or on the end of the dead end (depending on how you look at it...) resulted in the loss of the trees. The homeowners have since planted little gardens in that strip.

The dead end in 2007

The dead end in 2014

Meanwhile, the portion of Oliver Place that was fully built has a unique character. This is due in part to the fact it has been a long time since the pavement was last renewed. It was laid in an uncommon pattern, with a centerline made of white pavers set among the red pavers used for the rest of the street. (I have seen this paving pattern in only one other location in The Bronx.) Unless the Landmarks Preservation Commission shows a strong and prompt interest in this quality, this unique pavement design will disappear into the past when DOT eventually gets around to rolling through with a paving crew.

Oliver Place is historic in another, somewhat obscure way. It was the site of Edison's early film studio, one of the very first locations where motion pictures were produced. This piece of history is recognized in the name of the Edison Arms building, but is otherwise virtually unknown.

The first cinematic version of "Frankenstein" was filmed on Oliver Place

Despite continual neglect by the various City departments that could make improvements to Oliver Place, the community continues its efforts to find positive uses and to campaign for real change. Over the past year, efforts by local residents have yet again been renewed to bring attention and resources to address this location. They have made use of the resources available to them: going to their Community Board, circulating a petition, posting signs on the property, rolling up their sleeves to clean the site themselves, etc. Hopefully this time their government will be a little more responsive.

If the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Transportation actually worked together to make Oliver Place a great place, they could protect and maintain its historic paving pattern, and incorporate it as a motif for a new playground, along with references to the old Edison film studio. With a little community participation and its fair share of City resources, Oliver Place could become one of the most interesting streets in The Bronx, instead of an open dumping site.

A few links on the long history of trying to improve Oliver Place:

Norwood News 2000: http://www.bronxmall.com/norwoodnews/ongoing/parks/park060100.html
Norwood News 2002: http://www.bronxmall.com/norwoodnews/past/092602/news/page3.html
Norwood News 2004: http://www.bronxmall.com/norwoodnews/ongoing/parks/parks042204.html
Norwood News 2005: http://www.norwoodnews.org/id=1628&story=oliver-and-risse-progress-toward-parkland-goals/
Community Board 7 Sanitation Committee 2010: http://www.bronxcb7.info/PDFs/Environ%20and%20Sanitation%20Minutes%20Apr%202010.pdf
Community Board 7 Traffic and Transportation Committee 2010:
Community Board 7 Land Use Committee: http://www.bronxcb7.info/PDFs/Land%20Use%20Minutes%20Mar%202010.pdf
Community Board 7 Traffic and Transportation Committee 2011: http://www.bronxcb7.info/PDFs/Traffic%20Minutes%20Oct%202011.pdf
Community Board 7 Traffic and Transportation Committee 2012: http://www.bronxcb7.info/PDFs/Traffic%20Minutes%20Apr%202012.pdf
Community Board 7 Statement of Needs, FY 2013: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/pub/bxneeds_2013.pdf
Community Board 7 2014: http://www.bronxcb7.info/assets/files/CB-7-Oct-2014-Minutes-WEB.pdf
Norwood News 2014: http://www.norwoodnews.org/id=16416&story=petitioners-renew-fight-to-convert-decatur-avenue-land-to-playground/
Community Board 7 Statement of Needs, FY 2016: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/pdf/neigh_info/statement_needs/bx07_statement.pdf


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