50 Favorite Places #26
It has history. It has creepy ruined buildings and empty hangars. It has miles of runways and a coastline. It has birds, from soaring raptors to twittering finches to goofy woodcocks. It has that most coveted of urban luxuries: space.
What it doesn’t have are easy transit connections. Consequently, I’d lived in Brooklyn for more than three years before I made my way to the end of the 2 subway line, found the Q35 bus stop alongside the Nostrand Junction Target store, got off by the Gateway Marina and dashed across Flatbush Avenue to what was, at one time, the main commercial airport serving New York City.
Conceived shortly after Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight – imagine the city’s mortification, that Lindy should have taken off from a dinky airfield in Nassau County and not from New York Fucking City! – and named after another pioneering pilot, Floyd Bennett Field opened in 1931. At the time, it sat at the very apex of modern air transportation. Imagine, concrete runways! And enclosed passenger loading tunnels! But Floyd Bennett’s days as New York’s preeminent – because only – commercial airport were numbered. Its location on the edge of Brooklyn, far to the south of Manhattan, was less than convenient, to say the least. As the country emerged from the Great Depression and the commercial aviation sector looked to become a real thing, the city scouted alternative locations. In 1939, it opened Municipal Airport #2, known to you and me as LaGuardia.
Supplanted as a commercial airport, Floyd Bennett Field was sold to the U.S. government and dedicated as a Naval Air Station in 1941. Thus began Floyd Bennett Field’s second act as a military airfield. It played an important role in World War II – crews from Floyd Bennett served as air escorts for ships transporting supplies and troops across the Atlantic – and remained in military use through the 1950s and 1960s.
Its third act, as a park and recreational facility, began in 1971, when it was deactivated by the U.S. Navy and handed over to the National Park Service. Like Plumb Beach (favorite place #20), it’s now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
I was originally drawn to Floyd by its birds – Horned Larks and Northern Harriers, to be precise; the reclaimed grasslands between its former runways make it the best spot in Brooklyn to see both species – but as with so many of the other places to which my birding habit has introduced me, I’ve found plenty of other things to love about it. For starters: where else can one run on runways? The former airport’s vastness, its glorious, expansive, SPACE guarantees a good workout.
I also love its eclectic, even anarchic, spirit. I go there to bird and run. Others go there to, variously, bike; camp; fish; participate in rock climbing, ice skating and gymnastics at Aviator Sports; learn about farm animals, take hayrides, and “pick” pumpkin (which really means grabbing loose pumpkins scattered in a former cricket field); fly radio-controlled model aircraft (legally); practice archery (legally); practice stunt driving (illegally). It’s where Department of Sanitation drivers learn to operate their trucks, where the NYPD keeps those annoying and wasteful helicopters, and where Marine Corps reservists train. In the community garden maintained by the Floyd Bennett Garden Association, Italian flags fly next to Barbadian flags fly next to cheerful rows of U.S. flags. Just outside the garden, nature is slowly breaking down an expanse of asphalt. You can find runaway prickly pear cactuses here, their surprising (in New York City?!) autumn fruits spilling onto the cracked tarmac.
Visitors with a serious interest in aviation history, or simply the history of the place, can learn more in the Ryan Visitor Center (currently closed because of the pandemic), which occupies the former passenger terminal. I’ll confess, I’ve never gone in. I prefer to invent my own stories for the hauntingly abandoned structures scattered about the complex, from residences to administrative offices to tagged-up concrete shells.
During the last years of the Vietnam war, Eric’s older cousin Erik (“Big Rick” to his “Little Rick”), was stationed at Floyd Bennett. I often think of him when I’m there, trying to imagine what the place looked like during his service – which buildings were used for what and by whom. Perhaps, when we can all travel again, he and Janet will pay us another visit and this time we’ll pop for a rental car and explore the place he lived, briefly, half a century ago.