Susan Blackwell, a former copywriter, lived in Paris for 13 years.
There, she watched the evolution of the Paris-Plages, the city’s installation of temporary artificial beaches along the Seine River. Blackwell was in awe of the pools and sitting areas, as well as the variety of outdoor activities offered. Most of all, she admired the sense of community created on the beaches.
“It was a real democratization of central Paris in the summertime,” said Blackwell. “And for all those people who couldn’t run away to the South of France for six or seven weeks, there was a place that they could enjoy themselves outdoors.”
Now living in Midtown East, Blackwell wants the same experience for New Yorkers. She joined a committee that’s pushing the city to create an outdoor activity area and fitness center on the East River Esplanade. For people who can’t go to their gyms anymore or no longer want to during the pandemic, they’ll have an outdoor community space instead, she said.
Though Blackwell herself isn’t much into fitness, she learned from a friend, Frederica Miller, that an outdoor space exists in Astoria that has “the most amazing fitness equipment,” said Blackwell. And the two came up with a plan.
They shared their idea with Jennifer Ratner, founder of the Friends of the East River Esplanade, a conservancy that oversees the upkeep of the Esplanade from East 60th to 120th streets. Inspired by various waterside fitness centers she’s seen along the East Coast, Ratner said she presented the idea to her conservancy’s board in August and received an enthusiastic response.
The specific area the conservancy wants to designate for the fitness center is along the East River from 60th to 63rd streets, in a quiet park that’s been “shepherded by community members for many, many years,” said Ratner.
Now a petition is circulating to show the popularity of the idea. Ratner said once she has enough neighborhood support, she will present the petition, on behalf of the Friends of the East river Esplanade, at an upcoming Community Board 8 meeting.
The online petition has almost 400 signatures, and Blackwell said there are about 100 more signatures on a paper version. The petition states that the park area, which is the only space on the esplanade with the width and underwater infrastructure to support a fitness area, has become “an active and dynamic space” and “more popular than ever” since the pandemic. But it also calls to preserve the city’s existing plans to build a path for walking, running and bicycling, along with outdoor seating and green spaces.
And while people already exercise on the esplanade, Ratner said the potential outdoor fitness center would go “above and beyond dumbbells or kettlebells and some bands,” adding that “it’s real fitness equipment.”
Stacy Papas, the executive director of the Friends of the East River Esplanade, said people have needed to “get creative” with exercising during the pandemic.
“Suddenly they found themselves without those places to go, but still needing to and wanting to do those activities,” said Papas, adding that outdoor activity has become so popular that people might choose it over gyms even after the coronavirus is over. “When you’re no longer in a stationary place, suddenly you’re seeing all these different areas,” she said.
Papas also noted that an outdoor fitness area would help people stay healthy without a price tag.
Luis Vazquez-Wilhelm, a lifelong New Yorker, has a similar vision. He wants an outdoor fitness center built on the esplanade in Battery Park, close to where he lives. Vazquez-Wilhelm, nicknamed the “Mayor of the Financial District,” because of a popular Facebook page he created to promote the neighborhood, said he’s concerned about income inequality in the city, particularly for those who can’t afford gym memberships or fitness equipment.
“Everybody should have access to this,” said Vazquez-Wilhelm, about a free outdoor fitness area. “In times where people might not be gainfully employed, it’s a way for you to still get exercise.”
Miller, a fitness enthusiast and bicycle commuter, said when the coronavirus shut down the gyms, she saw more people taking to the esplanade to exercise in the fresh air, bringing their own equipment and even personal trainers.
“If you create something, people will come,” she said. “Everyone loves the water, you know, and it’s landscaped, and the sun is out. It’s just going to be an attractive feature. And it’s also social.”
After she presents the petition to the community board, Ratner said she’ll approach the Parks Department and elected officials, adding that the pandemic has changed the way people live and that outdoor space will always be desired.
“To be by a waterfront is just a human affinity,” said Ratner. “It would be something not just delightful and surprising, but also really practical and used.”