By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The revitalization of Marcus Garvey Park has gone hand-in-hand with the revitalization of the Mount Morris Park Historic District.
The 16-block area spans Central and East Harlem and is known for its grand brownstones, new luxury condo developments with $3 million apartments, and neighborhood residents including poet Maya Angelou and former NBA star and author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"This park is critical to the area because historically, Mount Morris Park was a central area. It's the basis for the historic district's name. It's a critical centerpiece for us to have a park where people can engage with each other," said Cheryl Smith, a doctor who is president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association.
But on Wednesday, the body of 29-year-old Nina Rivera was found naked under a pile of leaves at the base of a rocky hill near East 122nd Street and Madison Avenue. Police have questioned Rivera's boyfriend in the death, which was ruled a homicide.
The death has raised safety concerns among area residents and sparked fears that the park could return to its more dangerous days. But community leaders and park officials say efforts are underway to make sure that doesn't happen.
"This is not the Harlem of 30 years ago," said Laurent Delly, a real estate broker who is vice president of the improvement association. "This is an isolated incident."
Just ten years ago, Marcus Garvey Park was a different place.
"You did not see people walking through the park, you walked around the park," said Smith.
"The park has undergone tremendous change in the last five years. It was a park where people disposed of drugs, old refrigerators and garbage. That doesn't happen anymore because of the community effort to get the Parks Department and police to improve safety and maintenance," Smith added.
The change came as money flowed into the park and development began on its fringes, local leaders said. From 2005 until now, the city has pumped $12.4 million worth of improvements into the park.
Park officials have launched multiple projects, including repairing the basketball courts and seating area on the eastern side of the park, renovating the interior of the Pelham Fritz Recreation Center and reconstructing the amphitheater and bandshell.
The changes are designed to make the park more family-friend but they have also attracted people from outside of the neighborhood.
"Marcus Garvey Park is a community park and not just the immediate community. The majority of people that utilize the park are people that don't live in immediate Mount Morris Park community. At the same time, more Mount Morris Park residents are utilizing the park than ever before," said Smith.
Despite the changes, there has been a concern about an increase in robberies at the park, which stretches from West 120nd to 124th Streets from Madison Avenue to Mount Morris Park West.
There is also concern from community leaders about the difficulty of policing the park, since it falls directly in the middle of two police precincts — the 25th Precinct and the 28th Precinct — and is also covered by both Community Boards 10 and 11.
Katherine Ozuna, a 19-year-old student, said she uses the dog run near the Madison Avenue side of the park for her dog Sunshine but is afraid of entering the park after dark.
"I don't go up there," Ozuna said while pointing at the park's acropolis. "At night, there are too many people up there doing there own thing, men hanging out and the smokers."
Park goers say the area leading up to the watchtower and the acropolis have become a haven for drug users.
"There are a lot of crackheads on the hill," said Peter Kszan, 48, who works in advertising and uses the park regularly to walk his dog Trixie. "I know there are still groups of people that sleep in the park, drink and do drugs here."
But Kszan said he has also seen the area get better over the last two years.
"Usually, there is a community of people in here. The dog run has been fixed up and I have a general impression that things are better," Kszan said. "Like all parks, you get people using it for good things and some people using it for not so good things."
One way to tell how much the area has changed is the quick and coordinated police response to the discovery of Rivera's body, locals said.
Not long after news of the incident broke, Delly said the Parks Department official in charge of Manhattan's parks reached out to his organization. A meeting is planned with the 25th and 28th precincts and Community Boards 10 and 11 to discuss ways to make the park safer.
These changes they say, indicate a dedication to the park that may not have been as strong as in the past.
"The response now is different. We are in contact with city officials, elected officials and the community at large. We have a safety team and we are on top of it," Delly said.
On a brisk fall afternoon, the park was filled with kids playing basketball while a woman power-walked around the park and eight dogs frolicked in the dog run.
Those who use the park say the discovery of the body has rattled them but said they're not going anywhere.
"I feel so bad for the woman that died and her family. Once my mother hears about this she's not going to want me to come here at all," said Ozuna. "But I don't care because my dog likes it and I like it," she said.