Parks Series


A City Eagle series: The Syracuse Parks Conservancy

City Hall votes YES for Syracuse Park Conservancy

By Ellen Leahy

City Hall voted unanimously to implement a Syracuse Park Conservancy (SPC) on Monday Sept. 28. Eastwood resident and Sunnycrest Park board member Mike Behnke said he was honored to be named its first president.

A conservancy is a private non-profit citizens’ group that works together with the city’s Park and Recreation Department toward a more vibrant and active parks system.  Its goal is to aid in maintaining the parks through proper planning and fund raising for additional moneys to keep the parks up and functioning.

“Rory McMahan with the city’s Law Department was very helpful,” Behnke said of what he called a long and winding road.

The committees will be formed at the first meeting of the SPC on Thursday Oct. 22 at the Palace Theatre in Eastwood.

The SPC would like to see each neighborhood that surrounds a city park, form a park’s association. This way the neighbors can be active in the park’s maintenance and utilization. There are already such groups at Onondaga Park, Thorndon, Sunnycrest and more.

The idea of the SPC came out of the very active Sunnycrest Park Association. Behnke said one of their members, John Mariani, explained what these volunteers do very well when he said, “See that moon up there, what we do is take care of the dark side.”

Behnke said most of Syracuse’s parks were formed when the population was much greater. The SPC will also need to engage the immigrant population in Syracuse and welcome it into the parks. For example, Vietnamese youths are playing soccer in open green space on Lodi Street in their north side neighborhood that is really Rosehill Cemetery, where Syracuse’s first mayor is buried. It’s essentially hallowed ground, meanwhile there is open green space unused in many of the City’s parks.

Behnke who hails from Jersey City via the Bronx said seven years ago he couldn’t tell one tree from another. Now firmly planted in Syracuse he was watching the recent Ken Burns  National Parks Series on PBS and thought, “They were people like me.”

And, Behnke understands that it takes a city to maintain its parks. He credits the hard work of the parks department, the DPW, city hall, the police and firemen, the schools and the many citizens who are engaged in their neighborhood parks.

For now, the SPC is ready to engage in the process of helping the city to bring all its parks into the 21st century. According to the Syracuse Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Program’s Web site, there are approximately 172 parks and green spaces in Syracuse, so the group has plenty of work ahead. Which also translates into lots of hours of outdoor activity if any resident must be interested in getting involved. It’s a great way to stay or even get in shape, Behnke said.

He also noted the first thing his wife did when she introduced him to her hometown of Syracuse, was to bring him to Lincoln Park. That park was the centerpiece of her childhood. The idea is to introduce a new generation, or reintroduce residents to the positive benefits of engagement in one’s neighborhood park.

“Hopefully in a 100 years they’ll look back and say we did it right,” Behnke said.

To contact Behnke, go to For more information on the Department of Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs refer to: or call 473-4330.

SPC Board of Trustees:

Mike Behnke – President

Emanuel Carter – Vice President

Mike Massurin

Martin Sage

Chris Wiles

Rachna Vas

George Matthews

Sally Carmer

Clark Burdick

Eric Persons

Carol Simpson

Dave Maynard

SPC Mission

The mission of the Syracuse Parks Conservancy is to ensure that all Syracuse parks, public lands and the habitats therein are sustainably protected, restored, enhanced and developed for the educational, recreational and wellness uses of our citizens and their guests; we will accomplish this by directing and managing these lands and facilities in a public-private partnership with the

City of Syracuse.

The City Eagle’s Park Conservancy Series will go into the City Park’s with the newly established SPC president for a review of each park. Send us your thoughts and ideas  to

Ellen Leahy

Mike Behnke with German poets Goethe and Schiller in the North Side’s Schiller Park.


Syracuse Park Conservancy series

Join the City Eagle next week for a walk through Schiller Park with Syracuse Parks Conservancy President Mike Behnke.

Syracuse Parks Conservancy Mission: The mission of the Syracuse Parks Conservancy is to ensure that all Syracuse parks, public lands and the habitats therein are sustainably protected, restored, enhanced and developed for the educational, recreational and wellness uses of our citizens and their guests; we will accomplish this by directing and managing these lands and facilities in a public-private partnership with the

City of Syracuse.


Syracuse Park Conservancy series

Scoping out the Northside’s Schiller Park

By Ellen Leahy

Without Syracuse Parks Conservancy President Mike Behnke as guide, I might not of noticed all the oaks in Syracuse’s Schiller Park. But it’s true, outlining Schiller Park are many grand oaks. He said perhaps because the Park does have an Oak Street entrance and also the park was created while the neighborhood was predominantly German and the Oak tree was a sentimental favorite.

