Harlem's backyard

Residents find an oasis at Marcus Garvey Park at Fifth Avenue and 120th Street

Summer mornings dawn in Marcus Garvey Park as they do elsewhere in New York City - gently, with little hint of the heat and hubbub to follow.

On this particular July day, temperatures will rise to the 90s, accompanied by that mix of haze and grit unique to summer in the city. But in the park, a touch of cool still lingers.

Brooms push leaves and paintbrushes slap against shiny surfaces as park workers prepare for the day to come. A few dogs frisk off their leashes, and a fish-shaped fountain spouts its stream into the quiet air.

And yet the momentary stillness of this place belies the sometimes angry energy that currently surrounds it. One block away - easily visible from the park's paths - towers the new office of former President Bill Clinton. A few blocks farther east stands an empty lot that singer Bette Midler's husband, Martin von Haselberg, plans to turn into an upscale art gallery. A burned-out group of brownstones long known as "the ruins" will soon be condominiums that overlook the park.

Throughout Harlem, real estate prices are on the rise - growing by as much as 25 percent annually in recent years - and many residents of this tranquil historic district known as Mount Morris Park have been eyeing their neighborhood with alarm, wondering if their community as they knew it is slipping away.

Only 80-some blocks away - straight down Fifth Avenue and clearly visible through the locked and rusted gate at the mouth of the park - stands the Empire State Building, awash in the roar of midtown traffic.

But just at the moment, 5-year-old Elias Moore and his mother, Sharelle - who are among the first to arrive at the park from their home one block away - are thinking not of encroachment, but rather, of how challenging it is to learn to ride a bicycle.

Already the air is shimmering with heat, but Ms. Moore runs back and forth with her son, holding a protective hand over the bike's wobbling wheels. "I didn't know it would be this hard or this hot," she laughs, wiping away small beads of sweat.

It isn't long before Elias and his mother are surrounded by throngs of other children and their caretakers. Kids swarm throughout the park's little swing sets and jungle gyms. They arrive in their bathing suits and run screaming with delight through the sparkling water shooting from the fish's mouth. By midmorning, the pool in the center of the park is alive with thrashing, splashing bodies.

"These city pools are such a blessing," says Carmen Clinton, who is escorting a group of 27 children and 45 teenagers from a church-run day-care center in the South Bronx. "Especially on days like today, what would we do without them?"

Groups of young children in day care fan throughout the park, playing board games, nibbling pizza, or sitting on the ground to swap Pokémon cards. Clusters of older boys shoot their bicycles up the rocky hill at the park's center.

This small green rectangle - occupying just eight square blocks in central Harlem - has already seen a multitude of changes. First part of the estate of a Dutch farmer, it became a city park known as Mount Morris in 1840. A cast-iron fire watchtower was erected - and today stands forlorn and unused - on the hill at its center.

At about that time, Jewish families swept into Harlem in large numbers, building the lovely brownstones and synagogues that still ring the square and fill the surrounding streets. But by the 1930s, Harlem had absorbed a new population, and black families began to move into the old homes around the park. In 1973, the park's name was officially changed from Mount Morris to Marcus Garvey to honor the black nationalist leader.

For generations of neighborhood children, the park has been a type of magic kingdom.

"It was our Disneyland," says a former resident who lived a few blocks away during his childhood in the 1950s. "All of our activities were centered there."

Although drug dealing and city budget cuts threatened the viability of the park at times, concerted local efforts have kept it from decline.

The park has long been a refuge for adults as well. Rommie Telfair sits on a bench strumming his guitar, explaining, "It's cooler here than in my apartment." In the late afternoon, chess players continue a longstanding tradition of open games under an allée of linden trees. Soon entire families appear, picnic dinners in hand.

Change may well be on its way. Some residents say sadly that they have already accepted it as inevitable. But just at this moment, as the day winds to a close, the children play, and the parents watch, and the air slowly begins to cool, the park seems most clearly to pay tribute to those things that remain the same.

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