By Stephen Zacks
A subtle change has taken place in the park at the end of North 7th Street in Brooklyn, in the Williamsburg neighborhood of New York. Recently renamed in honor of Black trans LGBTQ+ civil rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, the redesigned park retains the relatively ad hoc feel of its previous iteration as East River State Park. It still has sections of concrete embankments scattered around the site, remnants of the place’s industrial history as a railway and maritime terminal. The main entrance has been covered with cobblestones, reflecting the crumbling remains of the original entrance. The new seats are made from roughly cut logs.
Beyond, a winding path of porous concrete passes through perennial flower gardens, swales to hold stormwater, and a hillside that will eventually become a lush landscape. Educational panels along the route tell about the formation of trans identity and the history of the civil rights struggle of this community. The sandy shore is lined with granite boulders and a pebbly intertidal zone. A large sign at the entrance dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson is yet to be installed, nor is a planned monument to Johnson.
For some, namely the trans voters who are supposed to be most honored by the park, it hasn’t been a dramatic enough turnaround. As the visibility of trans people has increased, the community is demanding more cultural ownership and agency over the spaces that define their heritage and their role in public discourse. And that demand complicates what New York city officials saw as recognition of the role of trans people in ensuring a more just, equal, and humane world.
In August 2020, former Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the park’s dedication to Johnson, but it was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and few locals took notice of the plan. The governor’s office released renderings by multimedia exhibit designer Molly Lenore of Moey Inc. that showed a flamboyant display of multicolored flower sculptures erected on either side of the park’s entrance walkway, with a central expanse of asphalt enlivened by a thermoplastic mural of flowers. on rainbow stripes and a sprawling quote from Johnson.
Leslie Wright, regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, presented the plans to the local community council the following January. “People were appalled,” said Katie Naplatarski, parks advocate and member of the council’s land use subcommittee. Community members, as well as trans leaders and Johnson’s family, argued that the park’s design would not honor the legacy of her trans activism or her love of real flowers. They wanted more grass and plantations rather than synthetic materials. The following month, protesters launched a series of public meetings under the banner “Stop the Plastic Park”. Eventually, the construction was stopped.
Starr Whitehouse steps in
The controversy sparked a battery of listening sessions and a contract with Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners to implement design changes. At Wright’s suggestion, the company committed to 48 hours of outreach to gather feedback and redesign the program around the wishes of North Brooklyn parks advocates and trans activists. “We really care about involving the community and trying to find ways to do that,” says Laura Starr, co-founder of Starr Whitehouse, FASLA. “We spoke to a lot of people in the neighborhood, a lot of people from the LGBTQ community, and we spoke to a lot of families in the park.”
Michael Haggerty, director of Starr Whitehouse, says the meetings didn’t end until the last person said everything they wanted to say. “People wanted a lawn,” he says. “People wanted an open space by the water. It was in the middle of the pandemic so people were using the open spaces more than they had been.
“Where there was total agreement was keeping a sense of the grit of the park,” Haggerty says, and also “that Marsha P. was a flamboyant, colorful person and commemorating her with flowers, plants and nature as much as possible, and to keep it as flexible and green as possible.
The bioswales created with the help of Harriet Grimm, ASLA, landscape architect and arborist at Starr Whitehouse, are designed to enhance biodiversity by creating habitats for pollinators. The biowales are slowly filling with bayberry, beach plum and American holly, and in early spring will show reds and yellows of carnelian cherry, witch hazel and forsythia. In the summer, the gardens turn blue-purple of hydrangea, butterfly bush and chasteberry, before fading into autumnal white and dark red blossoms of sweet arrowhead and sumac. In winter, red chokeberry and red osier dogwood will brighten up the water’s edge.
Alyxandra Ramsay, content developer and researcher for Moey, composed 14 didactic panels about trans history and liberation in New York City and beyond, conducting focus groups with trans women of color to develop the narrative. But supply chain disruptions have delayed the signs, and so far only temporary signs have been installed throughout the park. Without final signage and an approved but not yet commissioned monument to Johnson, the park doesn’t capture its true spirit, Ramsay says. For now, she says, “it’s like a regular old park. There’s nothing that really sets it apart from anything else, other than the panels.
LaTravious Collins of the Brooklyn Ghost Project, a nonprofit run by black trans people, agrees. Collins was invited to serve on a New York State Parks Committee that advises on the design of the park, but she left after two years, before the current design was completed, which she also finds insufficient. “I left the committee because I felt the ideas of black trans women were not reflected in the park,” she says. “I just felt the park is supposed to be dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson, [who] is basically a hero in my community, and I didn’t feel like my community was at the forefront of creating the park.
On August 24, the governor’s office released preliminary design renderings of a new ornamental walkway to the park. The front door complements the now ornate landscape and remains consistent with Moey’s original colorful signage. A flamboyant arrangement of swirls and flowers – not plastic, we’re assured – scallops either side of a circular entrance, with the words “Pay It No Mind” prominently above the gate. It will be impossible to miss it.
Despite his apprehensions, Ramsay, who studies clinical neuropsychology, believes the park can help change the narrative about trans people. “Actually, trans people are doctors, nurses, people who are getting their doctorates soon – like me – data analysts, astronauts,” she says. “They’re not just sexual beings, as the media tries to perpetuate, and this park brings that to life.”
Stephen Zacks is a New York-based advocacy journalist, urban planner and project organizer.
This article is an expanded and updated version of an article that appeared in the September issue of AML.