Behnke also pointed out buckthorn an invasive species that tends to take over a forest setting. This bush was partly responsible for the oaks being more obscure. The park with its lovely hilltop that overlooks the Syracuse skyline could use a little work. Behnke hopes to enlist volunteers from the Schiller Park neighborhood to help bring the park back to its more upstanding state.

Beside the buckthorn, Behnke doesn’t like the fact that the road is now blocked. Residents can no longer take a drive through the park as was an original intent. Perhaps because of law and order problems the roads were closed, but Behnke would like to see the park opened back up and the neighborhood welcome all four seasons. Some of our older residents can’t really walk that far, he said.

Cosmo Fenizzi said he played in Schiller Park as a boy and didn’t really understand the relevance of the two men at its western gate – Schiller and Goethe – until he was much older. The two men were German writers and scholars that were actually friends, who lived in the late 1700s into the 19th century.

Fenizzi agrees with Behnke that the road should be opened back up.

Why not take a visit to Schiller Park for yourself and see what perhaps you might be able to contribute to this classic park’s environment in the form of care.  Get involved in your neighborhood park, healthy parks promote a healthy city.

Syracuse Parks Conservancy Mission: The mission of the Syracuse Parks Conservancy is to ensure that all Syracuse parks, public lands and the habitats therein are sustainably protected, restored, enhanced and developed for the educational, recreational and wellness uses of our citizens and their guests; we will accomplish this by directing and managing these lands and facilities in a public-private partnership with the City of Syracuse.

Go to for more information.

German literary figures Schiller and Goethe behind bars at Schiller Park’s western entrance (left); There is a magnificent view of Syracuse’s skyline from Schiller’s hilltop (above). One of the many oaks (inset).

Behnke and his nemesis buckthorn.


City Eagle Parks Conservancy series

The city’s largest park: Burnet Park

By Ellen Leahy

The Syracuse Parks Conservancy Director, Mike Behnke, told me to meet him on Grand Avenue at the Veterans Memorial in Burnet Park, “you know the one Dick Case wrote about,” he said.

“Sure,” I said.

I hung up and thought, “now where is that?” I’m a big fan of the Post Standard’s Dick Case, but sadly I don’t catch every column. Behnke had mentioned, “off of Geddes Street.”

I arrived early and perused the park starting up top from Tipp Hill on Coleridge Avenue. Autumn was whispering in Burnet’s yellow maples and red oaks; and the rolling golf course was still green. The pool was closed, the ball fields empty and playground quiet. I drove around trying to figure out where this Veterans Memorial was, and found one on – but that wasn’t Grand Avenue. So, I continued circling clockwise around the perimeter of the park, to the zoo, then by ARC of Onondaga off Wilbur Avenue, and low and behold, a street I often traveled off Geddes to get to Velasko – Grand Avenue.

Behnke was standing by what seemed an identical memorial to the one I had just visited up top.

“What’s up with this?” I asked.

“This one was buried under debris for many years,” he said. “Before the golf course Grand was a major entrance.”

Four years ago volunteers took on the dark side of the park. Consider that when many of the great Syracuse Parks were established the city was prosperous and also more populated. Over the years the park’s conditions have taken a toll because of mounting costs. The city’s parks department has focused on upkeep of facilities such as ballfields, rinks, golf courses and swimming pools, plus programming. The whole idea of the Parks Conservancy is to back this city department up with fundraising efforts and the recruitment of volunteer services from city residents throughout neighborhoods that surround the parks.

Behnke was introduced to Burnet by Ed McLaughlin a long time Burnet Park advocate. The idea is to help the city clean up the Grand Avenue side of the park, which borders Skunk City. Behnke said a year into their efforts, local newscaster Jim Reith from 570 WSYR, joined forces to help clean up the upper part of Monument Drive off of Grand Avenue. Every year he gathers a slue of volunteer to help in the park.

Behnke said, on the lower portion volunteers have worked with student volunteers from the SUNY’s ESF. Each August 50 students arrive together for a four-hour period and help clean out the choking brush. He also wanted to publicly extend an apology for working the students so hard this year. But suddenly former stonework built by the WPA in the early part of the 20th century appeared, the second Veterans Memorial and even a view of Harbor Brook.

“This area connects one poor neighborhood to another,” Behnke said with a child’s wonder.

He said he can just hear the kids saying look what we have here; in that you have woodland as cool as any suburb but also there are tigers. Tigers!? The backside of the Zoo dips down and one can wander along the rear fence of the Zoo’s tiger exhibit. There is plenty of forest to play in or stroll in and fauna, too. Just then three white tail deer bolted by.

