PPA Profiles: Mitchell J. Silver, Commissioner of NYC Parks
January 18, 2017
This year, Prospect Park Alliance celebrates the 150th anniversary of Prospect Park, and we’re sharing stories from community members about the impact the Park has had on their lives. Interested in contributing your own? We’re partnering with the Brooklyn Public Library to collect your Prospect Park stories, visit our website to submit your story or visit the Central Library on Sunday, January 29, to record your story, which will be archived in the Brooklyn Collection as part of the Our Streets, Our Stories oral history project. Portrait by Virginia Freire.
“There! That corner right there is where I played little league.” Gesturing to the Parade Ground on a recent January morning, Mitchell J. Silver, Commissioner of NYC Parks, recalled his early experiences in Prospect Park.
“I first visited the Park when I was two months old,” said Silver. “The Park was like my backyard, I spent so much time here. Once I started riding a bike, the Park really opened up to me. By the time I was 11 I knew almost every path.”
As Prospect Park enters its 150th year, Silver reflected on the evolution he has seen in the Park during his lifetime. “Growing up here in the mid-1970’s, Prospect Park wasn’t always such a pleasant place, and it wasn’t as well cared for as it is today.” However, the intervening decades and work of the Prospect Park Alliance has made a difference. “Coming to the Park now, just to see the LeFrak Center at Lakeside and the quality of the Park and to see the transformation thanks to the work of the Prospect Park Alliance, has been so amazing for me.”
As Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, Silver is an important partner to Prospect Park Alliance in its management of Prospect Park. He oversees nearly 30,000 acres of parkland citywide, which also includes playgrounds, beaches, marinas, recreation centers and wilderness areas. “Parks don’t sit in isolation,” said Silver, “they are part of the overall system of the city. Density and open space go together. Period.”
In March 2014, Silver was picked to be the new Parks Commissioner by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called Silver a “visionary” and praised his passion for “fairness and equality.” Prior to returning to his native New York City as Parks Commissioner, Silver had served as the Chief Planning & Development Officer and Planning Director for Raleigh, NC. When he and his family returned to New York, one of Silver’s first steps was to assess all parks throughout the city—large and small.
“We decided to take a data-driven approach, and we looked at the parks where we’ve invested less that $250,000 during the last 20 years. We found that about 134 parks were hiding in plain sight, that’s where we had to focus first.” By October 2014, Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Silver had launched the Community Parks Initiative—a program to revitalize under-resourced public parks located in New York City’s densely populated and growing neighborhoods with higher-than-average concentrations of poverty. As part the Community Parks Initiative, Prospect Park Alliance is providing pro-bono design work for the renovation of three underserved neighborhood parks.
“The Community Parks Initiative work is really an extension of our mission,” said Alliance President Sue Donoghue. “We have decades of experience designing and building innovative and award-winning playgrounds in Prospect Park. The chance to share our expertise, and improve recreational opportunities for neighboring communities is an important park of our work.”
Another one of these visionary projects is the Parks Without Borders initiative, which seeks to make parks more open by improving entrances, transforming underutilized areas, and creating vibrant public spaces. In 2016, Prospect Park Alliance was awarded funding through Parks Without Borders to create two new park entrances along Flatbush Avenue, and enhance a third, after receiving the highest number of nominations from the public. “Parks Without Borders has engaged thousands of New Yorkers, who shared ideas for park improvements online and in person. That’s proof positive of how excited New Yorkers are to increase accessibility and openness in their favorite parks,” said Silver.
No matter how many parks the Commissioner oversees, he will always have a special place in his heart for Prospect Park. “I learned to ice skate in the Park, I ran track in the Park, we held our family functions here at the Peristyle by the Lake,” said Silver. “It just has this very sentimental feeling for me, like it’s home. Literally, like my backyard.”