I don’t go to parks. I invoke an agreeable and right-headed remark by writer Joy Williams to explain myself, because Williams and I are in sync re: nature. When an interviewer suggested that, given that humans are a corrosive force in the natural world, the “moral alternative” is to live not in the wilds of Montana but in New York City, Williams agreed. "I don’t have to see a place," she said. To paraphrase: Just knowing the wilderness is pristinely out there is good enough, without one’s having to actually be in it.
Allow me to zoom in to wild New York City, whose natural wonders are most saliently evidenced in an array of jewel-like public parks. I came here after college largely because I had decided that I would have to worry less about my heavy treading on the earth in a place that has already been trod on a lot. In the same way that I take vicarious enjoyment in knowing that at press time there were still rolling hills of sage and foggy bogs out there in the interior, I derive benefit from this city’s glorious greenspaces, large and small, more and less concrete covered, heaving with bedrock outcrops or sprinkled by a clown’s-head fountain. When I moved to Sunset Park four years ago, it took me a year to spend more than 10 minutes in its namesake public space. One afternoon, a friend called to alert me to the eponymous sunset, so I walked over and watched it glorify the denouements of several soccer games. I don’t use the parks often; but I will defend to my death their existence for the pleasure of those who do.
One recent morning my boyfriend wondered aloud whether it was possible to visit every park in Brooklyn in a day. Couched in these terms, the idea of spending a whole day at the park(s) suddenly sounded thrilling, in a devil-may-care, Jackass sort of way. The answer to his question is no. Brooklyn has more than 400 parks, a figure that includes Greenstreets and greenways, playgrounds, sitting areas, memorial triangles, memorial squares, and indeed, large pristine nature preserves. Although you cannot visit them all in a day, you can fascinate yourself trying to hit 64 of them, as we did, managing 48. The comprehensive and user-friendly New York City Parks Service website was useful in planning. The highlights of our adventure follow. Get out there and see what we missed!
Leif Ericson Park and Square; Valhalla Courts Acreage n/a, Sunset Park/Bay Ridge, Ft. Hamilton Parkway, 66-67th Streets, Fourth Avenue
Our first stop, and the first instantiation of what will be a pronounced seafaring motif. One entrance to this heavily treed park is not far from the Lief [sic] Erickson Bar and Grill on Fifth Avenue, which has a large metal cutout leaf on its front; convenient for your refreshment after you vanquish someone Valhalla style at tennis. Although the original Leif the Lucky never made it as far south as Brooklyn, he has long had a home in the hearts of Bay Ridge and Sunset Park Norwegians and thus has many public works named after him. Shore Parkway, we learn later, was actually officially renamed Leif Ericson Drive in 1969, on the latest wave of Viking mania fed by President Johnson’s designation in 1964 of October 9 as Leif Erickson Day. This name change may also have been a way for City Council to throw a bone to Brooklyn Scandinavians: By then much of the activity at the Brooklyn piers, where many Skandis worked and played, had disappeared, cargo being diverted by the Port Authority to New Jersey and plans for the cross-harbor rail tunnel scuttled in favor of a more vertical project, namely, the Twin Towers. We decide not to go into the park, but make a mental note to drain a pint at the Lief sometime.
Owl’s Head Park 24.22 acres, Sunset Park/Bay Ridge , Shore Parkway, Shore Road, Colonial Road, 68th Street, Most Otherworldly
Currier and Ives with a dash of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow. Oak and beech trees rejected by McDonald-land for being too creepy. Two schnauzers in sweaters running far afield of their inadequately togged, shivering owner. A paved path winds up to an overlook with a vertiginous view of tankers in the harbor. Here we meet the first of many information-packed historical markers, most of which were installed during the Giuliani administration. The sign puts forward a theory of the origin of the park’s name: “Some insist that owls formerly lived here, but there is no survey or record to confirm this.” Ah, the time for surveying owls has passed. We can only blink and dream we heard hoo hoo. From this sign we also learn that Bay Ridge was once named Yellow Hook, by its first European settlers, the Dutch. “Yellow” soon came to conjure “fever” in folks’ minds however, so the citizenry opted to highlight the topography rather than the hue of the clay runoff in the harbor. “Red Hook” makes me think of a post-homicidal pirate. Is there something we can do about that? How about “No Trains”?
