Resilience in Action: Friends of Battery Park
Published on June 8th, 2020 by Molly Brind'Amour
It was catastrophe that forged the Friends of Battery Park.
Back in 2002, the first catastrophe was a tragic January slaying on Dupont Circle. Nineteen-year-old Jocelyn Stanley was shot in front of the two children she was driving home from school. The shooting took place right across from Battery Park, to where the two perpetrators, also teenagers, fled.
According to Friends of Battery Park, the tragedy spurred concerned citizens to form the Battery Park Civic Association, bordered by Brookland Park Boulevard to the north, Chamberlayne Avenue to the west, Wickham Street to the south, and North Ave to the east.
And it was another tragedy that led to the formation of the Friends of Battery Park. Tropical Storm Gaston, in 2004, caused flooding in the park and led to the destruction of at least one area home, the group shared.
Friends of Battery Park detailed the fallout: in 2006, Tropical Storm Ernesto led to further flooding in the park, which was exacerbated by a sewage pipe collapse. Battery Park itself became a health hazard due to the flooding, and 65-80 nearby families were displaced. While water was pumped away, Norrell Elementary and Battery Park were closed.
Despite the “challenging” noise and odor, the Battery Park community came together. Carol and Jonathan Davis, of the Battery Park Civic Association, created a service center at the old school building A. V. Norrell Annex, alongside Carole Wolf from the Richmond School Board. There, families affected by the flood were able to access clothing, furniture and household items.
But by 2008, the park was still closed, the group explained. Area residents still hadn’t received any word from the city on when the park would re-open. BPCA brought press into a meeting to bring the issues to light. The result was a presentation of a list of concerns to City personnel, as well as the creation of Friends of Battery Park. Bill Conkle of the Richmond Recreation and Parks Foundation (now Enrichmond) presented to BPCA on the topic of becoming a Partner.
A Northside Institution
The Battery Park community, as the Friends group explains, is diverse, middle class, and home to historic houses. Located in one of Richmond’s old streetcar suburbs, the Northside park is long, narrow and full of leafy trees. The park hosts a playground, a pool, a basketball court, picnic tables, tennis courts and a colorful tunnel, recently painted to honor tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Park visitors enjoy all kinds of activities, from yoga and boot camp to football and dog walking.
It’s the Friends of Battery Park that dedicate their time to preserving the park for its many visitors. For their part, each member of the group was invited by a friend or neighbor to help clean up, protect, and advocate for the park.
And today, the initial partnership forged in 2008 continues, with Battery Park serving as one of Enrichmond’s 70+ partner groups. “We appreciate the support, guidance, and resources provided by Enrichmond,” the group shared.
Besides their regular open monthly meetings, the group also uses email and social media to keep track of community feedback. In addition, a study conducted in 2013 by VCU Urban Studies graduate student Mario Wells provided feedback from polls and focus groups. The Friends of Battery Park are currently developing a survey to gather feedback on what the community wants to see in the park.
Meeting of the Minds
The meetings for Friends of Battery Park take place in the old A.V. Norrell elementary school. Though the school is no longer in use by RPS, it’s lively with action on the warm October evening that I visit.
The Friends of Battery Park, meeting on the school’s stage, are surrounded by the hubbub of small children off to football practice. A fan cuts through the hot air as members discuss the month’s topics: an upcoming grant application, the approval of two new red bud trees, the possibility of a fruit or nut orchard at the park. It’s a testament to the group’s success that they’re able to turn to the future; it’s a big change from the days when neighbors had to fight just for the park to open again.
But the group has day-to-day matters to deal with, too: discussing when the water truck will come, paying their $5 dues, determining whether the park’s famous tunnel should be open 24/7.
The tunnel sprang from a vision of Friends of Battery Park member William Harden Sr, now the group’s vice president. Sir James Thornhill, an organizer for UNITY, brought the idea to Jonathan Davis, an officer with Friends of Battery Park, and the collaboration was born. The tunnel was created, as the group explains, “for the purpose of creating a mural in the previously undesirable tunnel that would involve local youth and artists to inspire and uplift the community by honoring Arthur Ashe.”
July 12, 2017 was the grand unveiling, complete with tennis, music, refreshments, prizes and performances. To this day, it’s one of the Friends of Battery Park’s favorite events — though the park’s grand re-opening in 2009 was a big deal, too.
Another successful event put on by the Friends of Battery Park was the Arthur Ashe Boulevard Naming neighborhood celebration in June of last year. A collaboration between Friends of Battery Park, RMTC, UNITY Street Project and Richmond Parks and Recreation, the celebration also highlighted the newly painted tunnel.
Friends of Battery Park has plenty of highlights to look back on. Annually, they sponsor their Martin Luther King Day of Service Learning, where neighbors gather to help clean up the park — no matter how cold it may be!
As treasurer Curtis Smith explains, another triumphant event was last year’s Arthur Ashe Jazz in the Park. The celebration sprang up from a confluence of factors: Boulevard was being renamed in June, Arthur Ashe’s birthday was in July, and the city was continuing its annual Jazz in the Parks program. It was the perfect moment for a birthday celebration for Arthur Ashe.
The summer jazz series first came to Battery Park in 2018, but Curtis explained that no one informed the local residents.
For last summer’s concert, the Friends of Battery Park were determined to change that.
“We really worked hard…we went door to door, we handed out flyers,” Jonathan, the group’s current president, explained. The group also spread the word with ads in flyers for Parks and Rec and Dogwood Dell.
Curtis even convinced Diane Hayes, the city’s recreation program coordinator, to move the concert to Arthur Ashe’s birthday, Wednesday, July 10, as opposed to the usual Thursday.
“A lot of people were there. Everybody seemed to have fun,” Curtis said.
“The bees were happy, I think they liked the jazz music,” Jonathan added, referring to the hive discovered just before the concert in a tree near the venue.
But the Friends of Battery Park group still has some struggles.
“Unfortunately, the lack of consistent and clear communication among community groups and city resources, including financial resources have been the biggest struggle for us,” members of the group explained. “And maintaining an active membership has also been challenging.”
A Bright Future
But the group is familiar with being resilient — especially after the catastrophes the area has witnessed. So, Friends of Battery Park looks toward a bright future for the park, including a survey that will help crystallize community feedback on next steps.
According to the group, there’s talk of a possible expansion of the park to the south end to include a community center for arts and music.
For other community groups struggling to move forward, the Friends of Battery Park, expert problem-solvers, offer simple advice:
“Stick with your mission, nurture a strong volunteer network, and encourage each other.”
Battery Park is located at 2803 Dupont Circle. Friends of Battery Park meets monthly at A.V. Norrell Elementary on the first Thursday of each month from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.