June 21, 2024
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Reviving a Shabbat Park In Stamford

Barrett Park is a lot of things to a lot of people. The city-owned six-acre recreational facility boasts a baseball diamond and basketball courts, a playground and rock wall, picnic shelters, walking paths, benches, large grassy areas and an event pavilion and the summer Outdoor Adventure Program.

To the Orthodox Jewish community of Stamford, the park is something special, located as it is between Young Israel of Stamford and Congregation Agudath Sholom.

“It has been called the ‘Shabbos park’ as long as we have been living here, which is 40 years,” said Stamford resident Michael Feldstein. “As the Jewish community has grown, the park grew as a place for families to spend Shabbos afternoons in the spring and summer. But over the years, the park has fallen into disrepair and has become less attractive to shul families.”

Last month, the city of Stamford held the first of three public meetings to solicit input from neighbors that will help inform the Barrett Park Master Plan, a joint project of the Parks Department and the New England-based BETA planning and design firm.

Among the most passionate supporters of the park is Jessie Katz, a member of the Jewish community. In fact, she and her husband moved to Stamford four-and-a-half years ago precisely because a house adjacent to Barrett Park was on the market.

“The house happened to be right at the epicenter of the Orthodox Jewish community, right smack in the middle of the two main synagogues where every person walks by our house on Shabbat, but we’re still on a nice private cul-de-sac street,” she said. “It’s the yard with the community cut-through, and it’s right next to the Shabbat park. When we saw the house, we had not yet decided to move to Stamford, but this was really what drew us to this incredible community.”

Every Shabbat afternoon, Katz would join at least 75 fellow Jews enjoying the park, no matter the season. Area synagogues would often hold special events there. But the aging facilities needed an upgrade, and when a new playground was built at the Strawberry Hill magnet school about a mile south, families began to drift away.

Katz was not willing to sit by and watch the community’s beloved Shabbat park atrophy. “People are always saying, ‘What can we do to fix this park?’ The main issue is that the playground is terrible. It’s not so safe, it’s definitely not designed for little kids, it’s old, it doesn’t fit the needs of this growing community of young families with young children,” she said.

She started working with Friends of Barrett Park, as well as the Strawberry Hill and Glenbrook Neighborhood Associations, to understand the concerns and ideas of park users. A core group of volunteers took shape to approach city government.

A Boston native and the daughter of a government official, Katz had grown up with an understanding of local politics. She emailed Stamford Government Center requesting a meeting with Mayor David Martin. “That’s how this all began: I just walked into his office with my new baby and started making things happen,” she said. “I’ve had many meetings with the mayor and he’s been incredibly responsive and helpful.”

Those meetings between the park advocates and the mayor’s team have resulted in several improvement projects like a new drainage system to fix a serious flooding issue and an updated crosswalk into the park, all funded by the city. Katz has found the mayor’s office to be a supportive and responsive partner—especially when it comes to safety. “If we tell them that there are rocks crumbling from the rock wall or that something is a tripping hazard, they’re there in five minutes,” she said.

Katz and her fellow volunteers are now hoping to see passage of a funding proposal for a large-scale capital project designed to overhaul the park. Top on Katz’s wish list is a safer and more modern playground.

On Simchat Torah, Katz was heartened to see crowds of people enjoying the park, as Chabad of Stamford held its annual community-wide celebration together with other area synagogues. “It was unbelievable; you saw hundreds of people in the park again, just as it should be every week,” Katz said. “I felt really energized to get things rolling and rebuild the park to really reflect the needs of the community.”

In addition to the financial support put forward by the city, Katz hopes to see those who love and use the park contribute to the improvements. “I don’t want to take away from the fundraising for synagogues and schools and the important parts of the Jewish community’s infrastructure; I fully respect that and I want the people living here to continue to give their money in those very important places,” she said. “I’m very excited for the project to move forward no matter what, but it would make me extra happy if I saw the contributions of our Jewish community as well in rebuilding our Shabbat park to be the special gem in not only the Stamford community, but in the Jewish community, too.”

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