“See what I mean,” he said.

We walked up the street to look at the progress ESF students had made this past summer spied a coyote.
“That’s why the deer were on the run,” I said.

So many other dedicated people are involved in the clean up efforts Behnke said, like Peter O’Connor from the city’s Department of Public Works. He set up a light so the Grand Avenue Veterans Memorial would be lit at night.

Joe Kelly is one of the Park’s workers who keeps an eye on the dark side, helping to keep up the work of the many volunteers.

“He’s excellent,” Behnke said.

More on the city’s largest park in next week’s City Eagle.

All photos by Ellen Leahy

Grand Avenue’s Burnet Park (top): Look closely, how many deer do you see? This is Jim Reith’s section of the park (just above).

Ellen Leahy

Coyote on the prowl for some venison in Burnet Park Friday, Oct. 30.


Native American Summer: Roses are still blooming up at Thorndon Park’s Rose Garden in the University section.


The City Eagle Parks Conservancy series

Pat Hogan on Burnet Park

By Ellen Leahy

Lifelong Syracuse resident Pat Hogan the Common Councilor for District 2 walks or runs in Burnet Park everyday. He also worked for the Parks Department for several decades.

“It’s part of the fabric of the Tipp Hill neighborhood,” he said. “The park is so full of people all the time that you always feel safe up there.”
He noted that the City’s Parks Department just finished a very successful wellness program at Burnet Park directed by Upstate Medical Center’s Dr. Dale Avers, called Fit Parks Health Chat Series.

Ed McLaughlin longtime West Side resident, who grew up nestled in the foothills of the park, said the 9-hold par 3 golf course was built in the early part of the 20th century (1901) but went into disrepair in the 1950s and 60s.

McLaughlin is also a retired city of Syracuse policeman. He ran free in the park as a child, but noted that in the later half of the 20th century some of the roads had to be closed because of vandalism. He said it’s not that the kids are bad. It’s just that they aren’t getting the discipline at home. He noted that the kids respond, it’s just that no one every told them, “No.” He said when you do they respond.

Hogan was involved with the park at the time of the road closures. He said it had to be done because of the major investment the city made in the golf course. He also said luckily there is a lot of roadway still open in Burnet for residents who want to take a drive in the park.

Hogan said consider that 35 years ago the park budget was $5.5 million, now it is $7.7 million that isn’t exactly in step with inflation. And, as important as the parks are to the quality of life in Syracuse, they have to come behind police and fire and other necessary services.

Burnet is 88 acres. Consider that the park department’s acreage is growing all the time, with more than a 1,000 acres. Hogan said that the city’s new creekwalk would probably fall under the parks department.

“We get a lot of bang for the buck with our Parks Department,” he said. “But the addition of volunteer efforts have made major improvements – it’s great to have such dedicated people, as Syracuse’s Parks are one of the great things about this city.”

Next week will be back at Burnet with more from Ed McLaughlin and also a visit with Robert Oberst. To get involved in the new Syracuse Parks Conservancy go to

Ellen Leahy

Upper Burnet Park hangs onto to its Autumn glory until November, when it all falls down (below).


The City Eagle Parks Conservancy series

Burnet Park III: Park Veterans Ed McLaughlin and Robert Oberst

By Ellen Leahy

In 1967 Robert Oberst was in the Army attending to civil insurgence (the race riots) in the city of Newark, NJ. Meanwhile, Ed McLaughlin was in the Navy serving his country in the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the USS Intrepid (which is now a floating museum in Manhattan).

Today, the two men are working together on their neighborhood park, Syracuse’s Burnet Park. They are part of the Burnet Park Association Pending (BPAP). The pending means the group hasn’t garnered enough steam to really gain momentum of its own. McLaughlin said he is hoping the new Syracuse Parks Conservancy will be a catalyst for the BPAP to grow members. He said it is important for people to take part in their own park, because if it is only strangers (ESF students) doing the work there isn’t as much ownership.

“What’s the use if strangers come into a neighborhood and clean up,” he said, “you have to get people involved.”

Can you image Syracuse’s Far West Side without Burnet Park?

Burnet Park was named for the gentleman who gave the land to the city of Syracuse to be used as parkland upon his death in 1886. Oddly enough, it was in the town of Geddes at the time. Oberst said Major Burnet’s family contested the will, but lost. They had wanted it to remain in Geddes and were thinking more like selling it for use as a housing development.

By the way, the Far West Side, where the park is located, used to be the West Side, but now its called the Far West Side to distinguish it from the Near West Side. The Far West Side encompasses – Skunk City or what some residents think of as Harbor Brook or even lower Tipp Hill together with Tipp Hill. But Tipp Hill also has many different boundary lines according to who you are talking to. The best guess it that it makes for a lot of good conversation near the many taps in the Far West Side neighborhood.

