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Grant transforms park into jazz paradise

With the exception of floating pollen and the distant crack of a softball bat, the tree-covered lawn of Queensbridge Park had every element of an intimate downtown jazz club Friday night.

About 30 neighbors lounged around the concrete platform set before the background of the Manhattan skyline, where musician Fred Butler and his band rolled out one hit after another of the smooth cadences of jazz, reggae and rhythm and blues.

Spectators shouted approval in the midst of exuberant drum solos, before the beat would slow to a thump and listeners could relax their response to a gentle sway of the head.

The display of musical ecstasy was made possible by the J. M. Kaplan Fund, a Manhattan-based group which gave an $8,500 grant to the Friends of Queensbridge Park to finance a summerlong series of concerts there.

The park sits along the East River shoreline, wedged between the Queensboro Bridge to the south and the Keyspan power plant known as “Big Alice” to the north, towering well above the high crests of the park’s aged trees.

Elizabeth McQueen founded the Friends of Queensbridge Park in 1999 to bring cultural events and more community activities into the park, which lies directly across Vernon Boulevard from the Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing complex in the country.

“Our park is a jewel, it really is,” she said. “Our children need someplace clean and safe to be able to go.”

A total of five borough organizations received a grant this summer from the Kaplan Fund, a family foundation established over 50 years ago by Jacob Merritt Kaplan with proceeds from the sale of the Welch Grape Juice company.

Alison Bauer, the program officer for Kaplan’s grant program, said the foundation tries to fund “projects that really make a difference in the lives of the people who live there.”

The Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City received the largest grant in Queens at $35,000, which was used to fund a summer film series.

Two $15,000 grants were awarded in the borough, one to Brookville and Twin Ponds Parks in Rosedale and another to Friends of Cunningham Park in Fresh Meadows. The Queens Coalition for Parks received $7,500 to strengthen the organization’s volunteer groups and provide resources for newly elected officials.

The Kaplan Fund also supports Parks 2001, a political campaign lobbying the next mayor to commit 1 percent of the city budget to the Parks Department, which now accounts for only 0.4 percent of the budget.

Rather than pay community groups to perform tasks that should be the responsibility of the Parks Department — like maintenance — the fund seeks to encourage residents to improve the parks by sponsoring activities and fostering community involvement.

“We’re trying to provide grants that don’t displace or supplement any part of the parks budget,” Bauer said.

The twilight concerts funded by Kaplan are a new phenomenon at Queensbridge Park, which McQueen said has seen a resurgence of activity only since her organization was founded in 1999.

“The park was abandoned for years,” she said. “There was nothing going on” there aside from “an element that was not good.”

The concerts regularly brought as many as 80 neighbors to the park over the course of the summer, making a reality McQueen’s vision of giving the park back to the community.

“It really lifted up the spirits of the residents in the park, because everyone was so pleased with the acts that we brought into the park,” McQueen said.

Only a mile or so up the East River from Queensbridge, the Socrates film series, which ended earlier this month, highlighted a different ethnic group every week, featuring local musicians and food from area restaurants and ending with an international film at twilight. The event regularly drew as many as 400 participants.

“It’s just a great scene,” said Alyson Baker, the executive director of Socrates Sculpture Park. “The sun setting over Manhattan, it’s a cool place to be on a hot summer night, and it’s a beautiful setting for film.”

The film series was funded by the $35,000 Kaplan grant, which was also used to provide general operating support to the 4.5-acre sculpture park.

“We wouldn’t be able to do this without them, and it’s one of the most popular things we do in the park,” Baker said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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