NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver “Running The Parks”
As humans, we yearn for our passions to align and intersect with our day to day work – this way it never feels like work. Some of us get lucky in making it work, and others are intentional in making the two happen. Our feature for this month has seamlessly married the personal and professional with the accolades to match. Heralded as a visionary, known for his passion for fairness and equity, an overall genuine human being and the list goes on. The best thing about these compliments is that you cannot distinguish if they would be said by longtime friends or from the Mayor of New York City. A passion for planning, people, parks and running seems to be a sensible overview of our feature, Commissioner Mitchell J. Silver of the New York City Parks Department. Thank you Commissioner Silver for running with us. We’re looking forward to getting some miles with you and telling the full spectrum of your story.
Keron: With any MSM story, we start with the basics, who is Mitchell Silver?
Mr Silver: The simple answer is I am a person who is passionate about people and making great places and spaces for people. I believe God gave me a gift and a purpose and I want to use that gift and fulfill that purpose until the day God calls me home. God gave me gifts to care, lead, teach and to make positive change in people’s lives. God gave me vision to see a path forward and to have the courage to communicate what I see. My desire is to shine a light on an issue to allow people to see, hear and feel things from a perspective they haven’t considered before.
Keron: We need the full story. Who is Mitchell Silver that grew up in Brooklyn living near Prospect Park and went to Midwood High School?
Mr. Silver: I am the son of a Haitian Catholic mother and a white Jewish father. My father was not religious, but my mother was. I am the second oldest of four children, two boys, and two girls. We grew up in a middle-class family. We first lived in an apartment in Prospect Heights and then my parents bought a house on Winthrop Street near Prospect Park. Like every Brooklyn kid, we played in the streets. Then we discovered Prospect Park and it became our backyard. I rode my bike there alone or with friends. It was my first interaction with nature. Prospect Park to me is home.
I went to school at P.S. 92 and then Holy Cross. My brother and I played Little League Baseball and ran track for Holy Cross. In High School, all of my siblings ran track for Midwood. We raced and practiced in Prospect Park. My older brother and I loved to run around the perimeter of the park rather than the interior loop. We were all good runners, but I slowly started breaking my brother’s freshman records and my coach took notice. At the last race of my freshman year, I nearly broke a 5-minute mile at the age of 14. I ran a 5:00.3.
I eventually dropped out of high school in 1976. My Coach was devastated, but my father took it worse. Why? My siblings and I never got therapy after my mother’s death. Therapy was not normal back then. You just suffered quietly and went on with your life. Well, the pain caught up with me. I was angry at God for taking my mother from us. By my sophomore year, I stopped going to school. In my junior year, the school sent my father a letter. I had to drop out. As my father and I left Midwood after officially signing the paperwork, he turned to me and said, “so you had to drop out on Pearl Harbor Day?” I heard the pain and disappointment in his voice. My father was a World War II veteran. The day I dropped out was December 7, 1976. I knew I broke my father’s heart. I was determined to make it up to him one day. A month after I dropped out, I listened to the tape my mother left me and my siblings and decided to change my life. I got my GED Diploma a year later and went on to college and graduate school.
Keron: To go from humble beginnings to being first African-American (Black) President of the American Planning Association (APA) and American Institute of Certified Planners. Can you explain where the zeal to become an urban planner originated from?
Mr. Silver: My drive came primarily from my mother who died of cancer when I was 12 years old. My mother was an amazing woman. She was the matriarch of the family and the first member of the family to emigrate from Haiti to the United States. She was a head nurse and a teacher. When she passed away at the age of 42, I was shattered – the entire family was shattered. My mother had the foresight to leave my brother and sisters and a tape she recorded on her death bed. I remember that day she asked me to bring my tape recorder to the hospital. Her message was simple but powerful. She inspired all of us to go to college and grow up to be real individuals to make a difference in this world. It took me years to listen to that tape labeled “Mommy.” A month after I dropped out, I listened to the tape my mother left me and my siblings before she passed away and decided to change my life. My mother was a born leader I did not want her life to be in vain, so I decided I live my life to continue hers, and to make her proud.
