Establishing Park Guardians: New Move Aligned with Efforts to Make a Difference

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Herbert Von King Park & Cultural Arts Center – Update #2

Bernice Elizabeth Green

Wayne Devonish (second from right), founding director of 500 Men Who Make A Difference, is being advised on  conservancy-building by Doug Blonsky (center), head of The Central Park Conservancy. Jackie Brown of NYC Parks Recreation (third from left) and members of Blonsky’s team met in Von King Park recently, where Devonish was gifted a copy of a 19th century rendering of the historic park. (Photo: Courtesy of 500 Men Who Make A Difference)
Wayne Devonish (second from right), founding director of 500 Men Who Make A Difference, is being advised on conservancy-building by Doug Blonsky (center), head of The Central Park Conservancy. Jackie Brown of NYC Parks Recreation (third from left) and members of Blonsky’s team
met in Von King Park recently, where Devonish was gifted a copy of a 19th century rendering of the historic park.
(Photo: Courtesy of 500 Men Who Make A Difference)

500 Men Who Make a Difference, founded and helmed by Wayne Devonish, is in the process of making a huge difference in the appearance of Herbert Von King Park while adding another chapter to its two-century history: creating the first official conservancy to protect and raise funds to upgrade the park’s natural resources and preserve the parks extraordinary history.
Devonish’s idea includes his 500-men “grunt workers” and is being embraced by an increasing extended family of seasoned “official park guardians” ranging from New York City Parks and Recreation commissioners to the head of the upscale Central Park Conservancy.
“We’re stewards of the park,” said Bedford-Stuyvesant native Devonish of the 501(3) organization’s role in activating the idea that’s been growing in his mind for three years. “500 Men has been working in the park for nearly 4 years and we’ve been talking about it for two years with Henry Butler, Keith Forest and others.”
The volume began to turn up when Devonish (in 2013) talked about the idea in a casual conversation with Phillip Banks III, then-Chief of the New York City Police Department. “I know the best conservancy works in the world – the Central Park’s Conservancy,” Banks, who retired last fall, told Devonish. A meeting with Doug Blonsky, President of the Central Park Conservancy, followed. And Devonish says he began to learn “a lot”, including the fact that Central Park, Prospect Park and Von King Park were all designed by the same landscape/architects, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. And also that Central Park was the most visited park in the United States.
“I felt I was surrounded now by the gold standard in parks governance,” Devonish told us, recalling his thoughts at the time. One of them was about size: Central Park consists of 843 acres, is 2.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide. “Von King Park is only 7-plus acres.”
“Central Park,” he continued, “is an exceptional example of parks management and maintenance. I am learning from the folks at the very top who {govern} Central Park, Prospect Park, Madison Square Park, Fort Tryon, and these people are actually talking to me directly, offering advice, taking my calls and giving me formal training.”
Devonish and some members of 500 Men are enrolled now in a Central Park Conservancy program and a Partnership for Parks fellowship program. They will complete the mentoring program in August. “It’s unbelievable what they do, and we’re getting special treatment.”
Blonksy, who travels the country keynoting on the importance of private-public partnerships in the governance of the nation’s parks, has visited Von King on a couple of occasions at the invitation of Devonish. Most recently, he and his staff brought a copy of the original Vaux-Olmsted drawings as a gift.
Other gifts, according to Devonish, have come from the daughter of the late Herbert Von King, called during his lifetime, the Mayor of Bedford-Stuyvesant. “She gave me a bunch of memorabilia from him.”
The support of such key community leaders as Tremaine Wright, President of Community Board 3, and Reggie Shell of the Brownstoners of Bedford-Stuyvesant is a gift as well. They were present at last Saturday’s Parks’ cleanup day.
Devonish, as the youngest board member of the Magnolia Tree Earth Center of Bedford-Stuyvesant, is a building and construction specialist. Observing Von King, across the street from Magnolia, through the prism of the changing seasons, Devonish was determined that the landmark needed more than annual spruce-ups, green observances; its emerald qualities needed honing by 21st century sensibilities.
