The Resilience of Stewart Park

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Tompkins Weekly     3-12-18

By Diana Riesman

The fireworks in Stewart Park shall shine extra brightly on July 4, 2021, as that date marks the centennial of Ithaca’s main lakefront park becoming a public park. Stewart Park, a historic and iconic place, is open to one and all for free. No entrance fee or parking fee to enjoy this waterfront gem.

There will be much to celebrate in 2021 and Friends of Stewart Park (FSP), committed stewards of the park’s next 100 years, plan to involve everyone in the community in the festivities.

Since 2011, FSP has been leading park revitalization efforts in Stewart Park – known as Renwick Park until 1921 – as a nonprofit with a mission to improve, enhance and revitalize the park in partnership with the City of Ithaca. This public/private partnership has energized the process of breathing life back into the park through thoughtful renovation, restoration, and landscaping.

Photo source: Friends of Stewart Park

Known as the “people’s park,” Stewart Park is a historic destination abounding in natural beauty. A place where generations of Ithacans and visitors to the County have gone, to gaze out onto Cayuga Lake, get close-up to a myriad of rare bird species, have a picnic, or play a game on the grass. A popular summer day camp run by Ithaca Youth Bureau has been in operation for more than four decades, allowing kids from all over the city and county to inhabit a green space for seven weeks every summer, commune with nature, breathe fresh lake air, and make friends with kids they might not otherwise meet.

Over several decades, the park fell into disrepair due to the weather’s long-term impact on the park’s historic structures, diminishing municipal budgets and a lack of an organized entity committed to the park. A vision that would ensure a healthy and sustainable future for the park was needed, and Friends of Stewart Park is thrilled to be, along with the city and the community, the keepers of that vision.

For a number of years, Friends of Stewart Park focused its energies on projects that, while small in scale, were important and had an immediate positive impact on the park. These projects included new plantings at the park’s entrance; restoration of the Mayor’s Flagpole Garden; interpretive signs for each of the park’s historic buildings, a restored Tea Pavilion and Swan Pond Overlook and a carousel restoration that included the horses being re-painted, a new fence, an accessible ramp and an accessible “chariot” which will open up the joy of riding the carousel to someone in a wheelchair or with mobility impairments. Accessibility is very much on Friends of Stewart Park’s mind.

Now, FSP’s projects are becoming larger in scope and scale. This fall, the new Stewart Park Inclusive Playground, and Splash Pad will be built! The City of Ithaca has been nominated for a $1,000,000 grant by Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton who has been supportive of FSP’s revitalization plans for many years. FSP is raising a supplemental $680,000 for the playground project which, beyond new play equipment, includes a new accessible splash pad; a cover for the carousel (so it does not need to be dismantled every season, causing wear and tear to its colorful horses); a small, covered party pavilion and new bathrooms to be located near the carousel. Thus far, FSP has raised $380,000 of that $680,000 goal with the commitment of numerous local foundations, banks, other businesses and individuals who all want to see the park revitalized and feel that a new playground is the best project, to begin with in terms of re-establishing the park as an inviting and vibrant destination. The new Stewart Park Inclusive Playground, which is being designed by three local award-winning playground design firms with many years of experience with accessible playgrounds throughout the country, will be like no other play space in the region: an accessible play space designed with kids with mobility impairments in mind. A place where ALL kids, regardless of their motor abilities, can have fun and experience the fun and zeal of playground play together. The great outdoors for everyone to enjoy and benefit from.

For the past many years, FSP has been working with the playground designers, holding discussions with elementary school kids about what they’d like to see in the Stewart Park playground, getting input from physical and occupational therapists at Racker Centers and Ithaca College, and hearing from the public at some community meetings.

On Wed., March 21, FSP is holding a community conversation about park revitalization efforts with the specific emphasis on the upcoming new playground, part of which will be a community build in early September. This will be a chance for everyone to get an update on park revitalization to date, as well as exciting future projects. We will focus on the playground and the community build, with the hope of enticing and engaging everyone who attends! We hope you will join the conversation on March 21 at the Cherry Artspace at 102 Cherry St. from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Like Stewart Park, it’s free and open to all.

Diana Riesman is the Friends of Stewart Park Chairperson and the Executive Director of Wharton Studio Museum.

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