Keron: You have an extensive planning history that has had you work in leading a lot of revitalization work throughout neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Washington, and Raleigh. When taking the NYC Commissioner job in 2014, what were some of the challenges that you saw with NYC’s 30,000 acres of parkland and potential remedies?
Mr. Silver: I grew up in Brooklyn, but when Mayor de Blasio’s transition team contacted me I was living in Raleigh, North Carolina. I did not want to move back to New York City. I had a dream job as chief planning and development officer. I had a beautiful home and a great lifestyle. After talking to the mayor and hearing his desire to create an equitable, safe, and inclusive parks system, I knew it was time to come home. I knew what New York City parks were like growing up in Brooklyn. Playgrounds were asphalt jungles with very little green space. Many underprivileged neighborhoods lacked quality parks. The mayor wanted a visionary to create a 21st century parks system. I accepted the challenge. The vision was developed and implemented. We created a Framework for an Equitable Future and focused on transforming parks and playgrounds that hadn’t seen investment in over two decades. We developed the Parks Without Borders initiative to remove barriers and fences to make parks more accessible. We established the Cool Pools NYC to enliven municipal pools and add dignity to public spaces. Residents now call these Cool Pool sites the “resort.” We also launched the Anchor Parks Program to make old parks new again. As of May 2021, over 850 capital projects were completed under my tenure, but more importantly, we created millions of smiles.
Keron: I know, we have to get to the running! (LOL) You run the parks as Commissioner but you actually ‘RUN’ the parks which is a totally different perspective. As an urban runner, our safe spaces intersect with the parks, and green spaces so often. Can you give us some insight into how that impacted your work from the macro perspective as Parks Commissioner?
Mr. Silver: New York City has close to 2,000 parks. Before I started getting serious about running in 2016, I would visit parks on Sundays without telling staff. It was a modified version of “undercover boss.” Being still new to the job, I wanted to get to know the parks, experience the parks, and observe how people used the parks. I wanted to see how parks staff cared for parks and not just maintain them. I believe maintaining parks is a checklist approach, but caring for parks comes from a different place in the soul. Maintenance is important, but caring goes far deeper and has a greater impact on public space and its users. I also enjoyed connecting with staff working in the parks. The New York Times found out about my “undercover boss” visits and shared my routine in a weekly Sunday feature in 2015. By 2017, I continued my undercover boss routine but shifted my mode of transportation from driving to parks to running in parks. My running crews would always allow me to stop to either take pictures to document something or to greet a parks employee. Running through parks allowed me to see the parks and greenways up close and personal. After a run, I would jot down areas that needed attention from a cracked pavement to a non-working water fountain.
“As I started running more and more races and started training with Saturday Morning Run Crew (a running crew dedicated to long runs), I got to know more and more runners and crews. Saturday Morning Run Crew has many runners from Harlem Run, but also from other running crews. SMRC is open to anyone who wants to run Saturday mornings. Through SMRC and races, I started meeting run crews from all over the city, many of them were people of color”.Mitchell Silver
Keron: When you first took the job in 2014, you eventually said that you would run the NYC Marathon. Some longtime runners have heard this before from other city officials only for it to not happen but were pleasantly surprised when you made good on your word to actually do it. What was your fuel to run the 2018 NYC Marathon?
Mr Silver: Running the marathon was a dream goal, but I wasn’t sure I could accomplish it. That all changed when I reconnected with my best friend from college, April Cargill, and I started running with Harlem Run. Prior to joining Harlem Run, I ran alone. I never understood the fellowship and camaraderie of run crews. April teased me about running 5Ks and 10Ks and basically challenged my manhood as only a best friend can do. I eventually ran a half marathon and gained immense respect for distance runners. After I completed my first half marathon I remember telling April, “that was half, how could I ever run a full marathon?” But in November 2017, I was standing at the finish line in Central Park – an amazing perk as Parks Commissioner – I watched my friends and crew mates cross the finish line. Then April crossed. I know her facial expressions. I know her body language. She gave it her all. She had nothing left and she collapsed in my arms. I put the medal around her neck. I knew how hard she trained and it was at that moment and I told myself, 2018 will be my year.