Shore Parkway Greenway near the Verrazano Bridge 12.4 miles, Sunset Park/Bay Ridge/Verrazano Narrows 84th St., Queens to 68th St., Best Change of Perspective
We awake at an hour that only the prospect of a ham-egg-and-cheese sandwich renders godly and make our way south toward the sea. It would be dawn if not for this dense mist. Following the Shore Parkway from the base of Owl’s Head Park, we become aware of the sky opening and the sea spreading before us in the distance. An endless smooth asphalt surface not meant for cars looms to our right, creating a breathlessly un-New York line of sight. After a little trouble finding our way off Shore Parkway, we slow to a stop parallel to the exact bench on which Tony Manero sits in that Saturday Night Fever scene. You can sit here, too, and marvel at the engineering wonder that is the Verrazano (and perhaps mourn your own loss of innocence). Saturday Night Fever gave Bay Ridge a taste of glamour, but the famous bench scene in the film can’t give you anywhere near the gut-punch view you get from the real-life 3D Shore Parkway experience. Our eyes make a long sweep from the Harbor, to Staten, across those mammoth steel bridge legs, to the sea, wiped out to a white eternity on this sunless morning. We’ve never seen anything this big. Not many people out yet: a guy jogs in short shorts and a gray hoodie, the hood reinforced with a fisherman’s hat. Another guy swings his arms and legs back and forth in a homespun calisthenics that is somehow appropriate in the face of this awesomeness. On the path, perfect for biking, running, or blading, someone has painted in large white letters “SHEVA WILL YOU MARRY ME?”. Three people are sitting in their cars eating breakfast, staring west, motors running, making more fog.
John Paul Jones Park 5.15 acres, Bay Ridge , Shore Parkway, Ft. Hamilton Parkway, 101st Street, Scariest Cannon
A majestic obelisk, erected by public subscription of citizens of the British Empire, is dedicated to the Dover Patrol and American Naval Forces in Europe during the World War. Uncannily, this is the day of the alphabetical Led Zeppelin marathon on Q104.3; it’s too bad we haven’t hit the I’s yet, because I bet this John Paul Jones, 1747–1792, an escaped felon and the father of the Navy, would have enjoyed hearing “Immigrant Song.” The latest modification to this park was made in 1980, when a 70-foot yardarm flagpole, formerly festooning a destroyer, was installed. I am beginning to surmise that the smaller versions of this flagpole, which fly Old Glory and the flag of the City of New York, are part of the deep-structure grammar of New York City parks. Some of the teensiest triangles have yardarm flagpoles, even, apparently, at the price of shrub space. The cannon (20 inches across the maw) and its balls were forged during the Civil War. A big, heavy-looking guy, it’s a miracle that it was preserved from the fate of other park cannons during the next World War, which were turned, plowshare-like, into other cannons.
Breakfast, Narrows Coffee Shop Fourth Avenue and 100th Street, Bay Ridge
The initial attraction for me is the green-and-white painted sign, and the warm yellow glow from within, smeared big by the steamy glass of the front windows so we can’t see anything else inside. The sign lettering is old-timey, and the low two-story building looks like you could drop it in the middle of a ’30s railroad-tracks shantytown without anyone noticing. Inside, our Saturday Night Fever dreams are reignited. We learn that the north side of this corner café made it, with a little makeover, into SNF. It’s pretty exciting. In one news photo, the owner, Peter Anagnostakos, stands next to a young John Travolta, their arms slung over each other’s shoulders. Some color snapshots from the same period show the flashbulb-illumined faces of Travolta (sexily smoldering) and the owner’s children (bursting with excitement). We finish our ham-egg-and-cheeses, which seem better than average (is it the stardust in our eyes?) and I’m paying the check, watching the counterman put his whole weight into each keystroke on the mechanical register, when I see Bill leaning over the front counter, straining to hear something on an ancient radio. It’s loud in here: two friendly Chinese guys having coffee are explaining to a black guy who’s just walked in how to get to New Utrecht Avenue; there are hash browns spattering on the grill; another radio is on playing Hot 97. “I think something fucked-up just happened,” Bill says, so we rush out to the car to turn on NPR. It’s 8:15, and the Columbia has just gone down.
Bath Beach Park 2.964 acres, 14th Street to 16th Street and Shore Parkway, Best Kept
Lord Almighty, what are those sawdust-filled troughs that look like narrow long-jump pits, surrounded by low black miniature chain-link fences, with painted scoreboards at the ends? I think I have just seen my first official bocce court. This utterly charming park has a central stone walkway, dedicated to good citizen Joseph L. Pezzuto, leading ceremoniously to a semicircular lookout at the end of a residential street, facing the ocean and the rest of the park—from there you could probably place reasonable wagers on the boccie games below. Then there is what I’m beginning to call a Fiorello stone, another element of the NYC parks’s deep structure: It’s a slab of granite with the names of Fiorello LaGuardia and whoever his parks commissioner was at the time, usually Robert Moses, a year designation, and then the name of Rudolph Giuliani and his parks guy, usually Henry J. Stern, and a year. Margaret at the Parks press office will later confirm my guess that these stones commemorate park improvements or renovations, but the stones don’t say anything specific about what was done. It’s a kind of a GIULIANI WAS HERE thing, and over the course of the day we’ll learn that Giuliani left his mark (and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars) on tons of Brooklyn parks. Bath Beach Park, established by the city in 1937 in this former seaside resort enclave named after the one in England, is lovely. There’s a newly safety-surfaced playground and basketball courts and a crab-shape cooling-off fountain for the kiddies; there are also adjoining community gardens. On the boccie court fence there is a sign, the first of only two of its kind we’ll see today, that reads: “THE KEEPER OF THIS AREA IS [sliding nameplate] R. PALISKA.” Thank you, Mr./Ms. Paliska, for doing such a nice job.
