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.

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Floyd Bennett Field

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.

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Ditmas Park (Halloween edition)

50 Favorite Places #25
Ditmas Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood of tree-lined streets and gracious Victorian homes, is one of my favorite places any time of year – but that’s for another post. This post is about Ditmas Park at Halloween.

Several years ago, I heard someone mention that Halloween is to Ditmas Park as Christmas is to Dyker Heights. I was intrigued, but then forgot about it until after the holiday. Last year, it slipped my mind again. But in this pandemic year, with nothing but time on my hands, I made a point of reconnoitering the neighborhood on a damp late-October morning.

At first, I was disappointed. I saw the requisite pumpkins, many spider webs, and a few skeletons. An inflatable black and purple ghoul, bobbing in the breeze, struck me as more playful than terrifying. Frankly, I saw nothing that would have stood out as exceptional in any residential section of Brooklyn.

Then I came to the corner of Argyle and Albemarle roads. It was just one house, but what a house! Its wraparound porch, typical of the neighborhood, lends itself to discrete vignettes of horror. There’s one dedicated to witches, one to zombies, one to demons, and one – my favorite, shown below – to scary clowns.

If I weren’t signed up to make calls to voters tomorrow (my attempt to avert true horror), I might run by there after dark to check out the full show.

Then again, I might be too scared to.

Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park

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.

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Mazzola Bakery

Fifty Favorite Places #22
In 1928, when Nicolo Mazzola opened a bakery at the corner of Henry and Union streets in what was then called South Brooklyn, the neighborhood was well into its transition from Irish to Italian. Both groups were driven by hunger – the potato famine, the almost feudal poverty of the Mezzogiorno – and drawn by the lure of jobs along Brooklyn’s developing waterfront. Today, the area has been re-dubbed Carroll Gardens, and it’s pretty thoroughly gentrified. Judging by what one sees and hears on the street, intimidatingly stylish and attractive young families from France are now the biggest immigrant group. But traces of older waves remain. There are the fig trees brought as seedlings from Sicily or Campania, replanted in Brooklyn gardens, wrapped and coddled through half a century of harsh winters, and still bearing fruit today. There are old school barber shops and funeral homes with unmistakably Italian names. There’s the Cittadini Molesi social club, the last of its kind. There’s the church where Al Capone was married. There are front yards like the one pictured below.

A Carroll Gardens classic

And there’s Mazzola Bakery – still in its original location and still family-owned, though since 1980 that family has not been the Mazzolas but the Caravellos.

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Sunset Park

50 Favorite Places #21
This is about Sunset Park – the actual park, not the neighborhood of the same name (though I love the neighborhood as well). In general, I rank parks according to the quantity, variety and novelty of the birds I’ve seen or aspire to see within their boundaries. Sunset Park is an exception. Not so with Sunset Park. While you can see birds there – Red Tailed Hawks and Kestrels and Crows of both the American and Fish persuasions, as well as the ubiquitous pigeons, House Sparrows and starlings, other common backyard birds, and the occasional weary migrant – it’s no one’s idea of a birding hot spot. The fact that I love it so much despite its failure to contribute a single species to my life list attests to its other charms.

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Plumb Beach

IMG_8320 (3)50 Favorite Places #20

Or is it Plum? Over the years, it’s been called both. The “NYC Go” site describes “Plum” as a misspelling, then proceeds to assert the name derives from beach plums (plumbs?) indigenous to the area. Old photographs from the collection of the Brooklyn Historical Society show the name spelled Plum.  But at some point – and I’ve not been able to pinpoint exactly when, or why – the official spelling changed to Plumb. If you pull off the Belt Parkway into the rather tatty parking area today, “Plumb Beach” is what you’ll see on the official National Park Service sign.

Before it was either Plumb Beach or Plum Beach, it was Plum (not Plumb) Island, cut off from mainland Brooklyn by a tidal creek. Its isolation contributed to a colorful history, documented by my running teammate Keith Williams in his (sadly defunct) blog, The Weekly Nabe. I won’t go into the details – you can read Keith’s telling here – but the highlights include the world’s shortest ferry route, grandiose military plans, a squatters’ encampment, contraband liquor, illegal prize fights, and of course, because this is NYC, Robert Moses.

It was Moses who demoted Plum from Island to mere Beach. With Hog Creek filled in for the construction of his Belt Parkway, Plum(b) joined the rest of Brooklyn. And while it’s still not easy to get to by foot or public transit, it’s a cinch if you have a car. Classic Moses.

