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Big Chuck

February 14, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: It starts with the parks, of which Oneonta has many

I read recently that New York City banned smoking in all of its 1,705 city parks. Now, the Big Apple can do whatever it wants with its parks, but to me the factoid that leaped out of that statement was that there are 1,705 parks in New York City in the first place.

1,705 parks! Wow!

Now, how many parks are there in Oneonta?

Two? Three?

Of course we know about the two big ones, Neahwa and Wilber. And what about Huntington Park, which is owned and cared for by the Huntington Library? There is that cute, little park at Maple and Main that thrives under the caring caresses of the Oneonta Garden Club. It is called Curtis Park, named after a prominent Oneonta citizen, Catherine Curtis, who died in 1973.

How about that unnamed park at the top of Maple Street, across from the old Bugbee School? Yes, that's another one.

The Sixth Ward has all of that green space off River Street, but that is all privately owned.

Hmmmm. Any more?

To find the right answer I decided to pay a visit to Steve Andrews, who heads Oneonta's Parks and Recreation Department.

"Well, the answer to that, Big Chuck, is a lot more than people think," he said with a laugh.

Steve is a garrulous, outgoing bear of a guy who exhibits a love and a passion for the parks of Oneonta that is positively contagious.

"Wilber and Neahwa are the two that come to mind first to most people. And they certainly are the most used," Steve told me. "At nearly 60 acres, Neahwa Park is the center for a lot of public events in our community.

"But don't forget Catella Park, too, which has a myriad of playing fields for the youth of our city. Baseball, soccer, football, you name it, and they play it down at Catella," Andrews told me.

"Are there any other parks in the city I am missing?" I asked.

"The Swart-Wilcox House is part of our parks system. As you know, it is the oldest structure in Oneonta, and we take care of it and schedule events around it.

And the Susquehanna Greenway Trail Park is one of our department's greatest dreams. There is a mile-long trail down by the MOSA plant now. It is heavily used by people of all ages and is beautiful, the way it hugs the Susquehanna River. There are 16 new markers in place down there to identify the various plants and wildlife along the walk.

"We hope it will eventually follow the river from there, in the far West End, all the way out to Fortin Park in the far East End, where it will hopefully connect to Riddell Park and the rail lines up to Cooperstown. The Hall of Fame Trail.

"Budgets are tight, though. Someday," he wistfully said with a sigh.

Still, the mood is one of unbridled enthusiasm at the old cinder block Brenner Building between the ballpark and the pond at Neahwa Park where the Parks office is located.

Dave Coury, Steve's right-hand man, told me: "Many communities are scaling back in their parks, and even closing some. We are pleased that we haven't been able to do that in Oneonta. And so much of what we offer to the kids is still free. That is unheard of."

Upon my departure from my visit, I asked one simple question. "What's the state of Oneonta's parks today?"

Steve's answer was unmistakable. "I am a native Oneontan, a proud lower-decker. I grew up right here, I swam here, skated here and played youth baseball right over there," he told me as he pointed from his office window. "I love our parks."

"My dream is to have more of our citizens involved with what goes on in their parks. You know we meet the first Monday of every month at City Hall. And everybody is invited to come and share their ideas on how to make the parks even better. And believe, me," he said as he clamped a catcher's mitt-sized hand on my shoulder, "I listen!"

I had never been in the Parks and Recreation Department Office before. I doubt if many have. But I can't tell you how downright positive the energy is there.

As he showed me to the door, I said, "Steve, any final thought before I leave?"

He grinned his boyish grin at me, gave out a roar and said, "Remember, Big Chuck, it starts with the parks!"

Yes, it does Steve. Yes, it does.

I'll catch you in two …'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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