Bensonhurst Park 17.5 acres, Bensonhurst /Gravesend Bay, 21st Avenue and Cropsey Avenue, Bay Parkway
Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea was designed and built here in the town of New Utrecht by James Lynch on land acquired from the Benson family (more Netherlanders). The neighborhood was subsequently declared “the most perfectly developed suburb ever” in New York. The weird idea of organic-seeming Brooklyn’s being a crazy quilt of former planned communities begins to congeal in our brains. Bensonhurst Park is a wide flat spread of grass right on Gravesend Bay, with fruit trees evenly spaced along a bike path and one of those enormous inflated white indoor tennis-court buildings I’ve always thought look like maggots. The bike path has a sign proclaiming it a New York City Greenway, The Shore Path Connector. Greenways, first comprehensively described and promoted by environmentalist Charles E. Little, are linear corridors of vegetation and trails, often connecting parks, forests, or historical sites. New York City has planned up to 900 miles of on- and off-street bike trails through the departments of City Planning and Transportation as well as the Recreation Bicycle Network Development Project. This particular greenway is also part of the East Coast Greenway, which is intended eventually to allow people to bike from Maine to Florida; this path is scheduled to be officially opened at 11:30 a.m., June 5, 2003, in front of the Capitol Building—I will be there picking the bugs out of my teeth (see www.greenway.org for details). There is in fact one cyclist out today, but he seems provisioned up for a shorter spin. He’d better not lock his bike to a tree, though, because he could be fined $1000. The keeper of this park, we note, is B. Chan. He or she apparently did an excellent job running the John Deere mower last summer, but other than that we wonder what needs keeping. Because the tennis courts are closed and a rendezvous with Chan is unlikely, we hop back in the car. For those of you who may visit, there is adequate parking on the southeast side of the Worm, and after you bust a sweat you can go to Modell’s or Toys “R” Us at the frighteningly massive Caesar’s Bay Shopping Center nearby.
Nellie Bly Amusement Park 1.056 acres , Gravesend, South side of Shore Parkway, 25th Avenue and Bay 41st Street , Nonesuch Hipster Destination
Ah, the phantom keening of a deserted midway. We press our faces into the chain-link fence to scan the scene and imagine the myriad ways in which, when we return after opening day, April 5, we may become exquisitely ill. Nellie Bly is a colorful, diminutive affair, with the dangerous-dollhouse quality of so many New York amenities. There’s an 18-hole mini golf course, go-carts, a ferris wheel, a spinning spewinator thing, and something that looks like the façade of a freak show. There were already a couple of kiddie rides and a snack bar on the site when Parks acquired it in 1956, and the original Nellie Bly park was located just down the street, where a Wendy’s is now. The Romano family moved their amusement operation to the Parks property in 1966, and according to Jennifer Tortorici at the Nellie Bly offices, the family has just renewed its lease for another 10 years (in addition to charging rent, the city takes a cut of the park’s revenues). It is fitting that the Romanos named their park in honor of an intrepid reporter, the mother of investigative journalism, who routinely hurled herself into ridiculously and unnecessarily perilous situations just so she could talk about it later. As you get jostled, levitated, and rotated at Nellie Bly this summer, think of Ms. Bly pretending to be nuts on Roosevelt Island or turning green aboard a steamship during her 72-day global circumnavigation.
Marlboro Playground 1.072 acres , Gravesend , West 11th Street and Avenue W near Coney Island subway shops and yard
Okay, I admit it: I added this one to the list because I wanted to know if Philip Morris (er, Altria) had sponsored the housing development. Turns out that, like other streets and neighborhoods in Brooklyn (and perhaps like its naughty, toxic homonym) the “sub-community” of Marlboro, Brooklyn, at the southeastern end of what is better known as Bensonhurst, was named for a more difficult-to-spell town in England. Classing up through Anglification was a successful real estate marketing tactic in the 1920s, and this was not lost on the Brooklyn Development Company, who created this community. There was also a pseudo-Tudor architectural craze sweeping the nation at the time, but the 28 Marlboro Houses themselves were not built until the early ’50s, after the lot of tenement homes originally built by the Brooklyn Development Company had been condemned. So, alas, no half-timbering here. The houses are simple brown brick blocky structures put in by the New York City Housing Authority. The park has both plenty of space and a cozy, rounded-off feeling, with basketball and handball courts, swings and slides. The former sandpit and wading pool were casualties of the $176,000 Giuliani renovation of 1996. But he didn’t manage to eradicate the John DeCarlo Community Garden, named by the people of Marlboro Houses for an NYCHA maintenance worker who was fatally shot while on duty there in 1997. Our visit to Marlboro today falls during an interlude of drizzle, and because of that and our general state of haste, I just glance at the marker, which is a bit too high for me to read easily—Parks, please note! (I will later discover to my delight that all the historical marker texts are available on the Parks website.) What I do catch from the sign is a riff on the subject of things Marlboro(ugh), specifically Consuelo Vanderbilt and her husband, the Duke of Marlborough. They endured one of worst arranged society marriages ever: “The reluctant Duchess of Marlborough dissolved the marriage after 11 years, due to extreme distaste, not only for the Duke, but for the whole of British aristocracy.” Whew. An apt reprimand to those wily Anglophilic real estate developers.