Training for the marathon was a different story. I dedicated the marathon to my big brother Sam who passed away on 2008 and the age of 49. I created two hashtags in 2018 as I started to train for the marathon. #IRunTheParks was created for marathon training and #ForSam was created for the actual marathon. My intent was to have people follow my marathon journey in the hope they would feel inspired to live healthier lifestyles and discover our beautiful parks.
Keron: We appreciate you sharing the memory of your Brother Sam and how his soul helps you move your soles. Sam’s memory continues to be fuel for you, well beyond 2018 as we see you continue to run regularly. To get ready for that marathon, just like many others, you did not run alone. It takes a village of family, individual runners, and run crews to prepare/compare notes for the best practices and insight into running a marathon. Can you tell us about your relationship with NYC run crews and how that came to be?
Mr. Silver: The NYC Run Crews gave me a deeper appreciation for community. They allowed me to be me and not a commissioner. When I started running in 2016 after a 6-year hiatus, I ran alone or should I say, I ran with my brother’s spirit. April finally connected me to Harlem Run after months of trying. I recall my first run with Harlem Run. It was the first Monday night of 2017. We ran what we call the Harlem Classic. We start at home base at Marcus Garvey Park, down Malcolm X Blvd into Central Park. We run up Harlem Hill, cross the park at 102nd Street and back to home base. I have not run Harlem Hill before. About halfway up, I started to breath heavy and struggle. I was falling behind the group. One of the runners, a woman until this day I don’t know who she was, slowed down and turned to me and said, “I am not leaving you.” Her genuine concern touched something inside me. I choked up inside. I was so moved and I said to myself if this is what a running crew is about, I’m in. I eventually became a member of Harlem Run and now I am Monday Night Run back-up pacer.
As I started running more and more races and started training with Saturday Morning Run Crew (a running crew dedicated to long runs), I got to know more and more runners and crews. Saturday Morning Run Crew has many runners from Harlem Run, but also from other running crews. SMRC is open to anyone who wants to run Saturday mornings. Through SMRC and races, I started meeting run crews from all over the city, many of them were people of color. I was amazed how many there were, but more importantly, our coming together was not just about running, but supporting each other and supporting our communities. I started following running crews on social media to get a better sense of who they were, the days they run, and the causes they support. While I was training for my first marathon, I decided to just show up without any advance warning and run with them. I was so gratified to learn that the crews were not competitive with each other, but collectively, we were one big running family.
Keron: The saying goes, a good friend is like stars, you don’t always get to see them but you know they’re always there. With that said, we shout out April for being your conduit to the run community. Do you have a favorite run crew memory that you would like to share?
Mr. Silver: I have three favorite memories. All three occurred during marathon training season. The first was a group run for “last 18 miles” of the marathon route. The run was organized by Will Power and Team WEPA. We started at Barclay’s Center and ended in Central Park. The other, also organized by Will Power, was a group run for “the last 10 miles” of the marathon route. We would start of 59th Street and end in Central Park. These runs were so memorable because I got to meet so many diverse run crews and I really go to know them as we traveled through the boroughs and got a feel the marathon course. Will and his wife set up spots along the route for the crews to refuel. The other favorite memory was the first time I ran the Open Streets in 2018 with the Saturday Morning Run Crew. We started in Harlem and then ran down Park Avenue to Lower Manhattan and back. Although we ran 14 miles in the August heat, we had so much fun running, stopping for pictures and crossing paths with so many other run crews.
