The Gardens and Landscape
The Park sits atop nearly five acres of landfill, creating a truly urban feel to the waterfront landscape. Over 90 varieties of trees and plant life blanket the park, from birch trees to weeping willows, from daffodils to roses.
Plant Specialists has been a major supporter of the Park for over two decades, offering landscaping and horticultural expertise, as well as as generously donating the time of a seasonal horticulturalist. Many of the trees, plant life, and gardens you’ll find throughout the Park have been given to us by Plant Specialists.
Director of Grounds & Horticulture Eric Mathews
APRIL 22, 2020
The Park’s Director of Grounds & Horticulture, Eric Mathews, is an invaluable asset to the staff. He has worked with the Park in many capacities over the years and shared his story with us at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic:
“About ten years ago I started a non-profit called Minor Miracles to help provide life-changing opportunities to kids in my childhood community. With support from Socrates’ staff, I created specialized programming to spur the growth and artistic development of children living in Astoria Houses.
“In 2018, I was offered and accepted a seat on the board of the Park. The appointment honored both Minor Miracles and the Astoria Houses community, revealing Socrates’ commitment to liberty and equality for all. The following year, I transitioned from Park Board Member to full-time staff member when I was hired as the Director of Grounds & Horticulture.
“As a staff member at Socrates, I have the chance to work with super creative and progressive thinkers while also helping my community. I am realized! Over the past year, I have come to see just how vital Socrates is: on a very crowed peninsula with little parkland, people come from all over to take in the outdoor art, community programming, and greenery. I have come to know frequent Park-goers’ faces and know the joy that the beauty of nature brings to them.
“Upon the outbreak of Covid-19, I could sense the change of the mood in the Park. As social distancing and sheltering in place became the norm, I knew people would need a place to just meditate. Over the past weeks, Park-goers have been using the space in a very organized and respectful way. Every day I am overwhelmed by visitors’ thanks and appreciation. I feel blessed to serve my community and Socrates in these historic times.”
More About Eric
As if he were an urban cowboy, Eric Mathews can often be spotted In Astoria, Queens, zooming down a neighborhood road on his bike, wearing sunglasses and a straw hat. Mathews, who is the executive director of Minor Miracles, an organization that focuses on promoting youth fitness and fighting childhood obesity in Astoria, has worked in collaboration with Socrates Sculpture Park since 2011. As Mathews looks back, he can clearly remember the stormy autumn day when Socrates hosted their first Minor Miracle’s event, Day of Play.
Despite however many tents that were upturned that day, a partnership was nonetheless formed between Minor Miracles and Socrates. By 2012 one Day of Play became the annual Days of Heroes series, inaugurated as a month-long program for teens to gain new perspectives on civic career paths in the NYC Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services Division, NYC Police Department, and the United States Coast Guard. Mathews expresses that running into participating students in the neighborhood is one of the highlights of the program. He shares, “When I walk through the community, kids say ‘Hey Mr. Eric! What are we going to do this year? That’s what keeps me going.”
Days of Heroes, which just wrapped up its third season, was conducted on Tuesdays and Thursdays May 12 through June 25. Each week representatives from one of the four public service departments gave interactive presentations on what it would entail to become a firefighter, policeman, emergency medical technician, or coast guard. Afterwards, the participants were given an opportunity to perform the physical routines that are a daily necessity of each respective academy.
Each series culminates in a workshop and obstacle course with Socrates Sculpture Park’s Shaun Leonardo, who works with the teens to break down the meaning of a superhero, so each participant can identify the qualities that they aspire to achieve, or might already have instilled within them.
For Mathews, the significance of the program comes from providing teens with the opportunity to gain first-hand insight into the community’s local heroes, rather than simply witnessing a patrol car making its rounds through the neighborhood. “We’ve had kids age out of our program and come back as interns with their heads on their shoulders,” says Mathews. To him, seeing students grow up to remember this program is an indicator of its impact on the community. Days of Heroes seeks to remind them that Socrates is their park as well. At the end of the day, as Mathews says, “You never know when you will reach a child.”
In Memory of Yousif Dawud
November 17, 2015
During our conversation on a unseasonably warm afternoon, Yousif Dawud casually shakes a tree, which lets loose a handful of pears. He picks them up, washes them with a nearby hose, and takes a bite out of the ripest one. As he walks on, he points out the other fruit trees and plant species that have been successfully grown at Socrates Sculpture Park. Looking around at the lush greenery that adorns the park’s pathways, it becomes difficult to believe that when the park was founded, it was a landfill and dumping site.
When asked if he has a favorite plant, Yousif replies, “I can’t say only one, that would be unfair!” However, he later confesses to liking Japanese Maple trees just a smidgen more than he does other types of plants. As the site’s resident horticulturist, Yousif has been bringing gardens and groves to the park since 2005. He works with Socrates through Plant Specialists, a Long Island City-based company that designs, maintains, and installs indoor and outdoor gardens. The landscaping company has played a critical role in developing and supporting the park’s Community Works Initiative, a program that engages local residents in employment and job training in the areas of landscaping and horticulture. Plant Specialists has also donated the majority of the plants and trees that are found throughout park premises.
Today Yousif is planting 500 daffodil bulbs the park received from the NYC Parks Department as part of New Yorkers for Parks’ annual Daffodil Project. These efforts will be largely unnoticed until early spring, when hundreds of daffodils will bloom and bring the season’s first blast of color to the park’s gardens.
In Jordan, Yousif received a Bachelor’s degree in agriculture, and when he came to the U.S., he originally settled in Mississippi to study for a Master’s degree, but relocated to New York not long after. “Life was too boring there,” he says, now in his 38th year in New York City. He lives in Queens with his wife, and his two children are now in their early twenties. At home, Yousef doesn’t garden, since living in an apartment in the city makes tending to plants a difficult task to accomplish. At the park, however, Yousif is constantly caring for the greenery that is flourishing.
As various components of the gardens grow and die every day, Yousif and his team maintain constant upkeep to make sure that the flowers, shrubs, and trees are getting the nutrients that meet their individual needs. “The ground here is not so great for plants sometimes,” Yousef says, referring to the abundance of sand and rocks found in the park dirt, which results from the park’s past as an industrial dump site. “You have to pay a lot of attention.”
Every spring around Earth Day, Socrates welcomes students from the Baccalaureate School for Global Education to the park for a day of spring cleaning, preparing the park for a new season. Students dig, plant, mulch, water, clean, and beautify the park, with Yousif as a resource for advice, tips, training. He feels that it is important for young kids to learn the value and importance of environmental awareness and garden maintenance.
Yousif points out apple trees, plum trees, and a grape vine, among other fruit species around the park. “The plums, they are not so great yet,” he shares. These trees stand among bushes and flowers that Yousif easily identifies as he passes by them. “When you are into something, you have to know everything about it,” he says of a row of shrubs that line the waterfront rail. “Improving the garden and landscaping isn’t an easy job,” Yousif continues, “but one of the best things you will ever have in your life are plants.”