What it’s really like to work
for Parks and Rec
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we spoke with four government workers who help keep our public green spaces
Employee A applied for a camp counselor position in New Jersey, and has returned to the job every year for the past three years.
Employee B was an independent contractor for New Jersey Parks for a summer, supervising kids and hosting events.
Employee C is a former administrator of New York Parks, who left the job nearly two decades ago.
Employee D is a high-powered lawyer who worked as a playground associate in New York nine years ago.
EMPLOYEE A: I worked at Stonebrook Park in Monmouth County for the past three summers, mostly as a camp counselor. I heard about it through a magazine in my town. I applied for the arts aspect of it.
EMPLOYEE B: I was a camp counselor, which is an independent contractor position. I was hired by the Monmouth County Parks Department to do random jobs, such as hosting camps, birthday parties, and events. I went on their website to find the job. I was interested in theatre, and they had an opening. I was living in suburban New Jersey, and needed a way to make money that I felt was productive both to myself and to the state.
It was nice. It was relaxing. But, overall, it was very uneventful and boring. I felt underqualified for the position of shaping the minds of New Jersey’s next generation. But it seemed like no one else wanted to do it. So, maybe I was overqualified after all?
EMPLOYEE C: I came to New York from another state, kind of checking out jobs that I thought could be interesting. Somebody suggested the Parks Department and gave me a contact. I started out in the Manhattan Borough Office—that’s the office of the Manhattan Borough Commissioner. Each borough has its own commissioner, and then there’s an uber-commissioner. I was doing fundraising and special events in Manhattan. Then I switched to being the manager of a recreation center park. By making small improvements over time, we tripled and then quadrupled the center’s attendance. All of my work has been managerial.
Employee D: I was a playground associate in New York. Every summer, in each borough, they hire people who basically just hang out at the playground all day, and put on programs for kids. I think they had about 20 people in each borough, usually one or two per park depending on the size. I was by myself. They give you a whole bunch of crap like art supplies and sports equipment, and all that junk. And you’re basically supposed to create a program—they don’t really give you any guidelines or hold you that closely to them. As long as you’re doing something to attract kids to the park and create a positive environment, you’re fine.
It’s essentially camp counseling, but with less formality, in terms of whether or not the kids have to stay there for certain hours of the day or even overnight. It’s up to the kids to come and go as they please. You don’t really have to chaperone them. At any point, they can just be like, “I’m done. I’m going home.”
I had to work on Saturdays and that was rough—especially in my youth, at the height of my partying. I don’t know how observant the kids were, but occasionally on a Saturday morning I may have had a little bit of alcohol still in me from the night before. It happens.
Stoners and loners
Employee A: My coworkers are mainly college and high school students. Sometimes, teachers do this as a summer job as well. It beats working at a coffee shop or bookstore or something. Everyone here is pretty outgoing and easygoing. I started out shy. Through being a counselor I definitely opened up a lot more, and I’m able to lead a group a lot better. Everyone gets along really well, considering most of the camps require two or more counselors. People here are pretty creative. They can come up with games and challenges on the spot if they have to. It’s a good skill to have if anything should come up. I think the biggest part is that they’re good with kids.
Employee B: I work with a lot of university undergrads and seniors who are about to go to college. Mainly, it’s people that are trying to build up their resume to reflect things like organizational and leadership skills. They’re also people who smoke a lot of weed.
Then, there were middle-aged suburban moms and dads that ran things like development and fundraising. This one woman made silly faces and did silly voices. She had clearly been one of those theater kids in high school. You’d be in an elevator with her, and she’s singing showtunes. That’s the mix: a few passive-aggressive older people and a lot of college and high school kids who were stoned all the time. Yup, that’s who people send their children to hang out with for the summer.
Employee C: There are many different job functions, which demand different levels of education. So, park workers in general—the ones you see in the park—range from blue collar workers in maintenance to college-educated employees in management. Back when I worked there, they also has a program where people on welfare were required to work in the parks. It was motivated by the idea that a lot of them hung out there anyway.
Employee D: At my park there was a park-keeper, which is basically like the park janitor. She was there most of the time, an older woman who’d probably done this her whole career. There was this guy who was related to her somehow but wasn’t a park employee, and she let him sleep in the park house. I never confirmed who he was or what he did, but he’d be on the playground before I got there, and he’d still be there after I left. I’m fairly certain that the Parks Department doesn’t allow people to work for 50 or 60 hour weeks, so there was something going on there that I didn’t quite fully understand.
But mostly the people who had my job were other young people who were mostly in high school or college. A lot of them had relatives who worked in the Parks Department.
New York City parks by the numbers
The total acreage stewarded by NYC Parks
The percentage of New York City land devoted to parks
The number of properties managed by NYC Parks
The number of monuments managed by NYC Parks
The number of playgrounds managed by NYC Parks
The number of athletic fields managed by NYC Parks
The number of public pools managed by NYC Parks
The number of trees overseen by NYC Parks
Employee A: Each week, I get a group of about 15 kids. I’d have them from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm. Basically, I just teach them games and exercises all day. Some weeks I teach them how to cook. Occasionally, we do a craft project. We also take field trips. We’ve gone to the beach. We’ve gone berry picking. We’ve gone to Sandy Hook to see the lighthouses. A lot of their parents work, so they need someone else to watch and occupy them. The day camp itself is kind of between a public service and a private endeavor. You definitely have to pay for it.
