A dilapidated playground outside a Hell’s Kitchen public housing development is getting a complete makeover thanks to an unlikely benefactor: billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman.
Ackman, who runs Pershing Square Capital just half a block away from the Harborview Terrace housing complex on Manhattan’s West Side, has long walked past the deteriorating playground between W55/56th Streets. After seeing the space become increasingly run-down since moving into the area in 2016, Ackman decided to take action with his checkbook and a paint roller.
The billionaire has committed to fully renovate the playground and surrounding space, according to Councilmember Gale Brewer, who said at last week’s MCB4 Board Meeting that a “wonderful” anonymous donor had pledged to fund the project. However, the donor’s identity has become common knowledge at Harborview Terrace and last week Ackman’s office confirmed to W42ST that he was the benefactor. Residents and organizers confirmed that Ackman even spent three hours helping paint the playground.
The new 20,000 square-foot outdoor area will feature a refurbished basketball court, new pickleball court, ping pong tables, chess tables, seating areas, planters, water fountain, new lighting and a wheelchair ramp.
The transformative Nudge Art installation is led by local nonprofit genEquality and artist Laura Alvarez. For four weeks this summer, residents participated in art workshops and provided input on the mural designs and messages before getting to work with paint brushes and rollers.
Sherry Hakimi, Executive Director of genEquality, emphasized the community-driven nature of the project. “We are facilitating this, we are working for them. This is their community at the end of the day and we are just helping them strengthen it,” she said.
The bright pink and teal walls are emblazoned with the phrase “You Belong” in more than 20 languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish, Vietnamese, Japanese, Persian, Korean, Hebrew and even Braille.
“It was really the resident’s vision to have the phrase ‘you belong’ front and center in the art, to show people in this community that it matters here and that it’s a closely held value,” Hakimi said.
As the project nears completion, Maria Guzman, President of the Harborview Terrace Tenant’s Association, couldn’t hide her emotion. “This was like a gift from heaven,” she said. “Thank you Mr Ackman. I pray for this man every single day.”
According to Guzman, Ackman has walked by the playground for years and said it just got “worse and worse.” With no money for repairs, the billionaire decided to contribute his own funds to transform the space. He has reportedly pledged additional money for further renovations next spring.
While the beloved “Hell’s Kitchen” street art graffiti by KoolCat was removed during the renovations due to wall disrepair, the local artist is contributing anew by painting a Hell’s Kitchen medallion at the heart of the refurbished basketball court.
KoolCat expressed his ongoing commitment to Hell’s Kitchen: “Been doing this for years. Keeping Hell’s Kitchen alive. I wanted that [pointing to the previous wall], but they wanted this so they gave me this,” he said as he worked on painting the centerpiece of the new basketball court.
He does want to recreate his iconic “Hell’s Kitchen” wall though. “I just need a wall. Let me know if you find anything. I got the paint, I got everything. I’m ready to go,” KoolCat said.
The community plans to unveil the project in a special celebration on Saturday, October 28. More details will be available in our daily newsletter as the event nears.