Robin Berland & Friends of Brower Park
Robyn Berland & Friends of Brower Park
Robyn Berland came to Crown Heights to start a new phase in her life, and it was not immediately clear what that would involve. She had raised a family in Park Slope; she and her husband had a girl and a boy, Arielle and Adam. However, the children had grown up and moved away, and her marriage had fallen apart. So the place in Park Slope was sold and eventually Robyn moved to Brower Court opposite Brower Park. For those looking for such things, the repetition of “Brower” would have been a sign of what was to come. Robyn moved in 2007 and retired from her job in 2011. She had had a long career doing various things, with a break for children. Education, computers, science and a love of nature had been recurring themes, and all of these subjects would coalesce around the theme of Brower Park. She had gone back to school to get a graduate degree; her thesis was entitled “Learning about the Natural World in a NYC Park.” The year she retired, she found out about Philip Hawkins, who had taken an interest in the park. Robyn had already noticed that the park was a mess – filled with garbage, a place for gangs to hang out, riven by crime. People would drive their cars into the place and blast music out of their sound systems.
Everything in Robyn rebelled against this situation, and in Hawkins she discovered a vehicle to do something about it. In the early days Hawkins organized volunteer groups to pick up garbage and plant Welcome Gardens. Robyn pushed around a trash can filled with water to care for the new plants. She joined enthusiastically. A volunteer group kept meeting, and they gradually decided to become more organized. In 2014 they created a corporation that became a non-profit. Friends of Brower Park was born. Hawkins was President and the others were given titles to hide how small the organization was. Robyn became Director of Sustainability and Preservation. Several projects came to fruition. The Welcome Gardens had been created at one end of the park. Shrubbery and flowers were planted to create a good first impression. Robyn got a grant to plant a Monarch Garden. Her background in science and education paid off. That garden was filled with plants that Monarch Butterflies thrive on, particularly milkweed. The garden became a station on the great migration Monachs make down the East Coast to Mexico. It also became a familiar location for school groups to study the butterfly and help preserve the garden as an ecologically sound beacon for these insects. People came from all over to see it and work in it. Other projects followed. Robyn got a grant to create a website. Other grants were used to get tools and materials. The was composting and the Leaf Crunch, and Robyn joined a group advocating for parks city wide. Friends of Brower Park saw to it that the Shirley Chisholm circle was created at the east side of the park. Other issues became cause for struggle, in which there was progress and then setbacks. A beautiful mural had been painted near the Brooklyn Children's museum celebrating peace between the Orthodox Jewish Community and the Black Community, but much later a wonderful sculpture with colored glass in it was taken away. It had been installed in partnership with Neighbors in Action with community input for just less than a year.
And then there was the issue of dogs. Brower Park is a very popular place for dog owners wishing to give their pets some exercise. However, having so many dogs means paying a price. Their urine is destructive of the trees; one can see the signs in the bark of trees near the walkways. Many new trees have been put in (Friends of Brower Park plants and raises them), but not all of them thrive. Robyn is acutely aware of the trade off, especially since Hawkins left to settle in Florida and she became the president of the Friends organization. She has continued the fund raising and the forming of partnerships with neighborhood groups. For example Mosaic Baptist Church has put on clothing giveaways in the park and has become a great source of volunteers. Harvest Home runs a small farmers' market on the west edge of the park during the summer. Robyn's main vision for the park has been to preserve it as a place to bring nature into the lives of urban dwellers. Trees, plantings, recycling, marked paths to lead people through the place when exercising are all important aspects her vision. However, she also sees the importance of the basketball court and the children's playground. There should be something for everyone in the park.
On the other hand the use of the lawn and the large number of dogs have created problems. The lawn is used and overused for sports, which destroys the grass. Periodic efforts to restore it lead to protests that the space is being denied to soccer and cricket players Even more problematic is the issue of dogs. Robyn owned two dogs; over a period of years, one of them, a small terrier named Ralphie was repeatedly attacked by other dogs that were off leash. The attacks were horrific, leaving Ralphie badly wounded and sick. And finally last summer Ralphie was attacked by a pit bull and was killed. Robyn felt something had to be done; she called a meeting at the Children's Museum – politicians, representatives of the Parks Department and numerous residents came, perhaps 150 people. Unfortunately, the meeting turned into an unproductive and chaotic shouting match replete with accusations and bizarre statements. Robyn's hopes for the community to find a solution were dashed. The community could not agree on anything, and passions were inflamed. Dogs need freedom! Dogs need regulation! Rules should be enforced! The police have more important things to do! Park Rangers should come! Park Rangers are needed elsewhere! And on and on.
Robyn found a different solution. She proposed building a dog run for $500,000 with funds provided through Participatory Budgeting in Robert Cornegy's District 36. The proposal got on the ballot and Robyn campaigned for it during Vote Week, March 30 to April 7. At this writing the outcome is still not known. However, one does note that Robyn does have a somewhat gloomy and sad outlook. Her dog was killed and, despite many personal expressions of sympathy, the community as a whole was not able to respond. Her sadness fits in with a feeling of being someone who has lived into a bad time. Robyn grew up with an understanding that science provided a way of approaching the truth. However, she sees a president who doesn't “believe” in climate change because his “gut” tells him otherwise. Sometimes she feels she is fighting a losing battle for reasoned and responsible solutions. However, she is still pressing for Brower Park to be as good a place as it can be. Just look at the notice of events published elsewhere in this magazine under Community Announcements. Robyn doesn't give up. If the community won't solve the problem with dogs then perhaps the proposal for a dog run will win the vote, and it might help.
I recently went to the park with of a group of volunteers, many from Mosaic, to get the Monarch Garden ready for the summer. Robyn continues to enlist volunteers everywhere, developing programs at the Children's Museum and the Brower Park School, planting trees and giving them every chance to grow so that nature will have a fighting chance. She remains determined that people will get to experience nature in their neighborhood – birds, squirrels, trees, flowers, all kinds of insects. They are all essential, and Robyn will do whatever she can to preserve them so they can be fruitful and multiply.
– John DeWind