BY SKEETER TOWER
Special to the OBSERVER
It was 1838, only 33 years after the very first settler, Seth Cole, built his log house along the shores of Lake Erie at what is now Dunkirk. During that year an ambitious and proud group of citizens set aside space in the heart of the community, designated as the Village Commons, now known as Washington Park. At first it was an open meadow for public use and livestock, but in 1877 the fence was removed, trees were planted and the city aspired to provide a space for more gentile pastimes and recreation. Stately homes were built along the perimeter, and in 1887, the Young Men's Association landscaped the park, adding sidewalks, benches and a fountain 25 feet in diameter.
Dunkirk’s Washington Park dates back to the late 1800s.
Leslie Chard's history of Dunkirk "Out of the Wilderness," states "Dunkirk was becoming a tidier community, with a greater degree of civic pride, much of it due to the efforts and enthusiasm of the young Men's Association, an organization founded in 1886 with the objective of 'improving the material and intellectual welfare' of Dunkirk. The members were business and professional men of the city. They raised large sums of money by sponsoring concerts and carnivals. The proceeds were used for the beautification of the public parks, the upkeep of the public library and Brooks Memorial Hospital ."
Today we have a new civic group dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of Washington Park and the surrounding neighborhood. Michelle and Tom Bautista, Rose Floramo, Ted Wronski, Pat Sysol and Jim McIlbain, Andy Gonzalez, Carmen Cortez and Matt Bromberg are the founding members of Washington PARC, which stands for Park Action Restoration Committee.
Take the time to walk around this neighborhood and you will see how neighbors are banding together to stave off creeping urban blight. You will see how the stalwartness and strong bones of this charming historic section of the city might attract new urban pioneers eager to rescue exquisite older homes with features few could afford to incorporate into newer construction today. The Bautista's son, Anthony, in fact has recently invested in a spectacular home right on Washington Park. But aside from their personal living environments, these dedicated Dunkirk residents are committed to restoring the vitality and graciousness of Washington Park itself.
Their first projects last year focused on clean-up and removal of graffiti, safe and attractive play equipment for the children, an appeal to Dunkirk police to monitor by foot patrol for possible drug activity and vandalism and to establish better communication with local youth. PARC has advocated for trash and recycle barrels along the walking school routes where litter can accumulate. It is people power which will make all the difference. With the formation of PARC, Michele Bautista and her group hope to gather momentum, greater membership and local participation to preserve and revitalize this corner of the city. They want to get the young people involved and taking ownership and pride in this "village commons." For more information, contact Michele Bautista at 366-8395 or Pat Sysol at 366-8512.
There are more successes to report. PARC was effective in stopping an impressive, but long vacant, home acquired by the city and turned over to COI for rehabilitation from becoming four low income apartments. It is now slated for two moderate income apartments. Even this is a compromise, almost a sacrifice, to divide such a splendid building into rental apartments behind the Dunkirk library. Work has not yet started on this conversion but we know Washington PARC will be watching and trying to hold them accountable for a quality effort that fits into the ambiance and revitalization of the park.
The group recognizes the Dunkirk Historical Museum, also right on Washington Park, as an important institution in the community, guardian of the rich history of the city. It is with this intent of support for the museum that PARC has collaborated with Academy Heights Neighborhood Group to document the leaded glass and stained glass of historic Dunkirk. (We have all been inspired by Richard Goodman's social entrepreneurship effort on behalf of the Literacy Council). Diane Andrasik, president of the Dunkirk Historical Society, has brought her photography skills forward to photograph the historic windows and market the notecards created from this collection to help with financial support of museum activities. Customized notecard collections of each church in the historic district with special windows will also be available soon. Certainly the Washington Park neighborhood claims pride in the First United Methodist Church's stained glass, another "on the park" treasure. If you haven't seen them, stop in and listen to the chimes which are another special daily treat in our community.
The latest successful venture of the Washington Park group was the recent WinterFest in the Park. Even without the snow to carry off the event or to build the snow sculptures, there were lines of young families waiting to visit Santa in the gazebo. More than 75 children received a book from Santa due to a generous contribution from The Book Nook. A flurry of flashlights and colorful hats bobbed around the park in the scavenger hunt. Little hands decorated cookies and made crafts in the warmth of the First United Methodist Church social hall. Big voices and little voices joined in Christmas caroling. Winner of the Christmas light competition was 503 Washington Street. Hot chocolate was a welcome and warming part of the festivities.
The pronounced "Queen of the Fest" could not be crowned due to the cold weather and her guarded health, but we salute Rose Floramo as 2011 Queen of the Fest and pay homage to this city/neighborhood mentor. Matt Craft from COI and the Chautauqua Youth Corps helped plan and pull off the event.
"We couldn't have done it without them," reports Michele, who wants this to be the first of many and a new tradition for the city.
Just imagine how this wonderful idea can grow next year with support from the city and development office to attract hundreds of visitors to Victorian Dunkirk! Perhaps there could be a portable ice rink and warming tent (check out icerinkstogo.com), ice sculptures, wider participation in the lighting competition and park trees decked out for the holiday. The kids could have the cookie decorating again and there could be a "Little Elf Workshop" where kids could bring their saved nickels and dimes, make and wrap Christmas gifts for their parents or siblings and learn to give as well as receive. Local restaurants and clubs could sell their specialties off colorful carts. Temple Beth El, also on the park, could share Hanukkah traditions - lighting the menorah, spinning the dreidel for chocolate geld and feasting on potato pancakes.
The museum would be open with a special exhibit. Selected leaded glass windows could be on display along nearby streets in a candlelight walk, and several of the homes might even be open for a special Christmas tour. (One of those houses, 438 Washington Ave., owned by Steve and Linda Duckworth, is already featured in Daniel Reiff's architecture book, "Houses From Books" on page 158, for a sneak preview). Horse-drawn carriages might be an attraction. Real live reindeer for the kids to see. What fun! A new king and queen of the Winterfest, could be crowned. Christmas caroling in many languages representing the cultural diversity of the city could ring out around the park. The "good old boys" of Ralph's Pennzoil - a resource for the city, located right on the park - could hold forth with their hot coffee and donuts, quips, wisdom and car talk in something of a "man cave!"
It's time to honor our neighborhoods, not just our wonderful Dunkirk waterfront, and Washington Park Winterfest is a great start. Special thanks to the generous time investment of the folks from Washington PARC. They offer a vision. It makes a difference.
Skeeter Tower is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments on this column to email@example.com