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Columbus Park Facelift
By Larry Tung

To Guy Yee, Columbus Park is the place to reminisce about the past and ponder the future.

A longtime resident on Chinatown’s Mott Street, Yee has been coming to the park for more than 20 years. Now at 76 and in perfect health, he starts his day with some exercise at the park and usually spends most of his mornings here. He comes back later in the afternoon for more exercise to catch up with friends.

"I am an old man," Yee sighed. "Many of my friends who used to come here are gone. But I still come here every day."

Just like Yee, the park has a weathered face but is still standing strong. It was built in 1897. Having served countless tai chi practitioners, fortune-tellers, Chinese chess players and basketball lovers, the park is finally getting the support it needs for an overdue facelift.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller announced that 1.37 million dollars would be used to renovate the 2.7-acre park.

The money comes from a donation to the city from Joseph Temeczko, a Polish immigrant who died of a heart attack on October 14, 2001 at age 86. Temeczko came to the United States via Ellis Island and worked at the Statue of Liberty before moving to Minnesota.

After September 11th, the millionaire handyman re-wrote his will, giving his life’s savings to New York City, indicating that he wanted to honor the victims of September 11th . He asked that his fortune be spent "as its mayor and City Council shall best determine in their discretion." Most of the money was dedicated to installing synthetic turf on an asphalt sports field in Columbus Park. A plaque will be placed there to honor Temeczko.

The remaining $300,000 of Temeczko’s $1.4 million donation was given to continue the Daffodil Project. The project plants bulbs in all five boroughs to symbolize renewal.

"The renovation of Columbus Park is one of countless ways we plan to revitalize Lower Manhattan, and it will serve the community for years to come," said Bloomberg.

But there is still more to be done at Columbus Park. On the park’s northern end stands the Columbus Park Pavilion. With paintings of golden dragons on each side of its entrance, the two-story pavilion has been closed for more than a decade because of its deteriorating condition. It has been inducted into the Hall of Shame by the Project for Public Places, an advocacy group for better city parks and public spaces.

Now local residents are looking forward to the reopening of the pavilion, after the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the National Parks Service gave $1.4 million for its refurbishment.

"There used to be cultural performances here every summer," said Yee. "But they were all moved to Lincoln Center since the pavilion was closed." Yee said he would like to see cultural performances back in the park and private money brought to maintain the pavilion with operations of small gift shops or a market for cultural products.

Paul Gong, president of Friends of Columbus Park, a 13-member umbrella group that includes the Chinatown YMCA and Chinese American Planning Council, welcomed the news but said a renovation is long overdue.

"The park has been neglected for so long," Gong said. "It's a shame. For the past 15 years, the pavilion has only been home to the pigeons and the condition in the park is hazardous to the groups that use [it]."

Gong, who also heads the Asian American Youth Center, proposed that a recreational center be established in the Pavilion to provide space for public town meetings, leisure activities, and to serve as a centralized place to disperse community and public information.

Meanwhile, to many Columbus Park regulars, the park is not only the best place to hang out in the city but it also offers special comfort. It is known as "Old Man Park" in the Chinatown community because the regular visitors are mostly senior citizens.

Peter Chan, a Chinese chess enthusiast, enjoys his retirement by traveling from Bensonhurst to Chinatown a few days a week to play chess and chat with his friends.

"We speak the same language," Chan said. "I feel more comfortable here. This is where almost everybody knows everybody's name."

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