Shirley Chisholm State Park

50 Favorite Places #28
Shirley Chisholm is a new state park, opened in the summer of 2019 and named after the pioneering Brooklynite who represented central Brooklyn in Congress from 1969 to 1983. It’s located on the far eastern edge of the borough, just off the Belt Parkway, where East New York butts up against Howard Beach.

From 1956 to 1985, the site was a pair of working landfills. As the Starrett City housing complex rose, so did the landfill piles across the Belt Parkway from it. The landfills blocked not just waterfront access, but even waterfront views, for residents of the waterfront neighborhood. Take it as a sign of the disregard the city has historically shown its 520 miles of coastline (fun fact: NYC has more coastline than Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston combined), and its scornful attitude toward residents of modest means. (You can find an excellent history of the site here.)

By the time I started birding and running Brooklyn’s coastal edge, the area’s reclamation was well underway – the formerly stinking mounds were covered with grass – but it was closed tight. Ominous signs warned away trespassers, while increasingly tattered banners promised a park was coming.

I’d run past, look at the grassy mounds, imagine all the pheasants and meadowlarks and bobolinks that likely lived behind the chain link fence, and think: “that’ll be the day.” I imagined the promised park opening decades in the future, when I’d be too old and frail to run there.

I’m very happy to have been proved wrong, and even happier that the park honors Chisholm. Born in Brooklyn to immigrants from Barbados, Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She was also both the first Black and the first woman to run for the presidential nomination of a major party. An expert on early childhood education, Chisholm championed universal access to quality childcare. She fought for unemployment benefits and a minimum wage for domestic workers. She spearheaded the creation of the Supplemental Nutrition Programs for Women, Infants and Children. Having fought sexism throughout her life, she hired only women for her congressional staff.

Chisholm started her political career “Unbought and Unbossed” – the slogan for her first congressional campaign – and that’s how she ended it, too. How fitting that her namesake park opens up the waterfront to the mostly working-class residents of an untrendy, unglamorous part of Brooklyn. They can walk the network of gravel trails; learn about the region’s flora and fauna; run hill repeats; fish from the pier; picnic on top of the old mounds; and, in non-Covid times, borrow bikes and helmets from the park’s free “bike library.”

I’ll close this post with two views from the central mound on the Pennsylvania Av side. First, looking north and west, past the Starrett City complex to the distant Manhattan skyline . . .

. . . and then the direction you really should be looking, south and east toward Jamaica Bay. (The Northern Harrier – my favorite raptor – is a seasonal bonus, but your chances of seeing a hawk or falcon of some kind are excellent any time of year.)


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