Marsha P. Johnson was a hero in the Black trans community. Will the park designed in her honor earn the same admiration?
By Stephen Zacks
A subtle shift has taken place in the park at the end of North 7th Street in Brooklyn, New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Recently renamed for the late Black trans LGBTQ+ civil rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, the redesigned park has retained the relatively ad hoc feeling of its previous iteration as East River State Park. It still has swaths of concrete embankments scattered around the site, remnants of the place’s industrial history as a rail and marine terminal. The main entrance has been repaved with cobblestones, mirroring the crumbling remains of the original entry. New seating is fabricated from rough-cut logs.
Beyond, a winding path of porous concrete passes through gardens of perennial flowers, bioswales to retain stormwater, and a hill that will eventually grow into a lush landscape. Didactic panels along the path recount the formation of trans identity and the history of that community’s civil rights struggle. The sandy shoreline is bordered with granite blocks and a pebbly intertidal zone. A large sign at the entrance dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson is not yet installed, nor is a planned monument to Johnson.
For some, namely the trans constituents meant to be most honored by the park, it hasn’t been a dramatic enough turnaround. As the visibility of trans people has increased, the community is demanding more cultural ownership and agency over the spaces that define their legacy and role in the public discourse. And this demand is complicating what New York civic officials viewed as an acknowledgment of trans people’s role in securing a more just, egalitarian, and humane world.
The Plastic Park
In August 2020, former Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the dedication of the park to Johnson, but that was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and few locals learned of the plan. The governor’s office published renderings by the mixed-media exhibition designer Molly Lenore of Moey Inc. that showed a flamboyant display of multicolored flower sculptures erected on either side of the park’s entry walkway, with a central expanse of asphalt enlivened by a thermoplastic mural of flowers over rainbow stripes and a sprawling quote from Johnson.
Leslie Wright, the regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, presented the plans to the local community board the following January. “People were aghast,” says Katie Naplatarski, a parks advocate and member of the board’s land use subcommittee. Community members, along with trans leaders and Johnson’s family, argued that the park’s design would not honor the legacy of her trans activism or her love of real flowers. They wanted more grass and plantings rather than synthetic materials. The following month, the protesters launched a series of public meetings under the banner “Stop the Plastic Park.” Eventually, construction was halted.
Starr Whitehouse Steps In
The controversy set off a battery of listening sessions and a contract with Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects and Planners to implement design changes. At Wright’s suggestion, the firm committed to 48 hours of outreach to gather input and redesign the scheme around the wishes of North Brooklyn parks advocates and trans activists. “We really care about engaging the community and trying to come up with ways to do that,” says the Starr Whitehouse cofounder Laura Starr, FASLA. “We engaged with a lot of neighborhood people, a lot of people from the LGBTQ community, and we talked to a lot of families in the park.”
Michael Haggerty, a principal at Starr Whitehouse, says the meetings did not end until the last person had expressed everything they wanted to say. “People wanted a lawn,” he says. “People wanted open waterfront space. It was the middle of the pandemic, so people were using open spaces more than they had been.”
“Where there was total agreement was to keep a sense of the grit of the park,” Haggerty says, and also “that Marsha P. was a flamboyant, colorful person and to memorialize her with flowers and plants and nature as much as possible, and to keep it as flexible and green as possible.”
Bioswales created with the help of Harriet Grimm, ASLA, a landscape architect and arborist at Starr Whitehouse, are designed to enhance biodiversity by creating habitats for pollinators. The bioswales are slowing filling with bayberry, beach plum, and American holly, and in the early spring will show off reds and yellows of Cornelian cherry, witch hazel, and forsythia. In the summer, the gardens transition into the blue-purples of hydrangea, butterfly bush, and chaste tree, before mellowing into autumn white and the deep red flowers of sweet spire and sumac. In the winter, red chokeberry and red osier dogwood will brighten the water’s edge.
Alyxandra Ramsay, a content developer and researcher for Moey, composed 14 didactic panels on trans history and liberation in New York City and beyond, conducting focus groups with trans women of color to develop the narrative. But supply chain disruptions meant that the panels are delayed, and for now, only temporary signs have been installed throughout the park. Without the final signage and an approved but yet-to-be-commissioned monument to Johnson, the park doesn’t capture her true spirit, Ramsay says. For now, she says, “It’s just like a regular old park. There’s nothing that really distinguishes it from anything else, besides the panels.”
LaTravious Collins of the Brooklyn Ghost Project, a Black trans-led nonprofit organization, agrees. Collins was invited to participate in a New York State Parks committee that advises on the design of the park, but she left after two years—before the completion of the current design, which she also finds lacking. “I quit the committee because I felt that the ideas of Black trans women were not being reflected in the park,” she says. “I just felt that the park is supposed to be dedicated to Marsha P. Johnson, [who] is basically a hero in my community, and I did not feel like my community was in the forefront of the creation of the park.”
On August 24, the governor’s office released the preliminary design renderings for a new ornamental gateway to the park. The entry gate complements the now flower-filled landscape and remains in keeping with Moey’s original colorful signage. A flamboyant arrangement of swirls and flowers—not made of plastic, we are assured—festoons either side of a circular entryway, with the words “Pay It No Mind” prominently displayed above the portal. It will be impossible to miss.
Despite her misgivings, Ramsay, who is studying clinical neuropsychology, thinks the park can help change the narrative about trans people. “In fact, trans people are doctors, nurses, people who are getting their PhDs soon—like I am—data analysts, astronauts,” she says. “They’re not just sexual beings, like the media tries to perpetuate, and this park brings that to life.”
Stephen Zacks is an advocacy journalist, urbanist, and project organizer based in New York City.
This article is an expanded and updated version of an article that appeared in the September issue of LAM.