As the renovation of Matthiessen Park nears completion in preparation for a spring 2021 re-opening, a cross section of residents are again raising the question of who will be allowed access to the refurbished riverfront amenity, which has been for residents only.
At the Nov. 2 village board meeting, letters on the subject were read into the record. Making the point that residents-only parks served to perpetuate segregation, Kevin and Paula Etzel quoted their late friend Bob Massie, an Irvington resident who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian. Massie, who died last December, wrote a letter about the “whiteness” of Irvington to the now-defunct Irvington Gazette in 1968. In the letter, Massie asked, “Can we continue to keep Irvington lily white? Personally, I find it increasingly difficult to face the prospect in my own conscience.”
In 2019, the question of who should be permitted to use Matthiessen Park brewed for months, with doubts raised about the belief that the Matthiessen family had deeded the property to the Village as a park for residents only. The claim was found to be untrue, although the Village had enforced the restriction for decades.
After terms of the Matthiessens’ bequest were clarified, the village board hosted a public forum last December. Chet Kerr, who also wrote a letter to the board last week in favor of opening the park to the public, explained in a Nov. 2 interview that by holding that forum, the village board was saying “Look — this is an issue. We’re thinking about it.”
“A lot of people spoke up, some in favor and some against opening the park,” Kerr continued. “Then what happened was Matthiessen Park basically shut down [for renovation]. And then Covid hit. So the immediacy of the issue kind of fell off the screen.”
Kerr pointed out that if the Village wants to open Matthiessen Park to nonresidents, it has to amend “Local Law 2” of 1989, which restricts the use of Village-owned green space includingMemorial Park, Halsey Pond Park, and the Irvington Woods. Within village borders only Scenic Hudson Park is open to the public.
“Under the current regulations, anyone who wants to use [Matthiessen Park] has to get a park pass, and to get that, you have to show you’re a resident,” Kerr explained. “If the village board decides it should be open to everyone, they will have to go back and amend Local Law 2 and change the rules around local parks. I said in my letter that all the parks should be opened to nonresidents, not just Matthiessen.”
Kerr said the process of changing a law can take a while, so he elected to write to the village board now instead of waiting for its members to put the issue on their meeting agenda. Aware that “there has to be some lead time on this,” Kerr said, he decided, “to tell them, ‘You need to complete this process.’”
Resident Lisa Genn of the Irvington Activists, a group of progressive residents, is one of the authors of a petition urging the village trustees and mayor to change the park admission rules. As of Nov. 3, it had over 180 signatures. It was to be delivered to the village board this week. Genn is also coordinating a campaign to get people to write their own letters and to virtually “attend” the Nov. 16 board meeting as a show of support for universal park admission.
She told the Enterprise on Nov. 3, “It’s been two years since we started urging the board to open the parks, and almost a year since the meeting.” She stated that opening the parks would “send a message to our residents who are people of color that they are welcome, instead of just sweeping it under the rug.”
The last time the board discussed changing the park rules, in pre-pandemic days, there was talk of extending Matthiessen Park privileges to include residents of the Irvington School District, which takes in the southern part of Tarrytown. That proposal was seen by social justice advocates as “too little, too late,” and no formal steps were taken.
“We haven’t had an indication of when they [the village board] might take it up again,” Genn said. But, she pointed out, “There’s now a different kind of energy” in Irvington.
In the Irvington Activists’ letter, referring to the board’s decision in December “to leave the issue for resolution another day,” they wrote: “That day has come. We find ourselves today in a very different time. The death of George Floyd in June reignited demands for racial justice on a scale not seen since the civil rights movement decades ago.”
The letter went on to discuss how Irvington has responded to the raised consciousness with a Black Lives Matter rally in the village, as well as other initiatives, including a Juneteenth celebration at the Main Street School and a campaign to honor the enslaved African people of early Irvington with a memorial.
Kelli Scott, a Black resident of Irvington who is a professional chef as well as an activist, is part of the newly visible group of racial justice advocates in the village. She organized the Juneteenth celebration, and she has also participated in Zoom roundtable discussions of racial issues.
“We recently did ‘Irvington is for Everyone,” she noted in a Nov. 3 interview, referring to an exhibition in downtown store windows featuring children’s art on the theme of welcome and inclusion. “That was for children,” she said. “But to make Irvington truly ‘for everyone’ we must make the parks for everyone.”