CONCOURSE — A firefighter lost a boyhood bike but stole his first kiss there. A couple, married now for 20 years, met there by chance. And a local historian who posed for a picture there as a toddler now works in a stately building across the street.
Those were just a few of the links to Joyce Kilmer Park that a group of teenagers unearthed when they conducted interviews there this month for a Bronx Museum of the Arts project.
“I had thought it was very barren and not any fun,” said Amber Hutchinson, 16. “Now I’m thinking there’s a lot of roots connected to that park.”
The museum selected 15 teens from 150 applicants to produce an oral history of the park as part of an annual, paid three-week summer program that it runs for youth. Using the interviews they recorded, the students will create audio installations and a short video, called “The People Make the Park,” that will screen in Joyce Kilmer Park next week.
After gearing up and conducting some mock interviews earlier this month with the help of nonprofit City Lore, the students walked one block south of the museum to the park, which extends from East 164th Street to 161st Street, between the Grand Concourse and Walton Avenue.
At first, they set up a booth and waited for strangers to approach them with stories about the park.
“Unfortunately, there weren’t many that were willing to leave their sweet spot just to help out a few teenagers,” one student wrote on the blog the group set up for the project.
So the teens went to the people — which wasn’t exactly easy.
“You had to deal with a lot of rejection,” said Melissa De La Torre, 17.
Or as another student put it on the blog: “Nervousness, shyness, and awkwardness. Plenty of that.”
But slowly, the park’s story surfaced.
It was established in the 19th century and initially known as Concourse Plaza, but was renamed in 1926 for Joyce Kilmer, a New Jersey-born poet and journalist who was killed in France during WWI.
Like much of the borough, the park began a descent in the 1970s, fueled by crime and official neglect. During those years, vandals defaced the park’s signature monument, the white marble Lorelei Fountain.
“The whole community went down at that point,” said Deija West, 16. “The park kind of fell apart.”
In the 1980s, the city considered restoring the fountain, but only if it could be relocated to another park, away from the vandals. Local leaders insisted it stay and, after a decade of lobbying, they helped secure funds in the late 1990s to repair the park and the fountain.
“The story of this fountain really is the story of community involvement and tenacity,” said Sam Goodman, 59, a local historian who described the park’s past to the students. (Goodman, who visited the fountain as a child, now works across the street as an urban planner in the borough president’s office.)
Today, the park is abuzz most afternoons with men playing dominoes, seniors socializing and children laughing in the playground.
Though that doesn’t mean it’s all “cupcakes and butterflies,” as Deija pointed out.
The park could use more garbage cans, trees and tables, visitors told the teens. And, though it’s much safer than before, the park can still be a sketchy spot after dark, according to a homeless man the students interviewed.
But, mostly, the people the teens met said they treasure this quiet patch of nature inside the crowded, concrete city.
“We all live in buildings,” Melissa De La Torre said. “And we all need a place to relax.”
The students’ short film about Joyce Kilmer Park will screen in the park on Friday, Aug. 3 after 6 p.m. Signs to be installed around the park will allow visitors to hear clips of the teens’ audio interviews on their phones.