By Joy & Brian Pape
This article has been published in honor of the late Maggie Berkvist, photographer, who was to work with us on this column. We often spent time with her at the Hudson River Park.
It was a chilly and cloudy January day when we interviewed Russell Dungan, who was 51 years of age and the Senior Horticultural Technician of the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT). The fountain at the end of Christopher Street was the ideal setting, where for the first time, live plants adorned the fountain basin during the winter shut-down.
Dungan pulled up in his little custom made two-seater cart, built to fit between the protective bollards (posts designed to prevent automotive vehicles from colliding or crashing into pedestrians and structures) on the Greenway. In 2017 a terrorist attacker in a pickup truck drove onto the bike pathway and killed several people while injuring many others. In response, new bollards and barriers sprang up at intersections to prevent vehicles from accessing the bike pathways.
We first met Russell during the lockdown time of the pandemic. We think of him as our Unsung Hero, who improved our quality of life then and continues to do so now. Don’t let his official title fool you: Russell is a jack-of-all-trades worker. Whatever needs to be done around the park, Russell is there to do it (except for trades that need a special license, like electrical). He won’t take the credit, since he often speaks of being a part of a great team.
Russell described the work he does by the four seasons:
Winter: Cleaning up is constant. If there is snow, that snow must be cleared from all walking areas. Winter is a good time to work on the irrigation system, which is extensive and well designed, but rats and mice are also attracted to it. The plastic piping and drip sections seem to be tasty for the rodents. Once they puncture a line, that can diminish the rest of the system.
Spring: It’s time to cut back plants, plant new ones, fertilize and mulch. “It’s a ‘crazy’ and ‘chaotic’ time for the whole crew!”
Summer: Watering and irrigation is paramount, plus mowing the lawns. There are also many fundraising events for the HRPT Friends and other civic groups to prepare, organize and cleanup after.
Fall: “Lawns are reseeded and fertilized with slow-release fertilizer for the winter. “People don’t realize there’s a lot growing during the winter that needs to be fed.” And, trees get pruned. The HRPT has a contract with the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) to maintain the bike right-of-way. Since the bollards have been installed in the bike pathways, the crew is not able to use large equipment, like cherry-picker boom trucks. So, they must prune trees with smaller equipment.
Russell grew up in Pensacola Florida, and earned a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Florida, Gainesville. He played guitar and drums in local bands in Florida, and loves surfing.
He moved to New York City in 2003 with his bandmates to pursue their music careers. They played at Village venues. “I still play, but only at home or with friends.” At the same time, Russell got a job at the HRPT in 2003, when it was still a rather limited and barren shoreline. “There was a lot of partying going on then.”
Over the years at HRPT, Russell has seen many changes. Drawn to the outdoor environment of HRPT, he has observed the change of ‘clientele’ that are also drawn to the park’s features. In the early years, when fewer people were aware of the development of the new shoreline park, the young party crowd would often party through the night and into the morning hours, even after the park ‘reopened’ and the staff came around to clean up; he does not see that kind of partying much anymore. The park users have gotten more diverse, young and old, local and foreign. “During the pandemic, with so many working from home, the park got even busier with more runners, walkers, exercisers, fishers, and bikers. And the bike paths have changed; now there are more e-bikes, e-scooters, mopeds, and skaters, so the density and pace has changed. Those scooters go fast and can be dangerous.”
The damage created by Hurricane Sandy back in 2012, created many changes and chief among those was saltwater inundation poisoning many trees and plants along the park. Russell discovered the day after, that the Styrofoam blocks used to form the contours of the pier’s planted areas had been forced up by the surging water, creating earthquake-like eruptions of the ground, exposing the Styrofoam. “The damage was horrendous.”
During the pandemic, Russell and the other employees of the HRPT were essential workers, on a reduced schedule, but were required for in-person presence. Russell lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, so he must commute daily. Normally, he bikes or takes the ‘L’ subway line, but during the pandemic, he biked to work more often, even sleeping overnight at the office rather than expose himself to crowds on the train. He remembered, “I was unsure of what to avoid, what to disinfect, what to touch.”
Russell described his job as great. His favorite parts are being outdoors, beingby the water and spending time with his co-workers.Besides working in the HRPT, Russell has other interactions with the West Village. He works out at the New York Sports Club, (NYSC), 225 Varrick Street. He gets breakfast at Norberto Deli AKA West Village Deli 690 Washington Street, “It’s great!”
When asked, since you are the Senior Horticulture Technician, what is your favorite plant in the park, he told us, “I don’t really have a favorite plant. I like them all.”
Say hello and thank you to Russell, our Unsung Hero! We do.
About the authors: Joy Pape is a board-certified nurse practitioner, author and writer. Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board. He is also Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, a LEED-AP “Green” certified architect, and a journalist specializing in architecture subjects. They love living in the Village since 2009.