This time last year, Bensonhurst Park was in desperate need of renovation. Slabs of broken concrete protruded across the park grounds; wooden benches were splintering apart, some nearly broken in half; the charred, black exterior of the public restrooms were still boarded up from the fire that ravaged through them the previous fall.
Local community board members advocated for funding. Residents reportedly filed complaints with the New York City Parks Department. But nothing was done. And while much of the park’s crumbling infrastructure is still crumbling today, one thing will soon make a big difference: new funding in the form of $6.5 million.
The Bensonhurst Bean, a local newspaper, was instrumental in raising awareness about the park’s dilapidated state, and just last week the publication reported that thanks in part to its work, Bensonhurst Park will receive millions of dollars in funding from city officials for renovations over the next two years. These renovations include fixing the playground, building new bike paths, and installing new sprinklers and benches, among other projects.
Though Bensonhurst Park requires much more money to restore it to its former glory (The Bensonhurst Bean reports $30 million, according to city official estimates), it is reportedly unfeasible for the Parks Department to immediately allocate that much funding to a single park. According to Community Board 11 Councilman Vincent Gentile, who represents community members of Bensonhurst, money will be doled out in a five-phase plan with funding gleaned from a combination of resources, including the Community Board 11 budget and the NYC Parks Department.
Within the 2017 Community Board budget, Bensonhurst Park will be designated $2.2 million from Councilman Gentile and $200,000 from Councilman Mark Treyger, who also represents the area. On a larger scale, city funding in the amount of $2.3 million from Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and $1 million from Mayor Bill deBlasio will round out the remaining renovation fund.
The park, located on Cropsey Ave. between 21st Ave. and Bay Parkway, has reportedly not seen a full-scale makeover in a quarter of a century. According to Community Board 11 District Manager Marnee Elias-Pavia, the disrepair has become unacceptable.
“We have drainage issues around the sprinklers,” she said. “The safety mats and swings need upgrades. There’s been a lack of investment in park infrastructure over the years.”
Aside from aesthetic issues, Bensonhurst Park has also had many instances of injuries to children. According to a report issued by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer in February 2015 concerning city playground injuries, it was one of the parks with the highest number of reported playground injuries over a 10-year period in the city.
A trip to Bensonhurst Park on a cloudy Sunday afternoon in August finds the playground, and the larger park area, nearly empty; likely both because of the weather and its run-down state. An elderly man sitting on a brown bench, who did not wish to be identified for this story, said as much.
“They haven’t fixed this place up for years and it shows,” he said. “It’s not like it used to be.”
The way it used to be, and indeed the park itself, has a long history. In the late 1880s, a developer named James Lynch purchased land from the Benson family, planted five thousand shade trees, and built 1,000 villas, which he named Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea, according to park history provided by the New York City Parks Department. Due to its serene atmosphere and proximity to Manhattan, the community began attracting working families who sought quiet from the bustling streets of the city. This created a need for a public park.
In 1891, the City of Brooklyn called for establishing a park in the area, which would be known as “Bensonhurst Park.” A few years later in 1895, the city purchased roughly 16 acres of the land from the Bensen family for a mere $88,000. According to the Parks Department, this original parcel of land encapsulates the majority of Bensonhurst Park today. The park twice expanded later on, in 1924 and 1944, when two smaller parcels were acquired by condemnation.
Since then, the Belt Parkway was constructed in the 1930s, planting a tree-lined route along the shorefront of Brooklyn and Queens, and more importantly, spurring the influx of different immigrant groups to Bensonhurst, among them Italians and Eastern Europeans. It was then that the park became a neighborhood hub, and began attracting many patrons with its voluminous benches, game tables, handball and basketball courts, two baseball fields, playground equipment and safety surfacing.
Much of that surfacing is worn today. On the playground, pieces of rubber tiles are torn around the swing set, creating a sea of uneven flooring. The swings are held up by rusted chains and let out a cacophony of creaks when there is a light breeze. There are no children playing, but in the distance, a group of teenagers get in a game of basketball on the wet, concrete courts. The rubber soles of their sneakers squeak with every step and pivot and the reverberating sound only accentuates the park’s emptiness.
But according to District Manager Elias-Pavia, low park patronage is not a problem. Indeed, it is the very opposite that drives the need for park renovations: there are normally too many people who utilize the grounds.
“The Bensonhurst population increased over the years and became more diverse and there was no maintenance to the park,” she said. With so many residents now clamoring for park space, overuse and a lack of maintenance gave way to the space’s current status.
Members of the Bensonhurst community will be given the opportunity to participate in meetings where they can weigh in on what specific renovations or additions they would like in the park. This practice, known as a scoping meeting, occurs once funding has been secured, according to Elias-Pavia. Other participants include Community Board 11 officials and representatives of the Parks Department. A date has not yet been set for the scoping meeting.
For the teenagers playing basketball in the park, the priorities were easy to identify. “New nets,” said a 17-year-old named Andres. “We need those.”
Andres lives in nearby Bath Beach, but crossed neighborhood lines to shoot hoops with friends. The boys’ game was soon interrupted as thunder was heard in the distance and more clouds rolled in. Once the rain began, Andres politely excused himself and he and his friends scattered off in various directions, but not before he made one more request:
“Indoor basketball courts, too!”