By Jamie Jensen
There is a quiet reawakening happening at Rye Town Park that extends beyond the park director, the Commission, and the staff. Thirty years after its remarkable start,Friends of Rye Town Park, an all-volunteer organization with a storied history and a core of donors, is thriving and reimagining the waterfront park. This is my tribute to two of its current leaders, David Rasmussen and Diana Page.
As a Rye resident since 2010, I am an advocate for our 62-acre crown jewel. I attend Park Commission meetings, engage on issues, organize beach cleanups, co-manage the Rye Town Park Alliance Facebook page, and often write in this publication about the park. For most of the last decade, however, I paid little attention to the Friends, until Diana Page convinced me otherwise.
In the spring of 2019, I attended a Friends’ meeting with longtime members David Rasmussen, Charles Northshield, Vicki Farrington, and Beth Griffin Matthews, and a cadre of women with younger children, Jill Somerville, Katy Ridley, and Kathryn Kubursi. Russell Gold had just been appointed the new park director and I was excited to see some change. And that is exactly what happened. On that quiet evening in the Girl Scout Room at the Rye Rec Damiano Center, Diana Page walked out of her first meeting as the new President of the Friends.
Three years later, Rye Town Park has benefitted tremendously from Diana’s leadership. Reflecting on that moment three years ago, Diana shared why she is such a strong supporter: “I love this park. I am in it every day and think it’s a jewel. I saw the park needed some T.L.C. and knew there was so much more we could do.” Diana was initially focused on the “beautification” aspects of the park. She saw the aging tower building, bathhouse, and pathways and knew the park needed a refresh. As she came to know the space better, she envisioned programming opportunities and other enhancements.
David Rasmussen is the oldest current member of the Friends of Rye Town Park Board. He grew up across the street on Forest Avenue. He skated on the pond in winter and enjoyed summers at the beach. Living in Port Chester and working as a teacher at Rye Country Day School in the decades that followed, he and his wife continued to be regular users of the park. As David recalled, “In the 1990’s, the park was in considerable disrepair. There was no lighting, everything was overgrown. A dilapidated chain link fence ran along the beachfront path. The Duck Pond was a quarter the size it is today, having been filled in to allow for more space to park cars.” He continued, “On a good beach day, the cars would park all the way over the hill toward the beach and north toward Rye Beach Avenue. The park became a parking lot. The staff was overwhelmed by the maintenance demands.”
In 1991, Chet Williams, an early member of the Rye Rangers and old neighborhood friend, recruited David and other locals to incorporate the Friends of Rye Town Park. Under the leadership of Chet, Dennis Buckley, Chris Cohan, Clint Phy, and David, among others, a plan was drafted, a state grant and private dollars raised, and the park, pond, and beach promenade were brought back to their original glory. David was a vice president through much of this period and served as board president from 1997-2001. Today, he is once again in a leadership role as vice president.
When asked what keeps him involved, David replied, “The beauty of this place. It is marvelous to be so attached to a place that holds such good memories.”
When asked what the Friends is working on, Diana shared, “Friends has a very clear mission. We raise money to help beautify the park in environmentally sustainable ways. We are not just about planting flower gardens; we are planting pollinators in our gardens. We are not just focused on keeping our lawn green; we want our lawn care to be environmentally sound.”
With help from the Friends, an aeravator was purchased last spring that allows the park staff to time seeding the lawn with the rain. The two water bottle filling stations gifted to the park are intended to discourage the use of plastic bottles. The beehive installed on the peninsula of the pond, supports our focus on pollination- friendly plants. Friends considers protecting the natural environment, which includes the flora and the fauna, essential to their mission.
When the pond was expanded and landscaped in 2001 under the direction of Chris Cohan, it was engineered to manage runoff from storm drains and reduce nitrogen levels in the water that would ultimately make its way to Long Island Sound.
During the height of the pandemic, the Board began considering ways to celebrate and support all the different communities that enjoy the park. This past year, Friends underwrote a benefit concert to support families suffering loss after Hurricane Ida, and a temporary art installation, <Whispers in the Grove>. They also financed the planting of over 20,000 daffodils on the great lawn and committed support to the Rye Poetry Path, which will be launched in 2022 at three locations in Rye — Rye Town Park, Rye Nature Center, and Edith Read Sanctuary.
Diana captures the soul of the park in her weekly Instagram interviews of staff and patrons. There is a growing sense that we should be using the park for good and that includes educating our young and old about environmental sustainability, encouraging volunteers to come out and lend a hand, celebrating arts and culture, telling our history, and, importantly, welcoming all residents from Rye, Rye Brook, Rye Neck, Port Chester, and beyond.
Diana takes pride that the Friends is focused on the tag line: People Make Parks. “We are one of the few municipal parks that remains open to all. Here we mean it when we say, ‘You are welcome’, and that really matters to me.”
David concurred: “Growing up across the street from the park, I saw firsthand that the park was an asset open to everyone. Too often beach access is only reserved for the very privileged. Rye Town Park was always much more diverse and open.”
While David and Diana came to know Rye Town Park in very different times, they treasure the park in remarkably similar ways. They embrace the public nature of the park and its access to the beach, they celebrate the diversity of the patrons, and they understand that the mission is to sustain this treasure for future generations.
When asked what is different at the park from when he was on the Board 30 years ago, David admitted, “not much.” The beach is still well managed, the governance complicated, and the revenue to operate the park continues to be generated from seasonal beach and parking passes and profits from concession and rental fees, and from both the City and Town of Rye.
As a longtime park advocate and now a peer on the Friends’ board, I could not help but ask David and Diana, “What should local residents do to support the park?” First came the simple answer: “Make a donation to the Friends.” Diana added, “We should appreciate the intrinsic value of a public park and consider it an asset that deserves public investment.” David agreed, “What is lovely about a park is it does not have to be self-sustaining. Municipalities put tax dollars into public assets.”
Rye Town Park is a public park that deserves support. Friends of Rye Town Park is here to help. Visit friendsofrtp.org to join the effort.