Volunteer-powered Astoria Park Alliance brings conservation to Western Queens

Astoria Park boasts a mini-library thanks to the Astoria Park Alliance.  Eagle  photos by Sarah Burchell.

Astoria Park boasts a mini-library thanks to the Astoria Park Alliance. Eagle photos by Sarah Burchell.

By Sarah Burchell

Special to the Eagle

Anthony Liberatoscioli was walking down the Astoria Park shoreline with his young daughter one day when she asked why there was so much trash on the shore. Upset that she had to ask and even more upset that he didn’t have an answer, Liberatoscioli started attending the monthly shoreline cleanups with the Astoria Park Alliance.

The APA is an entirely volunteer-based nonprofit group that advocates for the conservation and sustainability of Astoria Park, a nearly 60-acre park located along the East River. After forming in 2007, the group started to organize more regular cleanups and advocated for off-leash hours in the park, all while striving for community input, cultural inclusion and involvement.

“Our group focuses on filling the gaps, small things that wouldn’t necessarily rise to the level of what [the parks department] would do, but still need attention,” explained Liberatoscioli, who now serves as vice chair of the APA.

Volunteers from the Astoria Park Alliance cleanup the park’s shoreline.

Volunteers from the Astoria Park Alliance cleanup the park’s shoreline.

The APA was originally formed by a group of women dog owners who often used the park to walk their dogs. Martha Gilpin Lopez, one of the founding members and current chairperson of the APA, became frustrated that people would leave tins of food and waste in the park after having parties because her dog would eat it and get sick for days.

After a while, she and other like-minded dog owners hunkered down and started organizing cleanups on their own. They were approached by an outreach coordinator from Partnership for Parks to join the Catalyst Project, which aids community stakeholders in becoming activists.

Gaining more credibility in the neighborhood and with the NYC Parks Department, the Astoria Park Alliance has become a driving force behind Astoria Park improvements and happenings for the past 11 years.

In 2017, the APA received its 501(c)(3) status, not only granting the organization tax-exempt status, but allowing it to qualify for more grants, obtain permits, buy equipment at a discount, produce programs and make it easier to partner with different agencies.

“They do a lot of work for the park that the Parks Department can’t fund, so they come in and bring a lot of volunteer work and extra money to tie up the loose ends where funding isn’t available,” said Melinda Caudill, an APA volunteer who has been an Astoria resident for 14 years.

Just some of the trash that is cleaned up by volunteers at Astoria Park.

Just some of the trash that is cleaned up by volunteers at Astoria Park.

The APA maintains a special relationship with the Parks Department, according to its members. Even before receiving its nonprofit status, the Parks Department was supportive of the APA’s mission and provided support when needed. Recently, Liberatoscioli pitched the idea of building a mini-library for the community on Parks property and, once approved, the Parks Department helped in its installation. This addition to Astoria Park was picked by Scholastic’s to receive quarterly book donations.

“It’s great that you’re doing this out here. I’ve lived here my whole life, I go and complain [about the condition of the park] and nothing gets done. Thank you.” A passerby said to a volunteer as she weeded the edges of the path during a recent cleanup outing.

One of the goals of the APA is to make sure everyone is aware of what the park has to offer.

“Now it’s just about making sure people know they have access, really embracing and welcoming the NYCHA communities to parks that people were raised in Astoria,” Lopez said.

Projects in the works for the APA include an augmented reality app designed to educate people on environmental and sustainability measures. The park has also received $30 million in improvements from the Anchor Parks programs, “based on historical underinvestment, high surrounding population and potential for park development,” according to the Parks Department.