Lady Moody Square (t) .052 acres Gravesend Village Road, Lake Street and Avenue U , Best Time Capsule
Speaking of the British aristocracy!… A large monolith bears the name and description of the Anabaptist who set up a religious community here in 1643 (though it says 1645 on the historical marker) and called it Grafe’s Ende after her hometown in England (it means “end of the grove,” not “grave,” in Anglo Saxon; but anyway, Lady Moody’s grave is located quite nearby—an adventure for another day). Let’s call her the Mother of the Grid: Moody was the first woman to receive a land grant in the New World, and one of the first urban planners on these shores to lay out her project in square blocks. An enlightened dame, she made Gravesend a bastion of religious freedom. In the lower left corner of the monument is an inscription alerting us to the presence of a time capsule buried by Gravesenders in 1987 about a hundred feet to the northeast. There is no mention of what occasion if any is celebrated by the time capsule, but it may contain a copy of Licensed to Ill. If you don’t mind standing (there is no bench that I recall), this park packs in a lot of prettiness per square foot. In 1999, Giuliani authorized the planting of an oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), an inkberry (Ilex glabra), and a creeping euonymus (Euonymus forturei), not to mention the London planetrees. It is here in this charming, small-town-like part of Brooklyn that it dawns on me what the designation “(t)” means when it accompanies certain park names listed on the Parks website. It means that even though the park is called a Square, it is in fact a Triangle. We will not, in our travels today, however, find any examples of park names Square © or Square ® to lend support to this theory. But Lady Moody Square is nevertheless a triangle, and rather a cute one.
William E. Kelly Memorial Park (WB Kelly Mem Park on map) 3.499 acres, Homecrest Avenue S, East 14th Street, and East 15th Street , Most Populous
As soon as we pull up in front of this one, I prematurely declare it the winner. This park is just brimming with good vibes. First of all, there are at least 25 people here, old and young, men, women, and children, on this chilly, wet day—most of them audibly Russian, which maybe explains it; Russians know from bad weather, and they got used to using parks back when there was nothing good on TV. Today there’s a pair playing tennis, a man shooting baskets, another guy doing crunches on an inclined workout bench. Near the loo there is a lifesize concrete bear, who peers at us with mournful eyes set in a face full of graffiti: “ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT FOREST FIRES...I AM A COKEHEAD,” printed in wobbly black Sharpie. The only thing being pushed this morning, however, amid the chess tables and monkey bars, is a pram; gently, dreamily, by a well-bundled young woman. William E. Kelly (there is a small stone obelisk dedicated to him) was a longtime postmaster, clerk of Kings County, and amateur boxer. Ten thousand people attended his funeral at St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in 1929. He can still draw a crowd.
Barone Triangle .010 acres, Bergen Beach , Avenue U, Veterans Avenue, and 71st Street
Cosmo L. Barone, 1944–1971, was a Vietnam vet and the recipient of three Purple Hearts and the Vietnam War Medal. Barone was wounded in October of 1965, was sent home to recover for four months and was then sent back to the shit, only to be wounded again, and worse. In April of 1966 he was paralyzed from the waist down and partially blinded as a result of combat injuries, and he was shipped home to spend three years in a Virginia military hospital. Finally released to his family in Brooklyn, he never fully recovered. In 1982 this triangle was dedicated to Barone by local law. Mr. Barone’s survivors, friends and neighbors continue to memorialize him with flowers and wreaths, evidenced by remains of these arrangements we see here today. It’s very moving, this small slice of land dedicated to the preservation of this one soldier’s sad story. The process for dedicating city land is not for the faint of heart: Margaret at the Parks press office exhorted me, “Don’t make them think they can just go renaming the parks.” First you have to convince a member of the city council and your local community board to draft a bill. They then have to present the bill to the parks committee of the city council. If the parks committee agrees, it will present the bill to the whole city council and the bill will be put to a vote. If the yeas have it, the bill becomes a law, and the new sign goes up. So with some commitment and elbow grease, you can get the city to put in some plants in honor of one of your fellow citizens. In 1999 Giuliani allotted $56,277 to renovate Barone Triangle, which amounts to about $129 per square foot. The renovation included the installation of a border of “Belgian stones” cobble-like stones of gray granite—and five trees.