Keron: How has running reconnected you to the city and the folks on the ground pre-pandemic?
Mr. Silver: I grew up in New York City, but there are so many neighborhoods and places I have never seen or experienced. Training for marathons allowed me to discover so many places on foot I have never seen before. I gained a new appreciation and love for New York City. I got to see spectacular views running over bridges, breathtaking murals and public art running the streets, and enjoying nature through parks and trails. The best part is that I got to experience this with my friends.
Running in every borough of New York City has given me a greater appreciation for our amazing Parks system and how important green space is to our health and happiness. I also appreciate the rich culture of New York City’s neighborhoods as I experience the authentic street life, smell the food emanating from local restaurants, and seeing the diversity of people. New York City is a vibrant city and running the streets makes me feel alive.
Keron: We seem to ask every runner for MSM how the pandemic affected them and we know with your line of work it’s both professional and personal impact. I like to call the line of questions – “lessons from lockdown”. Can you describe the lessons learned from the stillness of the city during the early phases of the pandemic?
Mr. Silver: As commissioner NYC Parks were deemed an essential service, so 80% of Parks employees had to report to work including me. However, there was an added benefit. My office is located in Central Park. I would take a walk everyday through Central Park after lunch to reset my day after an intense morning of non-stop virtual meetings. It underscored my belief that parks are not just for physical health, but for mental health as well. When every social gathering place was closed, parks remained open. Parks became our sanctuaries of sanity. Places we could feel alive and connect with nature. So my number was lesson from the lockdown is that parks should be considered part of our healthcare system. NYC Parks recently launched a Hug a Tree campaign to share this belief in a light hearted way, to remind people who missed physical contact, that they can hug safely again.
The other lesson I learned was the value of the street. As a result of the pandemic, streets were adapted to help people and businesses thrive and survive. Parks represent 14 percent of New York City. Streets and sidewalks represent 26 percent of New York City. When combined, 40 percent of New York City is public space and should be used for the public. The pandemic has allowed many cities to reimagine public space. Streets are not just for cars, but for people. In many places, like New York City, outside seating will be permanent. Closing off streets will be permanent.
Harlem Run Festival 2021 Virtual 1 Mile and 5k
Keron: Parks became an even greater part of overall well-being for people throughout the pandemic. People needed space, people needed peace of mind and parks delivered both seamlessly but access is where this gets tricky. How has parks equity been heightened by the pandemic and how have you used your office to best respond to those needs?
Mr. Silver: As the pandemic continued, health experts realized that communities of color were being disproportionality impacted by COVID-19. As the virus spread, we had to close many recreational courts and fields because people could not socially distance. These included playgrounds, fields, courts, skate parks, etc. Not every community had access to large green open spaces. The Parks Department started to work with the Mayor’s Office to see what streets near or adjacent to parks could be closed for the public to use. We also developed Parks@Home, which was a virtual way for people to connect to the parks.
We created and trained “social distance ambassadors” and deployed them to parks to hand out masks and to remind the public to use parks safely. We installed hundreds of red six-foot signs in parks to remind park-goers to stay six feet apart. We created “Cool It NYC” and installed misters at the edge of parks throughout the city to help people cool off in the summer. We trained our lifeguards in record time so we could open pools and beaches. Finally, we worked with City Hall to find ways to start opening up the park elements. In July, we started reopening all of the playgrounds, courts, and fields that had been closed so that the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID would have outside spaces to enjoy.
Keron: With the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amaud Arbery and so many others are synonymous with the summer of 2020. Marches, protests, and global uprisings flash across my memory bank which was used to grapple with the systemic racism of the systems that intersect and govern our lives. How did this move your agency to act to reflect the times?
Mr. Silver: This is a complicated question in part because many of our staff connected with the pain and trauma associated with systemic racism and the tragic deaths of innocent Black Americans. As Park Enforcement Patrol Officers, Urban Park Rangers, social distance ambassadors, and maintenance personnel, they all worked in these spaces where protests were occurring.
