“It’s a sanctuary for people,” he said.
When Benke moved to Queens in the mid-70s, it was a big adjustment for him and his wife, and of course one of the first things he did was find a park near his home. The closest one was Highland Park, but back then it was not as nice as it is today. Things were quite different in the 80s, Benke said.
During that time period, the park was filled with crime, prostitution, wild dogs, abandoned cars, cock and dog fighting, voodoo and vandalism. It was the crack cocaine era and up to 125 homicides took place a year in the 102nd Precinct, many of which occurred in the park.
Surprisingly, the violence and delinquency did not discourage Benke from jogging in the park on a daily basis. It was his second home.
“Highland Park is a special place,” he said during an interview with this paper last week.
Being a community activist, he knew things had to change. With a group of people, he went to the Parks Department and discussed the numerous problems that plagued the park. He loved the park, but he had to look over his shoulder every time he ran there.
“This doesn’t belong here, the park belongs to us,” Benke recalled thinking. “We can change this.”
After several meetings, guard rails and fencing were installed, which slowly helped to alleviate some of the wrongdoing. The police also began to assist, but told Benke because of the high crime rate they could only do so much.
There were two incidents that really made him realize how dangerous the park was. After his jogs he would do pushups, and one day he felt something on his neck. He looked up and saw a pit bull breathing heavily on him. He immediately prayed to God, stood still for three minutes, and fortunately the dog ran away.
Another time, a man ran up beside him and said he just saw a body. Benke was shocked and a few moments later, a second man approached them and said he just saw a head. He immediately told the police.
These and many other incidents were daily occurrences in the park, but after contacting the Humane Society, having the cars towed and installing more police around the park, it began to look much more appealing.
“No one cared about the area then,” Benke said.
In the early 90s, under the guidance of Parks Commissioner Diana Chapin and funding from the city, the park was renovated. Benke said in addition to soccer fields, a big upgrade was the lights, which helped police see criminals at night.
Benke said the police presence has definitely helped the park improve and it is headed in the right direction. In the middle many neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn, it’s become a beautiful, relaxing and welcoming place.
Even though his busy overseeing 100 parishes throughout New York, Benke still walks the park a few times a week. Being able to meet people, see ducks in the lake and pheasants in the forest and have fabulous views of different neighborhoods is remarkable, he said.
Benke, 67, plans to retire as a bishop in two years, but will continue his efforts to improve the park.
“My job is to get the stakeholders from Highland Park and figure out what needs to happen and map out the next steps,” he said. “It’s always a new experience. People that live in tight areas like they do here need a place to breathe.”