Marine Park 798 acres, Marine Park , Flatbush, Gerritsen, and Fillmore Avenues and Jamaica Bay, Most Volunteers
The low flat expanse of Marine Park is covered in fog so that we can see only the surrounding trees and 1930s row houses. Enormous seagulls feed near the parking lot on entire loaves of white bread heaved there, we surmise, for that purpose. This park’s got all the sports and facilities covered: baseball, basketball, bathrooms, bocce, cricket, football, golf, swings, soccer, and tennis. For this huge, even play area you should tip your hat to the Wisconsin Ice Sheet. The glacier pushed a load of debris across Brooklyn and left it at what is now the ocean’s edge; without this natural levee, most of Long Island would be as soggy as Atlantis. We cross Avenue U to the south and enter Marine Park’s better half, the Salt Marsh Nature Center and Preserve, run by the Salt Marsh Alliance. The visitor center is only three years old, but it has that great, old-timey W.P.A. feel, with lots of stone and wood and vitrines full of stuffed birds and dioramas that you can make do stuff, like one with a turn handle that illustrates Revolutionary War–era tide-powered mills. More stuffed birds hang in simulated circular flight from the ceiling of the entrance rotunda, and it is by way of finding out how they got dead that I begin talking with S, one of the Salt Marsh Nature Center’s many volunteers, who do everything from man the information desk to wash the floors to replenish the TP to bake cookies and brew coffee for the Monday Night Live program. S, explains that the birds were of course all found that way. There is a cormorant, several sorts of duck, a heron, and a few others neither of us can identify. S sunnily tells me about the programs at the nature center and gives me some literature. He points out a bulletin board with a bunch of cute pictures of costumed kids and adults at the annual Halloween Walk—a trek through the haunted, volunteer-ghoul infested marsh. He says that with over 400 hours logged per month, this park has the highest rate of volunteerism of any in the city. S—— has many other engrossing things to say, some of which seem to be contradicted by the Parks website, but I’ll tell you his version anyway, because, as Morgane le Fay once said, the truth has many faces. First of all, he tells me that the entire Marine Park area is built not on glacial silt but on landfill and that in fact the landfill extends from here to Kings Highway. He tells me that up until about 20 years ago, the sewage currently being dealt with by the Water Pollution Control Plant across the bay was just dumped wholesale into the marsh; since proper disposal began, the marsh has made an impressive recovery. Then he tells me that George Washington had a mill just over there, and sure enough I can see dark pilings protruding from the iced-over Gerritsen Creek near where Avenue V meets Burnett Street. He says Washington burned down the mill in advance of the invading British, so they couldn’t have it, much the way Saddam Hussein destroys oil reserves in advance of us (analogy mine). He says that in the early 1900s the Whitney family donated the 150 acres of park land to the city with the provision that there never be commercial use on the lot. He tells me that in the ’50s, nearby White Island was “an island of garbage.” To learn more, go to www.saltmarshalliance.org.
Four Sparrow Marsh Preserve 63.37 acres, Flatbush Avenue and Jamaica Bay , Most Likely to Be Revisited
We pass the Kings Plaza Shopping Center on the corner of Flatbush and Avenue U and turn down Flatbush past a stretch to our left of houses on stilts, each with a tall private boat launch. Then there’s a marina, then the Marine Park Golf Course to our right. Dear reader, get out a map and just look at how long Flatbush is! Did you have any idea there were over seven miles of it? We decide to drive out to the point where Brooklyn becomes Queens in the middle of the ocean. How did Queens get the Rockaways? There must be a sordid tale of lust, greed, and betrayal behind that...In the midst of our geopolitical musings, we’re having trouble locating Four Sparrow Marsh park, although we know it’s just east of us and huge. Finally, having reversed ourselves to head urbanward again, we spot the park’s small entrance on the side of the road. There’s no admittance for cars. A display-case sign mentions that this is the park and that no cars are allowed, and we see a tunnel-like footpath into the tall shrubbery. We decide this is an adventure for another time when we don’t have 300 other parks to see. Why is it called Four Sparrow Marsh? According to www.brooklynbirdclub.org, the park is named for the song, swamp, sharp-tailed and Savannah sparrows who nest here. That website also has information on where to park your car (at the Toys “R” Us), where the primo birding paths are and how to get to them, and other tips (best at low tide! but still wear your waders!) along with a list of the non-sparrow avifauna on view. We’ll be back.
