For a town stuffed with world-famous parks, New York City isn't known for having a glut of state-operated green spaces.
True, there are a small handful of state parks — seven plus the newly minted Stonewall Inn State Historic Site and a popular riverside esplanade run in partnership with the city — scattered across the five boroughs, many of which are inevitably mistaken for city parks. Among them: Harlem's Riverbank State Park, East River State Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the newest of the bunch, Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park, which was designed by the late, great Louis Kahn and is located, naturally, on Roosevelt Island. Others such as Bayswater Point State Park in Queens and Staten Island's Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve are decidedly more state park-y in character in that they're located at a further remove from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple and showcase a variety of unfettered natural habitats. (Translation: The bird-watching at these spots is better than the people-watching.)
There's a new state park on the horizon, however, that promises to be the grand dame of state parks in the city — a sprawling patch of open land dedicated to outdoor recreation that's undoubtedly urban in character but also offers a marked escape from the grind. And most important, the new park will directly serve the communities — some of the most disadvantaged in the entire state — that it abuts.
Brooklyn's Shirley Chisholm State Park will add over 10 miles of walking and biking trails to a previously unaccessible stretch of Jamaica Bay near Kennedy Airport. (Rendering: Office of Governor Cuomo)
Named in honor of New York politician Shirley Chisholm, the new state park will span 407 acres along the Jamaica Bay waterfront in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Not including the city-state operated Hudson River Park, this makes Shirley Chisholm State Park the largest state park to be located within city limits.
A legendary New Yorker if there ever was one, Brooklyn-born Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress in 1968. In 1972, she went on to put in a failed but nonetheless historic presidential bid. She continued to represent New York's 12th Congressional District until 1983 when she retired from Congress and turned her attention to education. Chisholm, who died in 2005, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
This all being said, there are other much larger city parks to be found in NYC.
Central Park, for example, is 840 acres while Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is the largest city park at a staggering 2,772 acres. In Brooklyn, Marine Park spans across 530 salt marsh-shrouded acres, edging out Prospect Park by just a few acres for title of biggest park in the borough. But as far as state-operated parks are concerned, the size and scope of Shirley Chisholm State Park can't be beat.
From Brooklyn dumping ground to waterfront paradise
When the $20 million first phase of Shirley Chisholm State Park debuts next summer, New Yorkers will find 10 miles of biking and hiking trails, 3.5 miles of waterfront access complete with kayak rentals, picnic areas, a public pier, pop-up environmental education experiences, bathrooms and more. A second phase, which could potentially include an amphitheater, "lawn patios" and a permanent environmental education center dependent on community input, is due to be completed in 2020 or 2021.
(No word if either phase will include soccer fields, a valid point considering that the Photoshopped likeness of fabled English footballer Frank Lampard curiously appears in design renderings of the new park. That's him in the blue jogging shorts below.)
The park packs a slew of amenities into an expansive swath of land that's always been there — it just hasn't been accessible to the public before.
In fact, the park encompasses not one but two former landfill sites, the Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill (110 acres) and the Fountain Avenue Landfill (297 acres), both of which were operated by the NYC Department of Sanitation from the mid-1950s through the early to mid-1980s. Severed from the rest of Brooklyn by the Belt Parkway, the adjacent landfills jut into Jamaica Bay (part of the vast Gateway National Recreation Area) and offer spectacular views waterfront of a part of New York City that many casual visitors (and even longtime residents) tend to miss out on.
Although both landfills were closed, covered and deemed "sanitary" by 1985, remediation work at the polluted sites didn't begin in earnest until 2002 and was completed in 2009. (During its heyday, the Fountain Avenue Landfill was on the receiving end of a large bulk of the city's residential garbage along with, according to local lore, the bodies of mob hit victims. The smaller Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill was used mostly for demolition and construction debris.)
Per a press statement released by the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, 1.2 million pounds of clean soil was spread and 35,000 trees and shrubs were planted across the defunct garbage dumps as part of the $235 million remediation project spearheaded by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.
"The addition of prairie grass and native plantings prevents erosion and has created a diverse ecosystem of more than 400 acres of coastal meadows, wetlands, and woodlands that have attracted local wildlife," writes Cuomo's office of this park-ready waterfront parcel in deepest Brooklyn. (The Hidden Waters Blog published a fascinating history on this long-neglected stretch of Jamaica Bay when the state park scheme was first announced earlier this year.)
Mayor Bill de Blasio, locked in a perpetual squabbling match with the governor, recently had nothing but nice things to say about the new state-run park: "Parks and green spaces are essential to New Yorkers, and I'm excited that the creation of this new park will help give more residents access to outdoor activities. My administration will continue working with the State to push this vital project forward."
As for Cuomo, he noted in a recent unveiling ceremony held at the site that "our state parks are community treasures, and this new park transforms what was once landfill into exquisite open space, waterfront access and outdoor recreation for Brooklyn."
It's worth noting that Shirley Chisholm State Park won't be the only landfill-turned-park in town. On Staten Island, the former Fresh Kills Landfill, which reigned as the largest landfill in the world for several decades and was the only active New York City landfill from 1991 until its closure in 2001, is in the process of being converted into a sprawling urban park. When fully completed in 2036, the Department of Parks and Recreation-administered green space will be the second largest park in the city.
One piece of a larger, community-bettering puzzle
Ambitious — and some might say long overdue — landfill remediation projects aside, one of the most impressive aspects of Shirley Chisholm State Park is the much larger initiative that the park is part of.
The state park is described as a "signature project" of Vital Brooklyn, a $1.4 billion community development and wellness initiative that, among other things, aims to dramatically boost the number of available affordable housing units in Central Brooklyn while establishing a network of community-based healthcare centers. Also key to the initiative is an aggressive push to end food insecurity in Brooklyn's most vulnerable neighborhoods. Nearly $2 million in state funds will be invested in mobile produce stands, youth-run farmers markets, community gardens and other measures to help ensure that "local communities have the ability to purchase fresh, local foods, and have the support they need for healthier lifestyles."
So close yet a world away: Jamaica Bay is an outdoor recreation wonderland that's full potential has yet to be realized. (Photo: Mollybdena/Flickr)
Meanwhile, the state is leading a complementary charge to bring 34 new or restored pocket parks, community gardens, recreation centers and/or playgrounds to several targeted Central Brooklyn neighborhoods — East New York, Brownsville, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights among them — so that no resident is more than a 10-minute walk from his or her nearest public green space. (Convenient access to local parks is one of the flagship campaigns of the Trust for Public Land and one of the key criteria in the nonprofit's annual ParkScore index.)
The Vital Brooklyn homepage explains why so much state funding is being invested in Central Brooklyn:
Social and economic indicators show that Central Brooklyn is one of the most disadvantaged areas in all of New York State, with measurably higher rates of obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, limited access to healthy foods or opportunities for physical activity, high rates of violence and crime, wide economic disparities from unemployment, and poverty levels, and inadequate access to high quality health care and mental health services.
Says Cuomo: "Shirley Chisholm led the fight to improve the health and wellness of underserved communities that we carry on today with the Vital Brooklyn initiative, and we are proudly naming this park after her in admiration for the example of leadership and devotion she set for all of us."