Olympia by the Sea
August 28, 2014 | by Mark Chiusano
The dashed ambitions of Brooklyn’s Marine Park.
There is a proud park on the watery edge of Brooklyn. It contains a pool, a little sandy beach, canoes and kayaks, new sporting fields of all kinds, gardens, an open-air theater, and a playground; nearby subway stops draw people from the extremes of the five boroughs. Today, this sounds more or less like Brooklyn Bridge Park, the enchanting construction facing downtown Manhattan and built through public-private partnership, as is the way of city planning these days. But almost ninety years ago, these were just the lesser diversions in the grand plans for Brooklyn’s Marine Park.
Take the B or Q train down, down, down to Kings Highway—bring a book or music, because it’s a ride. Get off there, find the B2 or B100 bus on Quentin Avenue, and ride that another fifteen minutes east, and you’ll find the modern Marine Park. (You can also ride the 2 or 5 to the end of the line, which requires two bus transfers, but you’ll get there.) Almost ten miles from City Hall, you’ll have reached the greatest graveyard of a mighty park that New York City has ever seen.
It started in 1911, when the famed designer of the Chicago Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham, was invited to Brooklyn with his partner Edward Bennett to design a blueprint for the borough’s expansion. They set aside a large area far and away to the southeast by Jamaica Bay, as “a littoral counterpoint to Prospect Park,” as Thomas Campanella, Marine Park’s assiduous (and perhaps only) historian writes. As Campanella has documented, this suggestion became a reality through the philanthropy of two prominent Brooklynites, Frederic B. Pratt and Alfred T. White. They bought up and gave to the city about a hundred acres of land for the park’s creation. The city was leery even then—there were murmurs that a park would do little more than increase real-estate value for homeowners in the region. The philanthropists sweetened the deal to include $72,000 dollars to pay for costs. “The donors owned no other land in the vicinity and did not expect to profit in any way from the gift,” promised the chairman of the League for the Improvement of Marine Park, which throughout its history would have its work cut out for it. In 1925, the City at last made a formal announcement, and Marine Park was born.
The first grand plan for the park came from the turn-of-the-century impresario Sol Bloom, who tried to create a great exposition there to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s birth, including a stadium with capacity for two-hundred thousand and a structure tall enough to beam a light that could be seen as far as Detroit. (Like Marine Park, Detroit was spoken of with more hope back then). That version didn’t pan out, but in 1930 six baseball diamonds were unveiled. Then-mayor Jimmy Walker arrived five minutes early, saying confidently, “One day this will be the greatest chain of parks in Greater New York.” Scanning the baseball fields out towards Gerritsen Creek and the homes that had recently been erected, Mayor Walker said, “I hope you will live to see the day when this park is completed. I probably will not. It’s a short life in the mayor’s office, politically and otherwise.” The crowd laughed. In two years Walker would resign in scandal.
Things started to heat up. The first million dollars was appropriated. A contest for park design was announced, then canceled, for the eminent architect Charles Downing Lay had been chosen: he was one of the first to earn a formal degree in the field of landscape architecture and, indeed, a founder of Landscape Architecture magazine. Lay’s design, though not as ridiculous as Bloom’s, was still a whopper: on large, oil-painted canvasses, he dreamed of a park larger than Prospect and Central combined, with a football stadium fit to hold 125,000 people. Also a zoo, a casino, a music grove, an amphitheater, bathing pools, hundreds of tennis courts and baseball diamonds, an eighteen-hole golf course, and slips for hundreds of yachts, as reported by the New York Times—the list goes on.
But the utopian designs for Marine Park ran into an even more titanic midcentury builder: Robert Moses, whose tireless biographer, Robert Caro, has written, “He turned parks, the symbol of man’s quest for serenity and peace, into a source of power.” Mayor Jimmy Walker was no more and these days the “Little Flower,” Fiorello La Guardia, occupied City Hall, and in 1934 (in a move he’d come to regret) he put Moses in sole charge of the city’s newly unified Department of Parks. Lay had the misfortune of crossing the newly-crowned Moses about the importance of decorating all that land along Moses’s beloved roadways (he called parkways “obsolete and ‘ill adapted to present needs,’” as Campanella writes). People just want to get where they’re going, Lay told the king. Drive along the Belt Parkway these days and you’d probably side with Lay, not that public opinion much mattered to Moses. Moses ended up delegating the Marine Park project to one of Lay’s former employees. Thus died the football field.