Paerdegat Basin Park 160.74 acres, Paerdegat Basin , Bergen Avenue, East 76th Street, Paerdegat Avenue North , Greatest Potential Contribution to the Ecology
Every street name in this tiny neighborhood of cute, small two-story brick row houses begins with Paerdegat, which is Dutch for "horse gate." We see taxicabs parked on the streets and in driveways here—we have begun to think that, like pigeons, cab drivers arise anew each day by parthenogenesis, so it’s nice to see that they do nest, and in agreeable environs. There is currently no authorized human access to Paerdegat Park, which was established only in 1998 and is being monitored by the New York Department of Environmental Protection until further notice, but there is something continually compelling about the stretchability of a chain-link fence, and hither and yon beyond the abused barrier is strewn evidence of booze-and-nicotine-fueled splendor in the invasive phragmites (that tall tufted grass that looks pretty until you know what it is). From the for-humans-only side of this fence it’s hard to believe there’s a saltwater marsh in there; there are large, distinctly manmade-looking dirt piles looming within it. Across the canal on the Gerritsen Beach shore we can see tall cranes bending over the water—I mean construction cranes. Proceeding south along the park’s edge, we notice things beginning to look more natural, with an expanse of grasses and midsize trees. Given time and a little reprieve from people, Paerdegat could become another Four Sparrow; or perhaps even Four Cranes. As we continue oceanward on Paerdegat Avenue, we check out the Sebago Canoe Club, the Paerdegat Basin Racquet Club, and the Midget Squadron Yacht Club.
Spring Creek Park 54.78 acres, Spring Creek to Fresh Creek Basins, Jamaica Bay , Best Left Alone
We can’t find the official entrance. The park seems to be just a huge fenced-in area that, like Paerdegat Park, we can’t see into because of a mound of dirt and meadow weeds like ramparts all along the fence’s inside edge. Also déjà-vuly, some desperate person has ripped a big gap at the base of the fence, so I could easily get in if I were a better journalist (there is no way Bill is going in there), but I am intimidated by the whole no-actual-entrance thing, and frankly I’m worried about what I’ll see if I do go. There is a historical marker stuck on the corner of the fence which describes salt-marsh ecology and its importance, but I have a strange feeling that if I crawl in and up to the top of that mound I will find out that the city has continued its historical practice of heaving my trash and sewage therein. And hey, I’m all for letting natural areas alone, right? So I’ll just imagine that on the other side of that mound is an oasis for great blue herons, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, pheasants, mallards, deer, raccoons, muskrats and rare grasses and leave it at that. No reason why a park has to let people in. The view in every other direction as I stand on this corner is gray desolation or ecru futurism, depending on your attitude. The PanAm Sattelite Corporation Spring Creek Teleport is due left of me. Huge satellite dishes are scattered around a 1950s office building with the kind of well-tended shrubbery that says “Keep out, you!” We decide to head to our next venue, passing a large lot where the short buses live. The best thing to come of Spring Creek Park, or rather its sign, today is the knowledge that the local name “Jamaica” should evoke for us not a green and preternaturally friendly West Indian isle but the Yamecah Native Americans, who once managed to be here without messing things up.
Cecil F. Sledge Playground .328 acres, Canarsie, East 95th Street between Avenues K and L , Best Fountain
This park’s Fiorello stone has an early date: 1934, when the mighty hand of Robert Moses extended even unto this tiny park and playground in Canarsie in the middle of a block of white clapboard single-family homes. Sledge Park was rededicated by Giuliani and his parks commissioner Henry Stern in 1998, the same year the city’s parks scored an all-time high in cleanliness under the Parks Inspection Program. I’m a sucker for the animal imagery, which includes brass fish, armadillos, and other beasts embedded in the cement walkway leading to a fountain and then to the flagstaff. The fountain itself is a shallow cement circle, and the two fountainheads (officially “spray bollards”) are two lifesize howling wolves, also in concrete. The head of one of the dogs is broken off, unfortunately. What of Cecil F. Sledge? The park was renamed for the 69th Precinct police officer in ceremonies on May 6, 1984. Sledge was shot during an auto check on January 28, 1980. Sledge had received the Police Medal of Honor and numerous citations for excellence—these are noted on strips of steel set into a garden path. The wolves are said to represent Sledge’s calling as a police officer.