The first thing I did was write a statement to my staff about how I felt about the tragic deaths and the systemic racism I experienced in my life. That statement was later shared with the public after many requests to do so. I then decided to hold a series of virtual sessions called “Reflections of” to create a staff space for Black employees to share how they felt about the recent events. The “Reflections of” calls continue a year later. The reflections are now open to all staff. Those calls have led to changes in the Parks Department training to help supervisors understand the sensitivity needed in these painful times, but also we instituted new practices to ensure our staff knows they can work in a safe and caring workspace.
Keron: Juneteenth grove born out of so many conversations and reflections both personal to you as a Black man and professional in the parks department. The 19 trees, the banners, and the pan-african colors adorned the newly painted benches. This place is not only meant to be a symbol of solidarity but a place of protest. Have you seen the grove used in this way since completion?
Mr. Silver: Yes I have. I live nearby Juneteenth Grove and sometimes sit and observe how people are experiencing the sacred space. Cadman Plaza, where the grove is located, is already a destination for protests including the day Juneteenth Grove was created on June 19, 2020. I am sure the grove will continue to be a place of large gatherings and protests. Some visitors stumble upon the site for the first time and become curious about the name and afro-centric nature of the space. Now that word is getting out, people are making trips to the park to see the grove in person. Some take pictures with pride of the park sign, banners, and benches. Running groups, who are aware of the grove, stop by to tell the story of its creation and purpose. I am very excited about Juneteenth 2021, which is the first anniversary of the grove’s installation. I plan to visit Juneteenth Grove on my way to the Juneteenth 5K in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Keron: Word on the street is that you’re an Honorary Co-Captain for Running to Protest. Can you explain your role in connecting protest and parks?
Mr. Silver: Good question. I think my role is to just be me, speak if the other co-captains need me to, or just show up and run alongside the other co-captains. I am sure some of the protesters were surprised when they learned I was a commissioner and I was out there protesting with them. I believe Running to Protest wanted to thank me for giving them the support to protest. Coffey, a Running to Protest co-founder/co-captain, and I met when he was a Nike Moonshot pacer. As we trained for the 2019 NYC Marathon he reached out to me before the first running protest in East River Park. I let him know that people can exercise their First Amendment Rights to protest in public space. Parks are public spaces. Every running protest that followed the first at East River Park usually starts and ends in a park.
Keron: I think our readers would agree that representation is one of the most important components to building up the psyche of our people and most importantly our children. We’ve been able to see this begin to happen throughout the city as parks are reclaimed and renamed for the historical figures that either had local and global impact near on our communities. Can you talk more about your efforts to make sure that we are seen in the parks?
Mr. Silver: The idea to rename public spaces was born out of virtual meetings with my Black staff after George Floyd’s murder and the incident with Christian Cooper in Central Park. These virtual meetings were called “Reflections of.” It was intended to create a safe space for staff to share how to they felt about the recent racist events. Our staff wanted to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. We realized we had to do something meaningful for people to heal from the trauma we were all experiencing. As a Black man, I don’t just want to “represent and reflect” as an agency, but to use my power to make a change. One of the powers I have as parks commissioner is the authority to rename parks and park features. We decided to rename spaces in New York City to showcase the diversity in our public spaces, to make people feel welcome in our parks, have places for healing and to express pride and joy. We started with Juneteenth Grove, but I did not want the renaming to be a one and done effort, so I decided to do two more rounds of renamings. Ten renamed parks were announced on Black Solidarity Day 2020 and another 15 will be announced on Juneteenth 2021.
Keron: Commissioner, it has been so impressive that you’ve been able to weave running history and culture into NYC’s green spaces. The father of American long distance running, Ted Corbitt (a Black man), was a true pioneer all over the country when it comes to running. We’ve all learned a great deal from his son, Gary Corbitt, who does everything in his power to tell the full breadth and depth of his father’s story. And now in NYC’s most celebrated Park, and its most run loop, it is named for Ted Corbitt. How and what went into making this a reality?
