Bringing Green Space to Concrete Jungle

Since its founding, Chautauqua Institution has taken measures to improve and beautify its local environment in order to serve the people who inhabit it. In the nearby city of Jamestown, one organization is trying to do the same thing for a very different community.

Patrick Morris is the executive director of Citizens Opportunity for Development and Equality, a community-run neighborhood preservation company in Jamestown’s East Side, whose primary goal is to provide affordable, safe and sanitary housing to working and low-income families and people with disabilities.

CODE’s most recent project aims to bring green spaces to the residents who live in CODE’s apartments, as well as to the highly diverse, primarily low-income East Side population as a whole. Morris said the neighborhood lacks public parks, and the city does not have enough money to build and operate a park there.

“The state has been very generous in funding housing, but they don’t fund a lot of the stuff that comes with housing,” he said. “We have low- and moderate-income working families who are living in our apartments and doing well, but there are no play spaces for kids. Right now, they’re playing in their driveways, but we think it’s better for them to have grass under their feet.”

Last year, CODE received a $338,886 grant from the New York State Parks and Recreation Department to build a privately owned public park. According to Morris, the Reginald A. and Elizabeth S. Lenna Foundation also donated $75,000 to help build the park, the Ralph C. Sheldon Foundation donated $100,000 and the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation gave $7,500.

Joe Johnson is the president of the Lenna Foundation, and he was also vice president and treasurer of the Institution for 23 years.

The Lenna Foundation’s mission, he said, is to benefit and support people living in southwestern New York state, primarily in Chautauqua County. The foundation has donated to multiple projects at the Institution, including the construction of the Main Gate Welcome Center, Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall and the current Amphitheater project. It also donates regularly to the annual Chautauqua Fund.

The Lenna Foundation found out about CODE’s efforts to bring a park to Jamestown’s East Side earlier this year.

“We were made to realize that there’s a fairly large component of kids living in an urban environment [in Jamestown] with absolutely no or very minimal play space,” Johnson said. “This looked like a good opportunity to provide some green space for them, so that’s what we decided to do.”

Morris anticipates the park will be completed sometime next year, after CODE has demolished five buildings that currently occupy the designated park space, south of East Sixth Street and west of Winsor Street.

“The people living [in those buildings] have agreed to find other houses and move out,” he said. “One of the houses has a foundation that’s severely damaged and there’s a sewer line broken in it. Another has a senior citizen who is ecstatic that we’re buying the house from him because this will give him the money to move into senior housing somewhere.”

Max Martin, the executive director at Jamestown’s East Side YMCA, said the park project will also serve as a way to keep children safe, active and out of trouble.

Most of the basketball courts in the area are far away and privately owned, and Martin said that many of the children and young people do not have the money to belong to the private courts. The nearest free play space in the neighborhood is a basketball court surrounded by a 6-foot fence.

“A lot of kids jump the fence to get to the court to play ball, which is illegal and dangerous,” he said. “So this park is a win-win situation. If you have a family with kids who are just walking around the street, not participating in any activity, they can now participate in something with a park.”

This is not the first time that CODE has pursued an environmental justice project in the East Side. According to the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice website, environmental justice refers to the equal treatment and involvement of all people in environmental policies and practices, regardless of race, income or any other factor. The website also states that low-income, minority and tribal populations are more often exposed to poor environments, including unhealthy housing polluted by lead paint, asbestos, mold, mildew and other indoor air pollutants.

CODE prides itself for providing affordable housing that is free from those environmental and health concerns.

“We occasionally have families with lead-poisoned children applying to live in our houses because they know we’re lead-free,” Morris said. “We don’t have mold or all those things that are associated with low-income communities.”

CODE, along with the East Side chapter of the YMCA, is also providing free lunches for children under 18 throughout the summer, as many of them are dependent on the free federal lunch programs they receive during the school year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has classified the East Side of Jamestown as a food desert, which is defined as a neighborhood that lacks access to fresh, healthy and affordable food. Morris said that many people in the neighborhood do not own cars, making it even more difficult for them to obtain fresh produce and other food options.   

Johnson said believes that supporting both intellectual centers like Chautauqua and projects like CODE’s public park are both important to the Lenna Foundation.

“Our mission is to benefit the folks in the general neighborhood where we live, and the need is terrific in some of these urban areas,” he said. “So we see it as an opportunity to help improve the lives of folks who don’t have a lot of good things going for them yet.”

The Institution’s mission, as Johnson sees it, is to sensitize Chautauquans to return the ideas and values they learn here to their home communities.

“Most people at Chautauqua are blessed with an abundance or an overabundance of resources, so I hope people can go home with a sense of responsibility,” he said. “We don’t see this project as being any different from that.”

He said that not everyone who comes to Chautauqua is aware of the issues facing the nearby neighborhoods in Chautauqua County.

“There’s stuff going on around here that isn’t all cream and gravy,” he said. “I think it’s important to connect Chautauqua to the surrounding communities.”