Robert E. Venable Park 4.29 acres , City Line, Belmont, Sutter, Sheridan and Grant Avenues, Worst
I feel bad calling someone’s park the worst park in Brooklyn, but I hope by doing so I will put the flame under some city official’s butt to make it better. We follow the outrageously sucky Sutter Road, which is in a state of pulverization reminiscent not so much of twenty-first-century pavement as of medieval cords du roy. Sirens blare as we pass the East New York High School of Transit Technology, and we arrive at our easternmost parks destination. Like many border areas the world over, City Line is a no man’s land. And Robert Venable Park is the sorriest thing we’ve seen today. Whose idea was it for there to be absolutely nothing green or growing in this entire block-size lot? All pavement, and deteriorating badly. The wooden tables are rotting out and their tops are caving. There’s a bizarre chain-link-fence maze running the length of the park wherein a middle-aged woman aimlessly pushes a shopping cart; I later find out that this is a “running track.” There are two basketball courts and a handball-court wall that look like Socialist Realist art and are similarly well-preserved. There are other chain-link-prescribed areas for doing God knows what. Only two other people are in the park today: a man in a wheelchair and another man. They are having a friendly conversation, which shows you the strength of the human spirit. Robert Venable was a transit police officer killed in the line of duty in 1987; I first discover this, along with a picture of him, at www.retiredguardians.org, because I can’t find the historical marker in the park. Later, on the Parks website, I learn that Venable was a wonderful leader of the area’s kids, spending hours organizing games and clean-up projects in the park that would later bear his name. According to the virtual marker, there’s also a mural painted in the park that depicts Venable’s police badge in African pride colors.
Verona Playground .59 acres, Highland Park , Wyona Street, Vermont Street, Fulton Street, Jamaica Avenue, Brigadoon Award
A sweet, very well designed park nestled inside a residential block. The fountains are like tree stumps of giant redwoods. There are bright green monkey bars and a winding black iron gate, natural-looking fake boulders here and there, a basketball court, and plenty of benches. Such a charming place, and look, next door there’s a dirt yard with a rooster inside! The first live park animal of the day, not counting sparrows and squirrels. I’m sure I saw this magical place, with its sign that read Verona Playground; Bill backs me up (although he stayed in the car), but I can’t for the life of me find any record of it on the Parks site now. But I do have pictures. If any of you find it again, please let me know.
Lincoln Terrace/Arthur S. Somers Park 6.87 acres, Brownsville/Crown Heights , East New York Avenue, Rochester Avenue, Eastern Parkway, Buffalo Avenue, Best All Around
There are sculpted owls on the baseball-diamond backstop posts, an enlightened approach to pigeon control. The owls have a majestic view of a football-field-size basin bordered by ivy-covered trees. Today a lone man in the distance jogs around in a circle about five feet in diameter; maybe he’s panicking about how much space he actually has to work with. To the east, an epic array of handball and tennis courts. I ask myself for the fourth time today, Do so many people really play handball? The only place I’ve ever seen handball happen is at Coney Island. The Arthur Somers Playground, just north of the field, is another vast space, completely covered in asphalt, but because the area is surrounded by hickory and other charismatic trees, its many benches and the comfort station have a beer garden aspect. In the playground is a walrus-size concrete smiley fountain that is probably meant to be a whale. We follow a sharp incline to a woodsy prospect with the yardarm flagpole and war memorial we’ve come to expect, a brass compass set into the circle near the flagpole, and an allée and circle of benches; from the flagpole circle we survey a series of winding paths in the woods far below. Memo: A perfect sledding spot. The historical marker says that Lincoln Park was once known by its Yiddish-speaking users as Kitzel (“tickle”) Park. Great mental image of otherwise proper-looking people lining the benches, shrieking with laughter. During World War I, antiaircraft guns were hidden here. We didn’t see any of these, but we did see an empty 50-gallon plastic jug with "kerosene" printed on it; oh, and battalions of squirrels who are not afraid of owls.
St. John’s Recreation Center 9.339 acres, Bedford-Stuyvesant , Troy Avenue, Bergen Street, Prospect Place, Schenectady Avenue, Most Activities
The park where the rec center is located takes up an entire block in this neighborhood and is within walking distance of the Children’s Museum. There are basketball courts and handball courts and a renovated playground with those bucket-seat swings and large green wooden blocks to play on. The rec center is forbidding, a brown mid-century institutional building with diamond-weave window grates, but it’s hopping; several adults and children go in and out of the center during my four-minute visit. There’s a pool, a gymnasium open from seven to 10 Monday through Friday and eight to five on Saturday. There are computers, aerobics classes, a library, and a quilting group. You can join the Greenthumbs gardening club by calling (718) 788-8070. This info is all posted near the rec center entrance in the freestanding aluminum display case, through whose cloudy Plexiglas one can make out greenish 8-by-10 photos of the rec center’s goings-on, pinned to faded construction paper. In the center of the display is one of those black felt message boards with the push letters. Many of the letters are frozen mid-plummet off the board in a kind of communication cascade. Robert Moses modeled St. John’s, finished in 1956, on the successful St. Mary’s rec center in the Bronx. The Albany Houses, which face one end of the park, absorbed some of the populace whose homes were demolished to make the park. The historical marker also notes the number of hours required to wax floors and scrub tiles during a 1987 renovation of the center: 1,500.
