I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s and 1960s. As the middle child of seven, it was tough to find a sense of place in the family or in our neighborhood, the Marcy Projects. One of my brothers, called “Bird,” was warlord of a notorious gang, the Marcy Chaplains. For most of my early childhood, I was “Bird’s Brother” and safe to walk the troubled streets.
My mother made sure I often escaped the crowded projects by visiting Prospect Park. By nine years old, I could get there alone by bus or subway. I would wander the park, identifying trees, catching bumble bees in jelly jars, and filling paper cups with tadpoles to raise at home.
In the park was a favorite tree I’d climb and get lost in the canopy, unseen by the rest of world. This was my place to daydream, relax, or travel anywhere I’d read about in my Weekly Reader. It’s the “Place” I can, even now, return at any moment when I am stressed or need to meditate and rest.
I had never heard of the park’s famous designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. What was important to me were the cobblestone trails, the ice cream man and his bicycled push-cart, the butterflies, the praying mantises, and the fat lady who twisted balloons. Just collecting acorns and acorn tops could be a whole day event for me at Prospect Park.
Today as an educator in Albany, New York, I am honored to share outdoor adventures with hundreds of urban youth, some who have never been more than 5 blocks from where there live. Sometimes we escape the city to camp or backpack. But some of our favorite outings are in Albany’s Washington Park. Olmsted’s ideas live in that park too. While the teens flyfish in Washington Park lake, they reconnect with their own abilities and with the natural world.
I often reflect back to my early childhood in Prospect Park when my world was fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. I know now that there was an innate part of me that was drawn to nature.
Yet many of today’s children are growing up in busy cities without nearby parks or “special places” to experience the beautiful and awe-inspiring. They stand to lose a very important part of what it is to be human. I have dedicated my life to a personal mission: “Using the Power of Nature to Transform Urban Youth.
As a member of the board of directors for the Children and Nature Network, I have the pleasure of being part of an international movement to reconnect children with nature. Through our work with local, state, and national organizations, we strive to develop, preserve, and enrich a sense of wonder in children—of all ages — and parks can and should be places of wonder.
Frederick Law Olmsted began this work over 150 years ago. He designed Prospect Park — and parks around the U.S. and Canada — for city kids like me, who would need outdoor places to explore and run free. Children will still need to find a sense of place 150 years from now. Just as I needed my special place, all children in the future will need nature. And all children need parks today.
Ed. Note: On November 20, 2011, Brother Yusuf Burgess received the Andrew Goodman Foundation Hidden Heroes Award for his work with Green Tech High’s Boys Outdoor Leadership Program. Among those at the ceremony were Cicely Tyson, Harry Belafonte, Billie Jean King, Governor David Patterson, and others. This essay was adapted from the book “Parks for the People: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted,” by Julie Dunlap, with permission from the author.
Photos: Yusuf in Prospect Park in 1959. Brother Yusuf Burgess today.