Employee B: The camps run about a week long each. We are assigned a co-counselor. Together, we plan the week, in terms of craft projects, games, or field trips. Once, we got old books from the eighties, with crafting ideas for milk cartons and pipe cleaners.
I’d show up at about 8:00 am, clock in, and drop my phone into a special bin because they didn’t want us using our phones. It makes sense if you’re in charge of a bunch of high school students who just want to stare at their phones the whole time, but it was also a problem because sometimes there would be an accident and we were physically unable to call anyone.
Sometimes we had staff meetings, around 9:00 am, where we planned camps that were coming in. From 9:30 am to 3:00 pm we’d be in camp. Then we’d all leave together, and go to someone’s basement to smoke a bunch of weed.
Employee C: I’m not sure there was a daily routine. You had to check in on any projects that either needed to be followed up with or implemented. Parks and Recreation handled several things: the maintenance of parks, fundraising for parks, and special events that took place in parks.
If you did a special event, it involved all of these separate departments, and included doing publicity, getting the supplies, and cleaning up the park. It could be a concert or a ribbon cutting or a marathon. Once, I was the Parks liaison for a medieval festival up in Fort Triumph Park. That entailed meeting with community people and local officials to coordinate logistics and get equipment to the area.
In addition, I ran a recreation center and its adjoining park. That entailed overseeing their day-to-day operations, everything ranging from programming to community outreach to fundraising to improve the grounds and facilities.
We also planted flowers and trees.
Employee D: I started about 8:00 or 9:00 am, and worked Tuesday to Saturday. There were a lot of kids in the park on Saturdays. Some people were a little more serious and fastidious about setting up a program. I was on a small playground so there weren’t a ton of kids, but if a group of them wanted to do arts and crafts stuff, I would get the supplies and oversee it. Or, if it was a bunch of teenage kids who want to play basketball, then I’d do that. The kids were coming all summer, so after the first day I knew most of them. I was wearing my Parks shirt the whole time—I was there to promote the park.
Employee A: I’ve counseled ages that ranged from kindergarten up to seventh grade (the system is organized by age levels). But most of the kids that go are kids of parents that work during the summer so they need something to keep them occupied. Instead of sitting at home watching TV all day, they can come and get exercise and meet other people. There’s usually a couple kids that already know each other, but for the most part, they’re all making new friends at camp.
The younger groups are better at listening and taking direction, but they can’t do complex activities as well as the older groups. And the older groups have more of an issue with obedience, but once you can gain their trust and they respect you, they start to learn so much quicker.
Employee B: I worked with some great kids. There was a thoughtful movement towards inclusivity and immersion at the camp, where campers with certain disabilities were tacitly included in the standard activities but were shadowed by an additional trained counselor in a way that was confidential and anonymous. Children of all backgrounds and abilities were represented in this camp, since it was the most affordable and most accessible. Some kids had developmental disorders. Others were deaf or blind, which I was clearly unqualified to handle, but it always worked out fine.
New York City recreation employees by the numbers
The number of recreation employees working in New York City
The mean hourly wage of New York City recreation employees
The mean annual wage of New York City recreation employees
Employee C: I worked during the Giuliani administration, which saw the introduction of WEP workers. These were people who were receiving public assistance and had to give back in the form of labor. It was a very problematic policy.
To some extent, it was useful a lot because most of the years I worked in parks, employee numbers kept declining, so it helped to make up for it with this additional labor. On the other hand, the extra labor allowed for the number of official employees to keep getting cut because the city was saving on employment costs. Overall, it was beneficial in the sense that a lot of these people ended up getting hired, whether as full-time or seasonal workers. For a lot of them, it was their first real job and the first time they had the opportunity to learn some skills.
I dealt with a number of the people who were on public assistance, and many of them enjoyed the work. You don’t usually think of it that way, but there’s something extremely satisfying about giving for what you’re getting. It’s not just charity, it’s a salary.
Employee D: The people in the park I worked at varied hugely. I’d worked in a couple of other parks, and it was a culture shock. If you’re in a park in Harlem or Bed Stuy, it’s a totally different story from a super hoity-toity park in Tribeca or Park Slope. In the nicer neighborhoods, every single kid has a nanny or is with whichever parent isn’t working. But if you’re in a poorer area, you’ll never see any parents, and the kids will always be alone. They tried to take that into account. For example, they weren’t going to put me—a tall, skinny white kid—in the ghetto. We had one Asian kid, and they placed him in Chinatown. I don’t know if that was an official policy, but it certainly worked out that way.
