BMCC Alumni Richard Toussaint grew up in Harlem and as a child, would walk down to the bank of the Harlem River to skip stones and chase crabs.
As the years passed, though, his favorite outdoor spot changed. A cement factory along the waterfront closed and became a dumping ground for junked cars. The homeless and others began using the area as a refuge, and it grew increasingly unsafe.
Even so, Toussaint was determined that his generation would not be the last to enjoy this unique urban waterfront.
According to Marcha Johnson, landscape architect with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and quoted in a June 2011 article in Parks & Recreation magazine, "There was one person [Richard Toussaint] who sketched out an idea for Harlem River Park which showed a bike path and a green space. Once he had an image like that, he shopped it around and convinced the parks department to adopt a large number of those ideas."
As a member of Community Board 11 and the Harlem River Park Task Force, Touissant helped raise money and awareness to create a park that now welcomes the neighborhood with benches, safety railing, and an inviting setting in which to fish, dog walk, barbecue, relax, and access a bike path that winds alongside the Harlem River for dozens of blocks.
The waterfront of his childhood is back stronger than ever.
Celebrating the urban waterfront
City of Water Day, sponsored by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, was celebrated recently at waterfront parks all over the City.
At Harlem River Park, visitors sat in the shade snacking, and watched tour boats and barges charge up the East River. Kids tried their hand at fishing with poles and gear provided by the Department of Environmental Conservation, and raced each other on bikes courtesy of Concrete Safaris.
“The park is a place to walk your dog, sit down and talk to a friend or friends to ease your mind, and also there’s fishing and bicycling,” says Richard Toussaint. “Plus younger people who come down to the park see another form of traffic—boats. They see water transportation for the first time. “
“Harlem River Park is Harlem’s backyard,” adds Lucian Reynolds, an urban planner with The Harlem Community Development Corporation, and on hand for Water Day.
“It’s very unique; it has a natural edge, a beautiful edge with gabion baskets holding oyster shells and rock to break the tide and protect the bulkhead. The bike path you can access here, will eventually link to a path leading all the way down to 59th Street and points north. Our goal is to have a continuous esplanade like on the west side of Manhattan.”
Harlem River Park is bordered by Harlem River Drive, the Madison Avenue Bridge, and the Metro North Bridge. It looks across the river to the South Bronx, and is being developed in phases on 20 acres between the Harlem River and Harlem River Drive, from 125th to 145th Streets.
Volunteers at City of Water Day included not just park co-founder and BMCC alumni Richard Toussaint, but his neighbor Melvin Lee, who attended BMCC as business administration major in the late seventies, and was there as part of the Harlem River Park Committee organized by Richard Toussaint through the nearby Saint Mark’s the Evangelist Church.
“I’m here to do whatever’s needed; loading the van, helping with the equipment or bottled water,” says Lee. “I think it’s important that we’re doing this. Parks help a community. People don’t have to travel so far anymore in order to get outside and enjoy themselves.”
Sharing the past, looking to the future
Richard Toussaint, who is also Team Chief of his local CERT, retired in 2005 from Consolidated Edison, where he had been working for 30 years in the Environmental Health and Safety unit.
“After graduating from what was known then as the Manhattan Urban Center, and later became CUNY/SUNY Educational Center, I entered BMCC as a frightened 23-year-old freshman,” he says, adding that he graduated in 1970, when the college was still located in a midtown office building.
“My ambition at the time was to become an urban planner,” he says, and when BMCC dropped its urban planning courses, “my course of studies was switched to real estate, which was in the business department.” Following his love of playwriting, he next changed his major to Liberal Arts.
After graduating from BMCC, Toussaint transferred to City College/CUNY, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in speech and theater, then a masters in educational counseling. He wrote a play produced at the Kennedy Community Center on West 134th Street, and co-founded the theatre troupe, The Black Mask Players. He was an intern in the newsroom at WCBS TV, and a regular panel member on "The Learning Experience," a program that aired in the late sixties through early seventies. His interest then shifted from theater to the environment.
A Coast Guard cutter, then a Circle Line tour boat glide up the East River as Toussaint muses about his past, using the park as it was intended; as a place to relax and reflect.
“The neighborhood is where you live, your shelter, your place of comfort,” he says.
“There are things there that you can and cannot control. For example, right here, we’re getting this park developed, and people can join the task force to advocate for things they think it needs, like a dog run, or comfort station. Once you get involved with an initiative, you can move forward and make those things happen.”