City Dismantles Beloved Harlem Workout Spot, Sparking Outrage

HARLEM, NY – A beloved fitness club that has met for years in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park was dismantled by the city this week, sparking outrage among neighbors who say the gatherings had brought peace and health to an underserved community.

But the Parks Department has defended the sweep as a necessary safety step, and neighbors are now scrambling to reach a compromise with the city.

Known as the Lion’s Den, the group has been meeting for around 20 years in the fitness area on the park’s east side, which includes sets of metal pull-up bars. Over the years, its founder, Jamel Ali, also collected donated equipment like weights, boxing gloves and punching bags, which he stashed overnight under a tent.

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“That park was one of the worst parks in New York City until me and my friends started doing what we’re doing,” Ali, a 46-year-old construction worker, told Patch. Drawing young men from around the community, the Lion’s Den has become a friendly fixture in Marcus Garvey Park, and Ali says it has helped deter violence.

“Kids think it’s a safe haven,” he said. “We’ve got to teach them that killing each other is not the answer. We’re just giving them constructive stuff to do – I bring gloves, we bring basketballs.”

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Kids train at the Lion’s Den in Marcus Garvey Park in 2019. (Courtesy of Connie Lee)

For years, Ali said he had informal agreements with city officials to keep his equipment in the park without permits, and would be given advance notice whenever he needed to move it temporarily. That changed last Tuesday, when an NYPD sergeant told Ali he had seven days to permanently remove his belongings – pointing to Mayor Eric Adams’ recent push to clear homeless encampments.

“The sergeant specifically came to me a week ago and said, ‘The mayor’s cracking down on encampments,'” Ali said Thursday. (A Parks Department spokesperson denies that was the reason.)

Ali told the sergeant that “nobody sleeps in my tent,” which he used only to keep the equipment safe and dry. But by Tuesday of this week, Parks Enforcement officers arrived and began confiscating the weights, jump ropes and other objects – amid shouts of protest from onlookers.

Police at the scene of Tuesday’s cleanup at the Lion’s Den workout space in Marcus Garvey Park. (Courtesy of Noah Ramos)

“I do my physical therapy here,” one man yells; another says he has “no f — ing money to pay for no gym membership.”

Ali told Patch that he declined the city’s offer to store his equipment in a nearby facility, so officers simply threw out most of the items. With the fitness area left strewn with trash, Ali sprinkled the ground with bleach and began sweeping it clean.

“Good intentions”

Connie Lee, a former president of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance, has worked closely with Ali, calling the Lion’s Den “a valuable asset to the park.”

But she believes the city’s sweep began with “good intentions” that stemmed from legitimate safety concerns about the tent. Once Lion’s Den members had left for the night, Lee feared that the tent could blow away in a windstorm, or could be used by someone seeking to commit a sexual assault out of public view.

Crystal Howard, a Parks Department spokesperson, said the cleanup was unrelated to the mayor’s encampment sweeps, telling Patch that the city’s goal was “to ensure a clean and safe park for all its users.”

Jamel Ali with a child at the Lion’s Den in 2019. (Courtesy of Connie Lee)

“While we appreciate Mr. Ali’s sentiment to encourage exercise, his adhoc set up in the Marcus Garvey Park adult fitness area has historically been in conflict with Park rules,” that ban unattended belongings and tent setups, Howard said. (Ali previously had his equipment confiscated in 2019 for similar reasons, Howard added.)

A City Hall spokesperson, in a statement sent after this article was published, said that “Parks workers have tried multiple times to work with Mr. Ali to find an alternative to the unsafe and unsanctioned fitness area he has set up and have been met with physical threats. “

After video of the cleanup caused an uproar on social media, community leaders began brainstorming possible solutions. By Thursday afternoon, Joshua Clennon – a community board member and former City Council candidate – told Patch that residents planned to raise money for a storage unit where Ali could keep the equipment inside the park.

The root cause of this week’s sweep, Lee and Ali agreed, was a lack of resources. Ali pointed to the personal storage lockers available at some other city parks, but which are absent from that area of ​​Marcus Garvey, forcing him to rely on the tent.

“I do think the park was underserved by the Parks Department because it does not have the equipment and facility it needs to serve the amount of people that use it,” said Lee, pointing out that “hundreds of people” take part in the Lion’s Den’s classes.

Lee described Marcus Garvey Park as a “place where various cultures cross paths,” creating a unique dynamic that some city officials fail to understand.

“It’s supposed to be diverse, because everybody’s there from all walks of life,” Ali said. “But that park has not been updated [in] forever. The only thing they updated recently was the [watch]tower. “

“Something has to be done to enhance our park so that we do not have to take it upon ourselves to make us healthier,” he said.

Correction: this article has been updated to reflect that a Parks Department spokesperson denied the cleanup was related to the city’s sweeps of homeless encampments.

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