50 Favorite Places #24
My pursuit of birds has taught me a lot about my city. Before I got serious about birding Brooklyn, much of the borough south of Church Avenue was a mystery to me. Sure, there was Coney Island and Brighton Beach and DiFara Pizza and all those lettered avenues you run past during the Brooklyn Half Marathon . . . but I had at best a glancing familiarity with vast swaths of the city.
For example, I’d never heard of Marine Park. And even after I heard of it (from eBird, naturally), I had no clue where it was or how to get there without a car. But it seemed like one of those places someone attempting a local “biggish year” should go, and so, after looking it up on a map and figuring out transit connections, off I went.
For the similarly clueless, Marine Park stretches along both sides of Avenue U between Gerritsen and Flatbush avenues. To the north of Avenue U, it’s a standard-issue city park – flat, dotted with towering oak trees, with most of its space given over to playing fields. Cricket teams play there – or used to, pre-Covid – which is both fun to watch and, for people like me who didn’t grow up with the game, mystifying. On the south side, a large natural area surrounds an inlet that rises and falls with the tides of Jamaica Bay. That’s the Salt Marsh Nature Center, and that’s where I usually head.
First, though, you have to get there. Yesterday morning, I took the B train to Kings Highway and then ran the last mile or so, choosing streets according to my fancy and their general interest and/or prettiness. The residential blocks around the park look more or less like the one pictured above, closely-packed with one- and two-family brick homes and tiny front yards. Most of the time, though, I take the Q or the F all the way to Avenue U, and then either run (if I’m feeling energetic) or hop on a B3 bus (if I’m not, which is the case more and more often these days). The bus is only marginally faster than running, but it’s fun to lean back and watch the flavor of the avenue change. Hard by the F train in Gravesend, there’s Joe’s of Avenue U, a longtime Sicilian joint famous for its extravagant rice balls and panelle; head east, and Italian bakeries give way to Orthodox Jewish groceries – some Syrian, some Eastern European – and kosher restaurants and home furnishing stores, which give way to one of Brooklyn’s smaller Chinatowns, which fades into a strip of Uzbek and Georgian and Azeri businesses, peppered with oddball spots, like the one offering organic, vegan, raw, gluten-free desserts, until you reach the cop-centric neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach, and then you’re almost at the park. It’s a whole lot of Brooklyn packed into one short stretch of avenue.
There is, of course, a salt marsh at the center of the Salt Marsh Nature Center. Herons and Clapper Rails and Ospreys breed there, and Marsh Wrens sing their strange, metallic song from deep within the phragmites. But the main gravel loop trail on the east side of the inlet also encloses a grassland habitat that’s rare in Brooklyn – and not only here. The sad truth is, grasslands don’t get the love that woods do. Cutting down big old trees draws protests, as it should. Paving over a meadow draws yawns. That’s terrible for grassland birds, of course, but also for anyone who’s ever found heaven in a wildflower, or in the sway of tall grasses in the wind, or the sparkle of dew on a meadow at dawn. For those who have – you can find a small patch of that kind of heaven at Marine Park.
On the west side of the inlet, the trails are lower and scrubbier. It’s the wild west over there, and I mean that all too literally. Despite the fact that it abuts the conservative Gerritsen Beach neighborhood – oh, who am I kidding, because of the fact that it abuts the conservative Gerritsen Beach neighborhood – illegal ATVs regularly tear up the nature trails. Call the cops, you say? Hahahahaha – those are the cops’ kids.
Or so it’s widely assumed.
The farther south you walk, the wilder it gets. This is where people dump cars before they torch them, or haul old appliances, or dispose of furniture they’re tired of. All of which is terrible, of course, but also makes for some intriguing juxtapositions – like phragmites pushing their way through the burnt and rusted remains of a car, or a couch in the middle of a mud flat.
Turn it around, and it would make a nice place to rest while scanning for herons and rails.