Mr. Silver: Ted Corbitt is a legend, but is not well known among the general population. As a runner, I knew about Ted Corbitt. I knew New York Road Runners named a race after him, but I felt more could be done. As I ran the Central Park Loop, I would pass the Fred Lebow statue near East 90th Street, but saw no public expression Ted Corbitt. So I decided while we were working on the renamings to be announced in June 2021, I would make a special announcement during Black History Month. Ted’s footsteps pounded that pavement many times, so I decided to rename the Central Park Loop after the father of long distance running. We had to do a lot of research to make sure the road was under Parks jurisdiction. It was. The rest is history. Starting this year and beyond, NYC marathoners will end the race on the Ted Corbitt Loop. I am so honored to play a role in memorializing Ted Corbitt’s legacy in the most iconic park in the world.
Keron: You are officially on your last lap as NYC Parks Commissioner. In March you announced, you would be stepping down in June. You’ve overseen 850 capital projects throughout the 5 boroughs. Do you have any favorites? What lasting memories stand out when you reflect on your tenure?
Mr. Silver: That is a very hard question. It’s like asking which one of your children do you love the most. What I can say is the parks equity transformations have been most impactful to me and to the communities that received them. We have completed 58 and the 67 parks equity transformation under my tenure. If people don’t know, these parks have not seen investment in over 20 years. Parks Without Borders, an initiative to make parks more seamless and accessible, removed or lowered tall fences and barriers to improve physical and visual connections into cherished public spaces. Adding new entrances to Prospect Park along Flatbush Avenue will probably be the most memorable because I conceived of that idea when I was in high school running around the perimeter of the park with the brother. Anchor Parks, a program to make old parks new again, transformed one regional park per borough. The one that has had the most impact on me is Betsy Head Park in Brownsville. This underappreciated community with significant health disparities had a large beloved park that was neglected and a state of disrepair. It is home base for We Run Brownsville – a women’s running organization that uplifts women through wellness and empowerment. I get emotional every time when I see the transformation. Betsy Head is now a world class park that will improve the lives of those who live in Brownsville.
Keron: What’s the next chapter for you in this phase of your life?
Mr. Silver: I accepted a position as a principal of a company based in North Carolina. The company provides civil engineering, landscape architecture and planning services. I will serve as the company’s ambassador, an advisor and mentor to staff. I will be part of the company’s philanthropic arm that focuses on helping underserved communities and the environment. I will also help to attract and recruit diverse talent. The company has also given me the freedom to teach, write, attend and speak at conferences about emerging trends, parks and urban planning. Starting in August, I will be splitting my time between North Carolina and New York City.
Keron: With the roads, cities and countries opening back up – what’s on your race calendar? Where can we race with the Commissioner? Any marathons on your schedule? Local races?
Mr.Silver: I was accepted into two marathons this year – Chicago and New York City. Training for those two marathons will be my focus this year. I do plan on running a 5K here and there. The next race I will be running is the Juneteenth 5K sponsored by Pace Runs. It will be held in Brooklyn Bridge Park on June 19.
Keron: Any parting words for our readers?
Mr. Silver: Yes. We are in this age of awakening after the pandemics of COVID-19 and the civil and racial unrest. The words diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are being used as a path forward for justice, reconciliation and healing. I’ve been working in the DEI space for more than 30 years. I define equity as fairness, diversity as the value of different perspectives, and inclusion to be welcoming to all. Many organizations and companies are trying to elevate these values to respond to systemic racism and injustice. I just have one thing to stay as I close. Equity, diversity, and inclusion isn’t something you do, it’s who you are. It is not a campaign slogan or something you pass on to a diversity and inclusion office or officer. These values must be in you. They work that I have been blessed to accomplish throughout my career flowed from who I am and I hope it will have lasting value to those who will experience it.