Personal and communal changes, with ‘The Park’ as backdrop.
Sometime in 1937, a group of real estate speculators gave up their hope that the Jamaica Bay inlet in the former village of Keschaechquereren would become a major New York port and donated the land they had acquired to New York City.
The Board of Aldermen voted to keep some 500 acres of that land for recreational space and named it Brooklyn Marine Park.
It must have been around 35 years later when I first crossed Avenue U from the park with Grandpa Sam, as we made our way down to the bay in low tide, where he taught me to look for bubbles in the damp sand and dig for tiny turtles — forming one of my earliest and fondest memories.
In my four-plus decades as a New Yorker, lots of places have had recurring resonance: Shmulka Bernstein’s on the Lower East Side. The Cyclone in Coney Island. Avenue J in Midwood. The Broadways of Manhattan and Monticello. Main Street in Kew Gardens Hills.
But there’s none that threads itself through the tapestry of my life as much as that now-798-acre preserve that runs from Fillmore Avenue to the salt marsh Jamaica Bay inlet in southern Brooklyn.
In my early days, all my closest relatives lived in Brooklyn — both sets of grandparents, two sets of aunts, uncles and cousins — and Marine Park was the perfect spot for a joint outing, just a few blocks away from Grandpa Sam and Grandma Dottie’s apartment on Knapp Street.
The parents and grandparents sat on colorful, cheap folding chairs with frayed nylon webbing, and enjoyed a picnic under the shade of weeping willow trees while the kids played toy horseshoes or mini-golf.
The park was surrounded by areas where post-war immigrant Jews were starting new lives, and so it was a natural draw for those looking for wide open spaces on sunny days — though it would still be a few decades before a surge of Orthodox families in Marine Park and Flatlands would make yarmulkes, tzitzit and black-and-white clothing ensembles a regular sight.
The British novelist Alec Waugh once said, “You can fall in love at first sight with a place, as with a person.”
And why not this place? It was an urban park in the truest sense of the word, filled with laughter and love, sports and dogs, and, to quote an old Chicago song, “People laughing, people singing, a man selling ice cream.”
If you sat on one of the baseball diamonds or on the benches, you could momentarily convince yourself you were far from the boroughs, maybe upstate somewhere — if not for the fumes from the B2 buses, the traffic headed for Kings Plaza and the occasional siren-blaring runs of Engine 321, based on Gerretsen Avenue.
The massive Bensonhurst apartment complex where I grew up had two playgrounds, but it couldn’t compare to the hustle and chaos of the one at “The Park,” where to a pre-adolescent, the slide seemed taller, the sprinklers cooler — and the swings so awesome, kids waited on line for their turn.
But all good things have an expiration date.
In the late 1970s my mother’s parents and my aunt’s family moved to New Jersey, and the park gatherings faded into history.
I rarely set foot in the place during the ’80s, my teenage and early adult years. I went to Israel for two years and didn’t think about the place much, if at all.
The rediscovery happened in my early 20s. A young woman I met at a Brooklyn College party lived around the corner from the park, on East 35th Street. Her family had been there since the early ’60s. Maybe our paths had crossed one summer day in the playground.
We took long strolls in the park, passing the baseball diamond where, within a decade, our oldest son Zack would stand in the outfield in his North Highway Little League jersey as part of a team with a worse winning percentage than the Bad News Bears.
We passed the field, beside the parking lot where one day our three kids would cling to each other on the back of an elephant inside the summertime big top of the visiting Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus.
We strolled down to that bay where I once found turtles with my grandpa, and where in the future we would, for many years, join the long procession of Jews on Rosh HaShanah casting bread on the water for tashlich.
And it was at that bay on May 25, 1988, where I would ask Jody to be my wife.
Six years ago, we left Brooklyn for the Long Island suburbs, replete with their own splendorous parks.
On our family visits back to the Marine Park neighborhood, we marvel at how the still-heavily Catholic area has also become a new Orthodox stronghold, filled with young families priced out of nearby Midwood and transforming the area with shteibels, baby strollers and kosher shops.
Once on the brink of closing its doors, Marine Park Jewish Center, established in 1951 as a Conservative shul, which would later become Modern Orthodox, has now morphed into Merkaz Yisroel of Marine Park, with a new mechitza, a vibrant membership, and a slight tilt to the right.
On a recent autumn Sunday, I watched members of the Merkaz Yisroel dance on a closed-off Avenue S with a newly minted Torah scroll.
The bay is now a protected wetland called the Salt Marsh Nature Center, a popular field trip destination for school kids. Italian men still play bocce ball, but the small park house is being replaced by a recreation center that will one day host concerts and other cultural events.
I navigated the oval bike path/running track alongside speed-walking frum women wearing skirts and earbuds. On the cricket field, I watched the Caribbean-born bowlers and batters — many likely not yet born or not yet Americans when I used to push my toy lawnmower on that grass — face off in their natty white slacks and sweaters.
“How hard it is to escape from places,” said the modernist writer Katherine Mansfield, who left New Zealand for Great Britain when she was 19. “However carefully one goes they hold you — you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences — like rags and shreds of your very life.”
Despite how it seemed to a kid, the trees and grass are no greener here, the monkey bars no taller nor the ice cream more savory than at any other public park in the world, but it was the people and the times that made them meaningful.
If I ever get to take my own grandkids to dig for turtles, chances are it will be in a setting far from this place, where, for me, there are no more memories left to be made. My family ties are elsewhere and my connections here are fleeting.
On that recent Sunday, I watched the kids waiting in line for the playground swings. It was their turn now. ◆