Photo by Emilie Murphy
Apr 22, 2021
Marine Park: A little rougher around the marshes, but still vital
The pandemic has been hard on all of Brooklyn's parks but its biggest comes with unique challenges. Enter the Marine Park Alliance
If you cross Avenue U between Burnett and East 38th, it’s almost as if you’ve walked into another world. Tall grasses grow wild, an estuary stretches out to Jamaica Bay. You can hear birdsong, and it isn’t the squabbling of pigeons. This oasis is South Brooklyn’s Marine Park—obvious to those who know, a revelation to those who don’t—and while it might be one of the lesser-known parks in the borough, it is the largest, covering 798 acres.
For many Brooklynites the park is more than a nature preserve; it’s a gym, a gathering space, a refuge. In addition to four cricket fields, an 18-hole golf course, fifteen tennis courts, and football, basketball, handball and bocce facilities, the park includes 530 acres of preserved land that is home to diverse flora and fauna.
And it’s faring a bit worse for the wear after 13 months of pandemic: With foot traffic up and maintenance resources down, Marine Park is a little rougher around the marshes these days. According to one local park ranger, citywide budget cuts of $85 million have led to a reduction in seasonal staff workers, which means less trash pickup and a noticeable worsening in maintenance.
In a good year, the park is too expensive for the city to maintain, demanding from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation more than it can afford, even before its budget cuts.
This is where the Marine Park Alliance comes in, a grassroots organization dedicated to the preservation of the park.
‘This end of Brooklyn’
Established in 2012 by Maria Carro-D’Alessandro, the MPA is a volunteer-led organization whose mission—“to provide cultural, environmental and volunteer programming in Marine Park for the health and well-being of all New Yorkers”—keeps the group busy throughout the year. Carro-D’Alessandro, a lifelong local, has felt connected to the park’s legacy since her childhood, largely due to her parents’ strong involvement. After serving on the local Civic Association for years, Carro-D’Alessandro thought there was a missing link between the community members and government agencies. Looking to fill this gap, she created the MPA.
“My idea was to make the Alliance the one that gets everyone to work together,” explains Carro-D’Alessandro. “We need to focus on being one voice to get any recognition at this end of Brooklyn.”
Part of this means liaising better with NYC Parks, a relationship Carro-D’Alessandro has worked to improve over the years. Working closely with Margot Perron, the Regional Park Administrator, Carro-D’Alessandro has been able to increase funding from outside sources and secure prestigious grants. Together, they have created committees that unite neighborhood stakeholders and have made park programming more inclusive of all users.
Nearly every other weekend in the warmer months, the MPA leads volunteer days to help maintain the park. They rake leaves, clean up garbage, plant bulbs and trees, paint fences and help with pretty much anything else that might be required. They also host events in the Carmine Carro Community Center—the first LEED-certified city building in the five boroughs, named for Carro-D’Alessandro’s father—such as Chinese New Year and Women’s History Month celebrations.
When the parks department instituted a temporary ban on organized gatherings early on in the pandemic, the MPA had to put clean-ups on pause. Since then, park involvement has waned. Organized events that used to mobilize between 100 to 120 volunteers now bring around 25 or so. Still, those who do continue their involvement remain dedicated.
“I trained for seventeen marathons and fifty-two half marathons in this park,” says volunteer Dan Armstrong, wielding a giant sponge glove. Armstrong helps keep the benches, lampposts, fences and other parts of the park freshly painted. “I just love it, that’s why I’m here.”
Beats being a dump
Now, for Earth Week, the MPA has organized a series of events to get people out. On Monday, the group’s volunteers prepped the flower beds outside of the Carro Center for the season. On Thursday, Earth Day, mayoral candidates will discuss their thoughts on green spaces throughout the city. On Friday, volunteers will gather to plant dogwood trees south of the rose garden and a magnolia tree by Seba Playground. Saturday is an all-hands-on-deck volunteer day with a focus on cleaning up the area by the Carro Center.
The MPA’s dedication to their green space is a reminder that, despite our largely urban environment, Brooklyn remains an important piece of a larger whole. Carro-D’Alessandro insists that Marine Park is not a neighborhood park, but a regional one, a crucial component of the region’s larger ecosystem.
“It’s all interconnected,” says Gabriel Willow, a naturalist and guide with the city’s Audubon Society. Marine Park, he explains, welcomes migratory birds year-round and supports a complex food web in the protected salt marsh.
Local park rangers have documented over 290 species of wildlife and more than 220 plant species. Monarch butterflies, cottontail rabbits and horseshoe crabs all coexist within the park’s acreage along with a diversity of birdlife, from osprey to marsh wrens and snowy egrets to American oystercatchers.
Willow, who leads birding expeditions all over the city, points to the tidal marsh, a specialized habitat within the park. While the city was historically surrounded by these marshes, most have been either filled in for building purposes or dredged for shipping.
“We’re lucky that the marsh at Marine Park didn’t become a dump,” he says. Thanks to restoration and careful maintenance of the area, the tidal marsh is now a haven for rare wildlife such as the Salt Marsh Sparrow, a bird with a rapidly declining population that only nests and breeds in tidal Spartina. “Salt marshes are the nurseries of the sea,” explains Willow. “Without them, everything is destabilized.”
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