Since 1972, Plumb Beach has been part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, administered by the National Park Service. It’s an unlikely national park. There’s not much of a buffer between it and the congested Belt Parkway, just a narrow strip of grass and a bike/pedestrian path. Even from the bike path, the beach and its adjacent tidal marsh are mostly hidden from view by scrubby growth. The trash-strewn parking lot and its permanently closed visitor center offer the only clues that something might be up.

Its unlikeliness is precisely what I like about it. Though Plumb Beach is no longer an island, it’s still a world apart. On summer weekends, beach-going families congregate on the sand west of the jetty, while kite surfers provide a show out on the water. The pious splash and lounge fully covered, next to sunbathers covered with practically nothing.

The wilder beach on the other side of the jetty is the domain of fishermen, off-leash dogs (the bane of my existence) and birders. Its dunes surround a shallow basin that transforms itself twice daily, going from lake dotted with swaying grasses to mudflats strewn with debris. From the beach, you wouldn’t know it was there.

Birders know it, of course. We desire the birds it conceals: herons and egrets and rails and shorebirds, swooping skimmers, diving terns, skulking sparrows. The other group who knows it are sexually marginalized men, also drawn by its possibilities for concealment, also motivated by desire.

There’s an undeniable awkwardness that comes from being fully kitted out as a Bird Nerd – convertible shorts, baseball cap, binoculars, spotting scope – in a place where others are kitted out in, well, nothing. And, I assume, an even greater awkwardness being naked or recently naked or about to get naked in a place where others are peering through binoculars while carrying powerful telephoto lenses. Sometimes, to combat the awkwardness, greetings are exchanged. But in general, the two groups occupy the space as though it’s two separate spaces, parallel worlds.

My two most vivid memories of Plumb Beach are of a regally long-beaked Whimbrel plucking crabs from the interior mud flats at low tide, and of a regally naked man liberating his hair from its messy bun before stepping into the lagoon that fills that same space at high tide, then floating there among the grasses.

It’s been a couple of years now, and I haven’t seen either the bird or the man since. Both have acquired a dream-like quality. In this sweltering pandemic summer, Plumb Beach seems more remote than ever, at least for the car-less, and the quantity of trash in its parking lot and along its shore has reached frightening levels. But it’s still one of my favorite places in the city, if only because the idea of multiple worlds hidden behind the Belt Parkway enchants me so.

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The Vale of Cashmere

IMG_8249 (2)50 Favorite Places #19

First off, that name: Vale of Cashmere. Whisper it to yourself. What do the syllables bring to mind? For me, they promise magical forests, enchanted pools, knights bold and ladies fair.

In fact, the Vale of Cashmere is a small section of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, tucked away in its northeast corner and accessed by one of several winding, descending walks. And although its name always puts me in mind of Arthurian legend (the “vale” part, I suppose), it’s actually grounded in Orientalist fantasies (the Cashmere part). The name was bestowed by the wife of Brooklyn’s then-mayor, who lifted it from an 1817 poem by the Irishman Thomas Moore. Moore’s poem recounts the legend of Lalla Rookh, a princess engaged to a prince who falls in love with a poet who – surprise! – turns out to be the prince in disguise. (Under a different spelling, Lala Rokh was the excellent Persian restaurant, now sadly closed, where I celebrated surviving the 2017 Boston Marathon. But I digress . . . ) Continue reading

Tiny Brooklyn front yards

IMG_819950 Favorite Places #18

Okay, so it’s not a “place,” exactly. It’s many places, scattered across the borough. Perhaps it’s better described as a style, a statement, even a culture. But the creative things that Brooklynites do with their tiny front yards deserve a shout out. For instance, I’m not sure why the folks in the Park Slope building depicted at the top of this post turned their yard into an amusement park, but I’m glad they did. If I had the ability to embed video, you’d see those sparkly rainbow pinwheels spinning wildly and it would be guaranteed to make you smile.

In fact, many tiny Brooklyn yards seem calculated to make you smile, like the one below, in the Gowanus section. (“They must be Italian!” was the reaction of an Italian-Canadian friend.)

9th St 3-4

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Coffey Street Pier

IMG_8131 (2)50 Favorite Places #17

My world, like everyone’s, has shrunk these last two months. I no longer live in a vast metropolis, one in which $2.75 lets me hop on the subway in brownstone Brooklyn and emerge, a little over an hour and one change of trains later, at Pelham Bay in the Bronx, an easy jog from Long Island Sound. There’ve been no trips to Coney Island, or Plumb Beach or Fort Tilden or any of the other favorite places that take me away from the city while being very much of it.

Instead, there’s my block. The surrounding blocks. Prospect Park. Green-Wood Cemetery. The Gowanus Canal.

This week, I expanded my “stay at home” radius. Continue reading