Now Steve Melnick, who recently founded the Forest Hills Green Team, is in the process of recruiting some of his members and coordinating a more extensive citizen volunteer group to routinely maintain and enhance the park, working in collaboration with the Department of Parks.
On a recent Saturday morning, a small but dedicated group began their weekend by surveying the park and was dismayed at its conditions. They brainstormed and began to establish a wish list of short-term and long-term goals.
After the macroburst, Forest Hills residents were shocked at the sight of the park’s 60 uprooted trees, but thankfully 70 new trees were planted by hundreds of volunteers at the April 2011 event, “One Thing That’s Green.”
Also uprooted was the irrigation system installed during the park’s last renovation in 2005, which has not been replaced. Rubber hosing now protrudes from the lawn, serving as a tripping hazard, and the younger trees particularly swelter under the summer sun without frequent watering.
Volunteers also witnessed littered lawns with large bald areas and weeds, unkempt bushes, illegible signage, heavy duty garbage bags tossed along the park's 70th Avenue circle, and small trash receptacles that were bent and rusty, overflowing with trash, including one that was overturned along the park’s gateway.
The gateway also had peeling street lamps, in which one earned a nickname, “Leaning tower of Forest Hills.” Low-rise generic stone walls had algae growth and evidence of graffiti, which was also present on the chess tables.
Melnick attributed the park’s current state to the Parks Department’s very tight budget.
“We wish to wholeheartedly help fill that vacuum and assist Parks any way we can,” he said. “MacDonald Park needs some TLC, and more input not only from Parks, but from those who use the park.”
On a more recent Saturday morning, Melnick was bewildered by a bottle of car steering fluid that was tossed onto the lawn. “We have to change people's perception of the park,” he said.
Melnick indicated that the Parks Department relies on a community-service program for troubled youths to help supplement their staff shortage. “This program’s turnover provides for inconsistent maintenance, but there must be a more efficient way to utilize resources,” he said.
The Parks Department did install mower and weed whacker tree guards a few weeks ago, which will help safeguard the younger tree trunks. Another positive sign is that District 29 has a newly appointed gardener named Ed O‘Neill, who met MacDonald Park volunteers on June 22, and listened to their concerns.
“We suggested that the mid-block entrances along the center be redesigned,” Melnick said. “They are heavily used for people crossing Queens Boulevard and entering Sunday’s farmers market across the street. We also suggested new shrubs and raised planting beds on both sides.”
Melnick is currently seeking suggestions on how to improve conditions and accomplish small and large projects. He is confident that with the public’s role, MacDonald Park will gradually undergo transformation into the cornerstone it was meant to be.
For the long-term, elected officials could allocate funding at the request of their constituency. Another idea that circulated was holding small-scale music events at the 70th Avenue brick circle, which would also tie into the diversity of the community.
Jon Torodash, a City Council candidate for District 29, was among the survey attendees.
"Situated at an important Forest Hills juncture, MacDonald Park accommodates seniors who kibbitz and play board games, parents with infants, dog walkers, and children seeking an afterschool outlet,” he said. “It never truly received the attention needed after the tornado and hurricanes, but I believe that taking care of MacDonald Park can have a high impact in a bustling district for a comparatively minimal cost."
As local residents take a stroll or relax in the park, they should take pride in its history and realize it is the largest public green space along the asphalt-dominated Queens Boulevard. In 1932, the park was very briefly known as Thomas F. Harvey Square, but was renamed MacDonald Park on April 25, 1933.
It paid homage to Captain Gerald MacDonald (1882-1929), who was a highly regarded WWI veteran and Forest Hills resident that died in an auto accident.
On May 26, 1934, a bronze Gerald MacDonald statue was unveiled on 70th Avenue, and dedicated to those who served in the war. American Legion Post 630 of Forest Hills allocated $1,500 at the request of Gerald MacDonald’s brother, Henry MacDonald. It was sculpted by Frederic de Henwood and designed by Architect William Henry Deacy.
Over the decades, the park has played a pivotal community role. On September 18, 1964, Robert F. Kennedy addressed the concerns of 700 people, and in September 1969, Mayor John Lindsay addressed 300 people.
The Queens Symphony Orchestra Ensemble held a free concert in July 1985. The park also hosts the 112th Precinct’s Night Out Against Crime each summer, as well as the Forest Hills Tree Giveaway since 2011.