Currently celebrating its 35th year, the Central Park Conservancy was formed by individuals who came up with the strategy to preserve the Manhattan landmark with a public-private partnership that soared beyond just fundraising as a way to halt the park’s then- “dramatic deterioration” in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Devonish says he presented the idea of a conservancy to Community Board 3 and its Parks, Arts, Culture Committee Chair Marion Little last winter. Then he immediately began activation of his 500 Men who are now the core of the Von King Conservancy.
The idea, however, is not a new one. Others have attempted to form a grass-roots-focused “Friends of the Park” and, most notably, respected Vernon Avenue gardener and former CB3 Parks Committee Chair Eva McPherson, several years ago held a meeting in the park with community stakeholders, which included the publisher of this paper, David Mark Greaves, who chairs the Magnolia Tree Earth Center Board. It was determined then, with Tupper Thomas, former leader of the Prospect Park Alliance, in agreement: that the park was the people’s park and a conservancy should reflect their recreational needs with programs and projects in accordance to those needs.
Devonish says he’s been thinking about this for years, and figured out a way to strike a balance of the two thoughts: building a managed garden park that will become a jewel for the city and attract funds to the area on one hand, and preserving a space for the people who live near and around it.
In 2008, this writer and James Durrah (then-Chair of the Neighborhood Housing Services of Bedford-Stuyvesant) drafted a community environmental awareness initiative on a napkin at a community development conference in Boston. The program, supported by NHS for the five years of its existence, was bolstered by the creative genius … and largesse … of then-Herbert Von King Park Manager Lemuel Mial, who grew up in North Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“Project Green” program participants included compassionate ecology genius Yonnette Fleming and her well-organized and internationally known Hattie Carthan Community Garden, Demetrice Mills and his Brooklyn Land Trust organization, six targeted area public and charter schools and the Magnolia Tree Earth Center. (More on “Project Green” in future stories about Von King Park and Von King Park Cultural Arts Center.)
With community organizations involved in the project, it was Mr. Mial who declared at one Project Green workshop that Von King Park was the nucleus of Central Brooklyn’s “largest greenspace”. And it is Mr. Mial, observers say, who Devonish may call on to be a kind of community mentor.
So who forms Devonish’s Conservancy? The 500 men, a diverse group which comprises members who live right across the street from the park, are the core of the conservancy, he says proudly. “A kind of task force.”
Although he does not reveal who else may be on Von King’s new Board of Guardians, he notes the great support of such forward-thinkers as Henry Butler and Keith Forest. He also has met with NYC Parks Brooklyn Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey and NYC Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver with whom he meets “pretty much weekly”.
Devonish can hardly contain the excitement of this new venture that promises new life for the park: “The Central Park Conservancy is a big operation: they raise 75% of their budget privately. Over the past 35 years, it has raised $750 million of capital work for the park. Central Park is magnificent, especially the north side that doesn’t get used that often. The park is clean. I go to Central Park often just to educate myself, and two weeks ago Blonksy came out to Von King with his staff; they walked the park and took soil samples.”
Yet, Devonish is the first to admit that although he has ventured further along the path of developing an organizational think tank for Von King Park, it is strongly supported — and nurtured by –established seedlings, including the constant hard volunteer work of his own 500-Men team, the dedication and work of the late Bed-Stuy environmentalist/ecologist Hattie Carthan and others such as Mills, Fleming, Lemuel and his wife, Charlotte.
But he is determined to go the distance… beyond touring the park’s 7 acres:
“One of the first big projects for Von King Park will be the establishment of a Von King Park Conservatory Garden at Greene Avenue and Marcy, the park’s southwest side.
This week, architect Michael McCaw’s preliminary drawings for the showcase garden area will be submitted to Devonish who, through 500 Men, is underwriting the cost of McCaw’s design.
Devonish promises that it will be 9,000 square feet of “beauty” designed for events like weddings and receptions. “I met with Parks’ gardeners last week.”
In the past, 500 Men have secured grants for work in Von King Park for painting buildings and conducting other work. To reach out to Devonish, call 917-297-2365 or e-mail: wmdkaos@aol.com.

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