HARLEM — Longtime Harlem resident Roy Devoe remembers when the pedestrian mall on Broadway was littered with trash, some of it dumped by owners of the stores that line the commercial strip.
There was also busted concrete, graffiti, broken benches and wild plant growth, Devoe, 82, recalled.
But after the Parks Department unveiled a $700,000 makeover of several of the malls along an eight-block stretch from West 145th Street to West 153rd Street Thursday, Devoe was pleased.
"People should have a place to sit, talk and just chew the fat," said Devoe, a retired human services worker who has lived in the area for three decades.
The pedestrian malls, situated in the middle of Broadway, serve as traffic medians and additional green space for the neighborhood. When the weather is nice the space is filled with people catching a breeze and senior citizens slamming down dominoes or sliding chess pieces as the north-to-south traffic whizzes by.
"They were in terrible disrepair," said Robert Herrmann, chairman of the Broadway Mall Association, a nonprofit group that raises funds and helps care for 83 malls spanning four neighborhoods on Broadway from West 60th to West 168th streets. "We want every mall to look like these."
Each mall — which has trees, shrubbery, small garden beds, benches and game tables — is about 240 feet long and 20 feet wide. From end to end the malls represent 10.6 acres of parkland. They were first created in 1904 after construction of the IRT subway line, which runs underneath Broadway.
The idea for the makeovers was first pitched eight years ago. They were financed using $605,000 in city money allocated by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and $91,000 in capital funds from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget.
Parks Commissioner Veronica White said the eight malls received new game tables, new trees and redesigned decorative elements such as walls, fences and pavement. Improved access for the disabled was also provided, and hardy new plantings were put in place, which will help reduce rainwater runoff into the city's sewer system.
"In the hotter weather this is a nice place to be, instead of being clogged up in the house with the air conditioning," said Assemblyman Herman "Denny" Farrell.
City Councilman Robert Jackson, however, said he spoke with a resident who was fearful that the improved malls are just a part of plans to gentrify the neighborhood and kick poor residents out. He told her that the malls were for everyone.
"No one wants the malls broken down and teeming with garbage and graffiti," Jackson said. "Everyone loves beauty."
Each mall has a different flavor to reflect the neighborhood it is located in, said Nancy Chaffetz, president of the Broadway Mall Association. Closer to Trinity Church Cemetery at West 155th Street, the lush greenery on the malls reflects the tranquility of the cemetery while at West 148th Street, the vibrant plantings and more wide open spaces reflect the busy neighborhood.
'We think of this as a linear park that unifies communities but also reflects each community," Chaffetz said.
Now comes the hard work of trying to maintain the malls. Each mall costs about $8,000 per year in upkeep, Herrmann said. The newly redesigned malls are especially vulnerable because the plantings are new and need more water.
Already, some neighborhood groups have raised $8,000 for maintenance of the malls. New Hamilton Heights bar Harlem Public launched a fundraising campaign for a garden at the mall between West 148th and West 149th streets.
Devoe said he'd like to see local school kids involved in planting to help keep the malls beautiful in the years to come.
"When they walk by it'll mean something to them like it does to me," he said.