The West 181
Street Beautification Project formed 25 years ago in order to clean up the Pinehurst Avenue step street. They will celebrate their quarter-century anniversary this weekend, May 21 and 22, with cake, coffee, and free potted plants. PHOTO: Mike Fitelson
The horror stories of the urban decay that had engulfed much of Northern Manhattan by the 1980s have been told time and time again. Crime, trash, civic apathy.
Twenty-five years ago the step street where Pinehurst Avenue meets W. 181st Street was no different, having turned into a de facto dumping ground.
In 1986 the decrepit state of the hillside became a rallying point for six local residents who decided to form an organization with a clear-cut mission contained in the name: The West 181st Street Beautification Project.
At the time, “things were pretty tough,” said Jeanlee Poggi, the group’s executive director. “Our whole idea was to get the neighborhood, especially the youth, caring for their community and beautifying our open spaces.”
That began by rallying dozens of locals together to yank 50 trash bags full of garbage from the area around the step street, revealing terrace walls that were falling over and swaths of hillside that looked like open sores. That fall the group planted bulbs not knowing whether the soil still held enough nutrients to grow anything.
They were rewarded in the spring when the barren hillsides burst forth with flowers.
Now, according to Anita Flanagan one of two master gardeners who work on the Greenstreet most Sunday mornings, there are 50 to 60 varieties of plants that bloom at different times of year, ensuring that the hillside is an every changing mosaic of colors and textures.
Earlier this year the group planted 2,000 bulbs.
“It’s the most beautiful it’s ever been,” Poggi said.
And just in time. The group will mark its 25th anniversary on Sat., May 21 and Sun., May 22 from 10 a.m. to noon both days at the base of the stairs with free Dominican cake and potted begonias to thank the community for its support over the years. It’s an offshoot of “It’s My Park Day,” where volunteers pitch in at parks throughout the city.
While the Beautification Project’s focus started at the blighted steps, it soon expanded to encompass other local needs.
Poggi and the Project were part of the coalition that worked with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to develop George Washington Bridge Park and its Dolphin Playground on Cabrini Boulevard at W. 180th Street. It opened in 1994 after seven years and 115 meetings (Poggi says she attended every one).
The Project also helped resurrect Plaza Lafayette around the median divider on W. 181st Street between Haven Avenue and Riverside Drive.
Also in 1994 the Project began a youth leadership program that provides mentoring and small "first-job stipends" for youngsters who volunteer in maintaining the community garden or working at the playground at least 10 times during the year. Most of the young workers are between 12 and 18, although children as young as 10 have earned pocket money from their work.
“These are small amounts, not like summer youth jobs, and are meant as a thank you for community service, and also as an incentive to keep learning leadership skills and helping to beautify and care for our open spaces,” Poggi said. “Many of the kids we've trained over the years have gone on to college and good careers.”
Most of the Project’s funding is donated by about 150 community residents and grants from City Council Member Robert Jackson, Ft. Washington Collegiate Church, and the Medical Center Neighborhood Fund.
If you have ever appreciated the urban oasis planted on W. 181st Street, stop by this weekend and say thanks to the group that has put in 25 years of blood, sweat, and tears. You’ll see them standing in front of what is now one of the city’s most beautiful staircases.