Grand Ferry Park 1.55 acres , Williamsburg, Grand Street between River Street and the East River , Best Scavenged
Down by the water a woman frolics with her chocolate Lab. Two Hasidic men stand in a grove of fruit trees and watch the river. A man in a red knit cap and a bright orange bomber jacket leans against the wall of an adjacent building amid some jagged rocks (these rocks are officially known as rip-rap; so now you can say: "Let’s go climb around on the rip-rap and lose our keys."). The guy is just standing there as if waiting for someone. He is staring right back at us. A little unnerving. As we enter the park we walk over a low pile of stones, some of which are decorated with colorful, folksy, unsanctioned-looking mosaics. There is a tall brick smokestack with a sign on it saying that it used to spew molasses fumes when it was meaningfully attached to the Pfizer company. Sure enough, another sign says this park was created by Williamsburg residents from recycled materials in 1974. The park’s name commemorates the Grand Street Ferry, which used to run between here and Manhattan several times a day from 1800–1918, and which was an integral part of Richard Woodhull’s diabolical plan to build the suburb of Williamsburg. Doing some math, I realize that the ferries ran for nearly as long as the subways have been running as of now. Which makes me think it’s about time the subways stepped aside and made way for the hydrogen-powered amphibibuses.
Right Triangle Playground .504 acres, Greenpoint , Commercial, Franklin, and Dupont Streets, Most Triangular/Most Changed
In the summer of ’98 my roommate and I would go to this park, just a brief block from our apartment, get drunk and swing. Actually I did this only once, but he did it a lot and would tell me about it afterward until I felt like I’d been there, too, gushing like Byron about the view of Manhattan, the trees and fences framing the Chrysler Building to dramatic effect. At that time the swings were the old-school rubber-strip kind and their frame faced northwest, the better to maximize the vista. There was a jungle gym with a curly slide, I believe, but not much else in the way of features. In 1999, as the engraved Fiorello stone attests, Giuliani authorized the renovation of the park. There are still swings but they are the bucket kind, which means that the possibilities for fun are drastically diminished: These new swings face irremediably south, and the swingers are likely to be under five years old, sober, and accompanied by a responsible adult. There is now also one of those rickety bridges, a painted tic-tac-toe game, hopscotch, and two games I’ve never heard of, "Potsy" and “Nations,” the latter consisting of the word nations repeated in a circle. The historical marker explains, appropriately, the Pythagorean Theorem. Although, the marker admits, the park actually isn’t a right triangle, it’s so darn close that Parks Commissioner Stern felt justified in renaming the park, creating “a geometry lesson in asphalt and concrete,” and putting in those stupid swings. The marker has interesting things to say about Greenpoint itself. Did you know that Greenpoint was once a burbling center of “the black arts”? The constituents of the black arts vary from marker to marker, I’m finding, but they can with some assurance be said to include printing, oil refining, cast-iron manufacturing, and glass making.
Freedom Square (t) .004 acres, Bushwick, Myrtle, and Willoughby Avenues, Smallest
Dusk, 5:21. As a weather anchor once said during the Blizzard of ’96, visibility is now well-nigh impossible. Freedom Square is a no-access fenced-in triangle containing a beautiful winged statue and some shrubs. It is an atoll of elegance in a grungy and hectic convergence of traffic and elevated train tracks; but, looking around at now derelict nineteenth-century town houses, you can imagine that at one time it did not seem so out of place. The statue of Nike is dedicated to Brooklyn World War I dead, and her face is that of Claudia Deloney, “a Hollywood actress and friend of film star Gloria Swanson.” As we walk back to the car Bill says, referring to our parks day, “This could be a good book, like a coffee-table book...You know—like if you got a photographer...and a writer...” In the car, “Going to California” plays on the Led Zeppelin A-Z radio special. There are not enough letters in the alphabet to fill a whole day with Led Zeppelin. I open the six-pack of Chiclets I bought at a 99-cent store in Brownsville and diplomatically ask Bill what color he would like.
Sunset Park and Pool 24.5 acres, Sunset Park, 41st to 44 Street, Fifth to Seventh Avenue
It’s totally dark now. We’ve come full circle, home to our part of the borough, and for sentiment’s sake, we go to Sunset Park, where we haven’t really been since before a massive renovation that displaced the soccer games all last summer—it was really sad. Renovations have not always been kind to Sunset Park. In 1935 a (Robert Moses sponsored?) project removed a six-hole golf course, a neo-classical shelter, and a merry-go-round from our park, which was born in 1905. Now, as we stand in a respiffified SP, with its new flagstone flagpole sitting area, extra trees and lamps, and paved and painted volleyball court, we notice something for the first time: Sunset Park may be the only place in Brooklyn where from one vantage (in winter, mind you) you can simultaneously see the Empire State Building (to our right), the Statue of Liberty (due west across the harbor), and the Verrazano Bridge (to our left, looking down the sycamore promenade).
Emily Votruba is the copy chief at Cargo magazine.