What I loved about New York City parks is that they’re open to everyone. It’s especially rewarding to work with poor kids whose main form of recreation is going to the park and hanging out all day. Or, you could go to another park, a mile or two away, and hang with some of the richest kids in the world. Parks bring people together, but unfortunately they’re also the first place where the city cuts funding.
There was one time I was in a nicer park on the Upper West Side. Generally, parents are okay, but in that part of town, a lot of them are really uptight. I was hanging out and joking around with the kids, and I started riding this girl’s Razor Scooter. She was maybe eight or so, and I thought it would be hilarious because I’m about 6’4”. This girl’s grandmother comes over like, “What are you doing? You’re gonna break it!” So I was like, “Alright. Alright. I’ll get off.” Later the girl came back to say she thought me riding the scooter was hilarious. So the woman returned, angrier than ever, and I realized she must’ve thought I was a child molester—nevermind that I was wearing a T-shirt with a huge Parks logo. That’s one thing you’re always afraid of. That’s the perils of being a grown man whose job is essentially to approach children on playgrounds.
Employee A: I love the fact that my job pays well for something I enjoy doing. I get to hang out with my brother, who also works there. It beats lifeguarding or sitting in an office. As a camp counselor, you’re always outside, having fun.
Employee B: Nope. Not especially.
Employee C: When I first came to the Parks Department there weren’t very many people that were interested in going to Shakespeare in the Park, so we would get comped tickets for a number of performances. Later, as its popularity grew, it became more difficult. But there were many perks for other events. Access to tennis courts. Free admission to concerts and the opera. If there was a big event like a superstar performing in Central Park, you had to do the prep work for it, so you got to see the show without having to stand in line. And, there was a special area for Parks Department people to sit.
Employee D: The pay was pretty good for what it was—I think I was making like $14 an hour. And, it was a lot of fun. If there was nobody in the park, I would just play basketball on the clock. It’s nice being outside. You get to meet people and hang out. One of my favorite parts was chatting with the au pairs. Most of them were older Caribbean women. They were funny. I’d shoot the shit with them. All in all, it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. It was easy and it was fun.
On the other hand, I’ve also worked the County Fair, which was a community festival with rides and deep-fried Oreos. I mostly picked up garbage. It was 12-hour, sometimes 16-hour shifts. We weren’t getting paid overtime because it’s a government job. The paperwork was strange, the responsibilities were strange. I went from babysitting children at a camp to collecting trash. It was really upsetting to some people, because it wasn’t in our job description.
Another thing is that, throughout the city, there are unofficial park improvement committees. The most powerful one is Central Park’s. Basically, they’re fundraising initiatives for private donors. They bring in a ton of money—more money than you can spend on one park. Meanwhile, other parks in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx are in bad shape. It’s unfortunate because there is a lot of uneven distribution in resources that are supposed to serve the general public.
Creeps and crazies
Employee A: We took a trip to the beach this past summer. There were only two counselors. There should have been three. But the kids turned out to be really well behaved. We all just hung out in the water together. It was fun because they hadn’t been the best behaved prior to that, but that day something strange happened. It didn’t feel like we were there to babysit them. It was more like having fun together as friends.
Employee B: Once, we built a community garden with lots of vegetables. No one anyone ended up eating them. Then, all the plants died.
Another time, a kid went into anaphylactic shock. He wasn’t even one of our kids. He was just visiting with his family. And we were trying to get the radios to work. And they weren’t working. One of my co-workers ran to the main building to get help because they had a lot of medical supplies. Needless to say, the kid lived.
Employee C: For winter events we would get huge coffee urns of hot chocolate, and we’d distribute it at events. That’s a really wonderful feeling. It’s nice to be in the cold outdoors and handing out a warm drink. It made a lot of people really happy. Another event we did was sledding. There was a huge snowstorm in the nineties, when the city was closed down. But we managed to keep the recreation center open for, I think, three or four people who also managed to get to the recreation center. The parks department was just on it.
I remember these elderly people who used to swim regularly at the recreation center and they were very vital to the park. For me, it was inspirational to see their vigor. They were a very interesting, engaged group of people: artists and writers and dancers and actors. For them, it was key to swim on a regular basis.
Things changed dramatically under Bloomberg, because there was a lot of money poured into the city and into the department. A lot of the parks were renovated. I was still an employee when they had all of the homeless removed from Tompkins Square Park, in a huge, midnight raid. At that point, it was an encampment. People had tents and everything. The Parks Department went in, and cleaned out the whole thing overnight.
Employee D: There were instances where you had to kick out adults. That was one of the more difficult parts of the job. Sometimes you’d have a crazy or creepy looking dude weirding out all the kids, and you had to try to get them to leave the park.
I never got into an altercation. I’m a pretty chilled-out guy. But the strange pseudo-employee of the park got into a real fight with this other guy. He was swinging a rake at him. They had a history that had escalated to this point. They tell you that you’re supposed to call Parks Enforcement Control, which are the park cops. I didn’t end up calling them, mainly because I was working with this nutty guy who may or may not have been an official employee.
Central Park receives 42 million visitors annualy