All this time, the League for the Improvement of Marine Park and their compatriots were doing their best to remain optimistic. In 1931 they were forced to drag themselves down to City Hall to preserve the very name of their park and neighborhood, which was in danger of becoming American Legion Memorial. “If you would go out there and look at Marine Park, you would understand,” a League member said passionately. “You cannot walk there because it is swampy. Anybody who has gone to Marine Park waterways knows that you cannot step on the shore. It is nothing to be proud of.” The name stuck. In 1939, after much to-do, the League got a plaque to commemorate the generosity of Pratt and White, the original donors. That May, the Parks Department band struck up a tune at the unveiling. Moses spoke first, and a League member went second.
Perhaps not understanding the sway of things, a League member wrote to Moses in 1940 asking if it might be a good idea to agitate for the 1944 Olympics to be held in Marine Park. Moses was on a short vacation and a subordinate responded, but the answer was obvious. The only trace of a stadium that would remain was the running and biking track, which exists to this day, surrounded by quiet trees, emptiness inside. Moses had his hands full with the Marine Parkway Bridge and Riis Park (along with the Marine Parkway Authority, moneymakers for Moses), which opened in 1937, and there was no money left for Marine Park. He’d scaled back even his assistant’s scale-back—baseball fields and some tennis courts. In 1936 Downing Lay won a medal for Marine Park’s design at the Berlin Olympics, but the facts on the ground were a done deal. A golf course did get built, it’s true, and some say it’s one of the better ones in the city. But the more salient image, I think, of what happened to the park for the rest of the millennium involved one Bertha Schalk, of Kimball Street, who in 1948 got herself charged with disorderly conduct while forming a human chain across Avenue U at Flatbush Avenue. She hoped to stop garbage trucks from unloading their wares there. In that, at least, Robert Moses and the city government ten miles away begrudgingly obliged.
It’s been a long half-century since then, and despite pamphlets like “Marine Park: Sixty Years of Decay”—printed by Citizens for a Better Brooklyn in 1969—things haven’t changed. “It is common enough knowledge that many middle-class families are fleeing the city for life in the suburbs,” that group wrote archly. “Many groups have succumbed to local rivalries,” the pamphlet states. The park was called the number one “forgotten development” in a postwar edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. But there was never much decay, really. The park just stayed the same.
Park history, in many ways, repeated itself at the dawn of the new century, when a bathroom and meeting facility was designed to replace the old red-brick structure that used to house the public restrooms, steps from where the entrance to the old football stadium would have been. It took nearly ten years and ran nearly ten million over budget. In the end, residents got a senior center with a green roof and, admittedly, much nicer bathrooms. The politicians trotted out, as in bygone days, and talked about the money they’d raised and the benefits the building would bring. The Marine Park Civic Association was present and saw the building named after a former president of theirs. As usual, people clapped.
But perhaps the senior center was an omen of greater things, albeit in a small way. Today, one can rent bicycles and surreys (who ever saw a surrey in South Brooklyn?) in the parking lot off Avenue U. It’s also possible to rent kayaks, just as you can on the other end of the borough in Brooklyn Bridge Park. You have to pay for them, but what can one expect in this age of austerity we live in? It is just as true as it was in 1930 when an Eagle op-ed said, “In the hot summer days it is many degrees cooler in the Marine Park vicinity than a few blocks away. It seems incredible but is nevertheless a fact.” There are no trains but the buses run well and are clean and orderly. It’s not the Olympics, but then, that wouldn’t be the Marine Park way.
Mark Chiusano is the author of Marine Park, a new collection of stories. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review, and online at Tin House and Huffington Post, among other places.