His gym made a Harlem park special. City officials tore it down
By Ginia Bellafante
Jamel Ali grew up in East Harlem, but really, he would tell you that he came of age in Marcus Garvey Park, 20 square acres of patchy grass and bruised hardscape surrounded by stately brownstones to the west and institutional looking buildings on upper Madison Avenue. Late one morning this past week, I found him where anyone looking would have run into him most days during the past two decades — overseeing an informal training gym, largely of his own creation, occupying a corner of the park in the shadow of Bethel Gospel Assembly.
Seated next to him on a bench was a guy named Wayne Anderton, who had been a championship amateur boxer in the early 1980s and was now, at 59, a door attendant in Greenwich Village. He had been working out alongside Ali through the pandemic, and as we got to talking, he pulled out his phone to show me a picture he took of himself on a scale in January when he was 207 pounds. He swiped to another image taken three months later, when it registered 174. Anderton grew up on Columbus Avenue in the 1970s, when the violence was so overwhelming that he was carrying guns, usually two at a time, to protect himself, by the time he was 12.
For years now, the open-air gym has been a refuge from any surrounding chaos. Now in his 40s, Ali had spent a lot of time in the park when he was young; later he always brought his children. “I have a lot of history here,’’ he said. So it wasn’t surprising that he got very angry when that history was interrupted this month and he was informed by officials that his gym was no longer welcome in Marcus Garvey Park.
Part of Ali’s mission, he told me, has been to keep teenagers from falling into crime and gang life, to distract and empower them, to offer a sense of community and safety. When he was young, he witnessed a friend murdered in the park several yards from where he was now standing. A former construction worker on disability, he is not making a living with this operation.
The site of his makeshift fitness space is next to a poorly tended basketball court, and so even kids who are not doing calisthenics with him are under the supervision of the grown-ups exercising nearby. It was baffling to Anderton, then, and so many others in the neighborhood, when the city recently interfered.
For a long time, Ali had stored his workout equipment — heavy bags, boxing gloves, weights and so on — in tents by the park’s built-in pullup bars and other apparatus, which is old and in bad condition. A few weeks ago, the city told him that this arrangement was no longer suitable because it violated certain rules about keeping personal items in parks overnight. Someone could, say, take a barbell and use it in an attack. The tent was not secure, and Ali held no permit for it.
The parks department also did not like that he was hanging punching bags from trees and that he kept his dog, a Yorkshire terrier called Chase, off leash. This was not the first time Ali was hearing about these concerns and protocols — he had his things taken away and vouchered in 2019, and was allowed to return during the pandemic — but he remained undeterred.
On April 5, he was warned that he had a week to clear out. He removed some things, and officers of the parks department came in and removed the rest.
“They were literally tearing things down,” Roz Davis, who serves on the board of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, told me. “It was a pretty heated moment.”
Like Anderton and others, she was of the mind that this intrusion into Ali’s setup was related to Mayor Eric Adams’ move to dismantle encampments for the homeless around the city, which the parks department denies. Regardless, the Adams administration seems to be waging an indiscriminate war against the aesthetically displeasing, messing with the belongings of the poor but neglecting to address graffitied and rotting plywood dining sheds with any similar sense of urgency.
Initially, Davis was also confounded by the tents, but that impression didn’t last. “When I saw the engagement,” she told me, “it was just delightful. The city needs to expand on what he founded, not strip it away. Health and fitness should be No. 1 in this community.” The park straddles East and Central Harlem, where rates of asthma among children are more than twice as high as they are in the rest of the city, and rates of obesity are also above the average.
Although real estate prices have soared in this part of Manhattan in recent years — this month a town house near the park set a record, closing at $6.4 million — Marcus Garvey has not been on the receiving end of huge amounts of capital, either public or private, which could restore it to its earlier glory. Preservationists did succeed in winning nearly $8 million in city funding for the renovation of a historically important watchtower in the park, which was completed three years ago. And although other improvements have been made, Marcus Garvey looks like a park that has been largely ignored.
On Wednesday morning, Ali was visited by Connie Lee, an influential supporter who served as president of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance for six years and now sits on the local community board. Ideally, the city would create a state-of-the-art outdoor gym in the park so that the ad hoc approach to Ali’s enterprise would not be necessary. “Mel” — as Lee and others call him — “and all the men who work out in the park have led by example, setting a tone for inclusivity and inviting everyone to be a part of the fitness community,” she wrote me the next day. “Marcus Garvey is a culturally significant public space that Mel contributes to every day.”
Lee said that during her tenure at the alliance, she campaigned for a master plan for the park that would lead to a rehabilitation. For one thing, there were too few bathrooms. The cost would run to approximately $35 million, she estimated, but raising even half of that philanthropically was an unlikely proposition in a place where there were not hordes of people able to write enormous checks as there are along Central Park, for example. Some large companies had offered to donate money to the park but wanted branding opportunities in exchange.
Bureaucracies always have a means of explaining away inequities, but it was hard to overlook the fact that just a few days after Ali’s outfit was dismantled, the city’s largest rooftop park opened on Pier 57 on the Hudson River, near West 15th Street and adjacent to extraordinary wealth. The pier will also house Google offices. When I asked the parks department what would happen next in regard to Ali’s pursuits, a spokesperson, Crystal Howard, offered the following: “Our priority here has always been to ensure a clean and safe park that is accessible to all its users. We are grateful for the community advocates that have helped to bridge a conversation between parks and Mr. Ali, and look forward to finalizing the resolution of this matter.”
Essential to his theories about landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted famously declared, “Service must precede art.” For too long, in parks far from the eyes of the ruling class, the power brokers have prioritized neither.