Growing up near the park

Ed McLaughlin is living in his childhood home on Holden Street off of Grand Avenue that he refers to as nestled in the foothills of Burnet Park. Certainly not Skunk City or lower Tipp Hill as that would bother someone named McKenna.

McLaughlin is a retired Syracuse Policeman, a veteran, former member of the Syracuse city school board, a one-time business owner on Geddes Street, a relation to the industrious Skaneateles Teasel concern McLaughlins and now a school bus driver. In short a real American guy. He actually introduced Mike Behnke (the new parks conservancy director) to the Grand Avenue side of the park, or the dark side of Burnet Park.

“They named it Grand Avenue because at one time it was a grand entrance into the city,” McLaughlin said.

Behnke said McLaughlin once said to him, “I’d rather light a candle than complain about the darkness.” That pretty much sums up McLaughlin’s can do attitude. He said he is encouraged about the Parks Conservancy because it will bring more attention and hopefully money to the parks.

As a child in the 1950 he played in the park, as did all the surrounding neighborhood kids.

As a retired police officer he recommends the city taking a step or two back to when the police had their own dispatch. Before the county’s 911, it was quite effective watching over city neighborhoods. He said both the dispatcher and the territory car would know the people in the neighborhood. And the residents knew the cops, too.

“I used to chase people around and you would know where they were and who they were,” he said. “The citizens felt safe – kept crime rate down.”

On vandalism in the park he said a lot of times the kids just didn’t know any better and when he talked to them they responded.

“They weren’t getting it at home, no one had ever told them, ‘No,’” he said.

McLaughlin encourages anyone to come by the Grand Avenue side of the park and to take a walk through the amazing stonework that was done during by the WPA. Actually, he has tried to resurrect the original plans to no avail. So if you can help – contact Behnke at and he will put you in touch with McLaughlin.

Next week more on Burnet Park as Oberst explains how the city Zoo became part of the county.

Ed McLaughlin, left, and Robert Oberst are two fans of  Burnet Park enthusiast. Oberst is holding an original plan of the park.


The City Eagle Parks Conservancy series

Burnet Park IV: Robert Oberst’s view

Last week we met Robert Oberst up at Burnet Park with longtime Syracuse resident Ed McLaughlin.

By Ellen Leahy

Robert Oberst lives on Morton. He actually grew up in the Bronx and came to Syracuse’s Parks with the same admiration as Syracuse Park’s Conservancy President Mike Behnke (also from the Bronx) – as their parks were mostly made of concrete.

Oberst, a history major, never worked in the field. Instead he uses the discipline in community work. He has a great collection of old postcards, which includes many of Burnet Park. He also has an early map of the park, which shows a lake in the plan. He said the early city park pools were all manmade natural pools, but were eliminated in the 1930 for health reasons and replaced with concrete pools.

His research on the zoo is fascinating in that in 1914 it was a 14-acre city zoo hosting local animals such as bear, elk and deer. In the 1970s it expanded to 44 acres and became a county operation hosting more exotic animals. It was really a result of vandalism perpetrated by two young men, who killed 40 birds as well as other animals.

“Sometimes a bad thing happens and it inspires a lot of good,” he said.

Oberst added that you have to remember that Syracuse was once an affluent city, but that all started to change drastically in the 1970s. This is when the Friends of the Zoo was established. He said it raised a tremendous amount of money, but couldn’t take care of the day to day operations, so the county took over.

Oberst said Park’s Commissioner Pat Driscoll has been phenomenal because he has an open ear – there hasn’t always been money, but this is where Oberst hopes the Park’s Conservancy will come in.

Regular City Eagle readers may recognize Oberst as a contributing Poet.

This morning, while others went

On their busy way,

I stopped to notice

A strong and stately eight point buck

As he quickly moved

Down a hill through a thicket

In Burnet Park.

He then crossed a well traveled

Road called Grand Ave.

Into a marshy basin

Biseted by Harbor Brook

And disappeared.

About an hour later

As I traveled the opposite way

On that same Grand Ave.

I spotted that identical buck

As he again crossed Grand Ave.

To return to Burnet Park

Possibly in search of a doe.

It is a real blessing

To live in a neighborhood

Where wildlife and people

Can live and perhaps even thrive

In green spaces together.

Robert L. Oberst

Robert Oberst has an extensive, well archived collection of hand painted old post cards of Syracuse, which includes these four of Burnet Park (zoo) from the first half on the 20th century.