The Battle of BrooklynIn Brooklyn's Prospect Park, down in the basement of the building called the Picnic House, under a desk in a nondescript office at the end of a nondescript corridor, there's a box of fake turf.
It's quite nice fake turf as these things go: The blades of fake grass are scattered every which way atop their fake sod, which is made up of little nubbly crumbles of rubber and sand that look and feel just like, well, ground. You'd never know it wasn't real if you didn't get within a foot or two of it -- never, that is, assuming you didn't notice that the whole thing was in a cardboard box under a desk.
There's an explanation behind the box of fake turf. It's quite an explanation as these things go: It has partisan political rivalries, two professional baseball teams, one internecine battle between soccer moms and baseball dads and another between community boards and community groups, a whole passel of lawsuits, and the fate of a 130-year-old park. Oh, and Pocahontas. One mustn't forget Pocahontas.
But before we get to all that, we have to begin at the beginning.
The Parade Grounds are not one of New York's most famous parks. In 1866, when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, fresh off their triumphant completion of the design of Manhattan's Central Park, were commissioned to do the same for neighboring Brooklyn, they focused on an area near Prospect Hill, a high outcrop near the border between the then-city of Brooklyn and the then-town of Flatbush. For what would become Prospect Park, Olmsted and Vaux chose an irregularly hexagonal plot of land off Flatbush Avenue where they could lay out grassy lawns, forested hills, and an elegant lake without the intrusion of transverse roads -- or of non-pastoral uses like sports.
"The Parade Grounds was an afterthought," explains John Muir of the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment. "It was part of an effort by Olmsted and Vaux to keep the organized outdoor activities out of Prospect Park." Those activities -- both sports and military "parades," or drills -- were, says Muir, "not compatible with the kind of public education that the park was intended to give. It was supposed to teach immigrants and the urban poor how to behave."
A large chunk of what would become Prospect Park had been the property of Edwin Litchfield, a rich railroad promoter and land speculator. This was a hilly reserve perched on the edge of the glacial moraine that runs down the spine of Long Island and through the center of Brooklyn. In the craggy hills behind the Litchfield property, a major Revolutionary War battle known as the Battle of Brooklyn had been fought: in it, George Washington, surprised by Redcoats marching in through undefended Jamaica Pass to the east, barely managed to flee across the East River with his life. A thousand rebels were killed, another thousand were captured and sent to rot on the prison ship Jersey, and Greater New York would remain Tory for the rest of the Revolutionary War. The dead got a monument in Prospect Park noting their courage in being slaughtered. Washington got his face on the quarter.
As for Edwin Litchfield, he had a plan for his battle-weary property: develop the low-lying swampland near the Gowanus Canal for industry, while selling off the fertile uplands of the old Cortelyou farm as mansions for the city's elite. (Litchfield died in 1884 without selling any mansions, but subsequent developers built it over with row houses to become the "streetcar suburb" of Park Slope.) The rocky terrain to the east would be bequeathed to the city (in exchange for about $1 million in 1866 dollars) to become the western section of Prospect Park.
To the Litchfield land and surrounding parcels, Olmsted and Vaux added a stretch of flat outwash plain to the south that had been largely pig farms. Half of it became a lake, with rowboats in the summer and ice skating in the winter. (Ice skating was bucolic enough to please Olmsted's sensibilities.) The other half, across Parkside Avenue, became the Parade Grounds, where local militias could happily fire off their rifles and drink to excess without sullying the bucolic atmosphere of the park proper.
A century passed. The militias were hustled off to indoor armories (apparently their Flatbush neighbors didn't like them any better than Olmsted and Vaux), and the Parade Grounds were left to the baseball and lawn tennis players who would descend, chalk in hand, to mark out fields and courts on the grassy surface. No one's exactly sure when the first backstops and wooden bleachers were put in, though Muir guesses it was in the '20s. These days, you can head out to the Parade Grounds on any afternoon when the permafrost has left the ground and find it jam-packed with people, playing every sport under the sun, including some not even dreamt of in Frederick Law Olmsted's wildest nightmares.
The pounding of thousands of feet is hard on grass, and it shows. Whereas across the street in Prospect Park the fields are lush with green grass, the Parade Grounds fields are threadbare and lumpy, with dips and hollows that fill up with water when it rains. City budget cuts haven't helped, as parks maintenance workers have grown more and more scarce in the continuing battle against erosion.
This was the scene that presented itself to Debbie Romano as she watched her children take the field to play baseball and soccer. For years, she badgered local politicians for scraps of money, trying to build toward her goal of a renovated Parade Grounds with green grass and backstops that would hold up in a stiff breeze. But in late 1998, she was still several million dollars short of her goal.
Until, that is, the city came to her with an offer she couldn't refuse.
Though it's only about a mile from where I've lived for the last decade, I'd never actually been to the Parade Grounds before. My closest brush was several years back, when I'd asked about a softball permit for the Prospect Park fields near my house, and was told they were full to capacity, and why didn't I try the Parade Grounds?
If the Parade Grounds aren't full to capacity, they do a pretty good impression on the occasion of my first visit, on a blustery Saturday morning in October. The 40-acre rectangle is bisected north-south and east-west by tree-lined paths, and each of the four quadrants is bustling with play: teen football practice over here, pre-teen soccer over there -- and over there, and over there. If Brooklyn's third graders are any gauge, soccer will be the national sport by the year 2010.
Three teenagers walk the path between the fields, dressed in full football gear. Their names are Leonard, Wister, and Eric; they play for the Brooklyn Skyhawks, a set of youth sports teams for kids ranging from pre-teen to young adult.
What, I ask them, do they think of the city's plan to put a minor-league baseball stadium in the park, a stadium that with its attendant parking lots will take up fully half the fields for the next two years?
"Here?" says Wister. "In this park? For baseball? So hold on -- they're going to have the field closed off? That means we'd have no place to play."
I explain that the plan is for the stadium to be available for local baseball teams to play in afterwards, and the city would spend $6.5 million to rebuild the remaining fields.
"That's no good," he shakes his head. "Look at all the people this brings to the park. It's not only football -- as you can see, there's a lot of soccer going on, and the Bonnies play here for baseball. And you can't forget, there's people who come here to jog, to ride a bike." Wister himself travels from Williamsburg, a good three miles to the north, to play at the Parade Grounds. Brooklyn, at 1.7 acres of parkland per thousand people, has less than half the per-capita green space of any other American city. "There's people from Queens, the Bronx, Jersey who come here. This is one of the biggest facilities where they allow teams to play. There's gotta be at least a thousand people in this park as we speak, and where are these thousand people gonna be if there's no park? It makes no sense."
"It sucks," says Leonard.
"There's gonna be a lot of kids that aren't going to have anything to do. That could be bad, it could bring up crime in the city."
"Crime sucks," says Leonard.
In the far northeast corner of the park, a group of parents stand around exhorting their kids to victory. (The kids mostly stand around, too, watching the spectacle of one of their teammates weaving madly about with the ball, seldom if ever in the direction of the goal.) One woman, bundled against the autumn chill in a lawn chair, is doing her best to cheer on her son. What does she think, she is asked, about the city's plan to turn this field into the outfield of a baseball stadium? "I'm a professional soccer mom. This does not make me happy. -- Jared, come on! Bring it up! -- There are lots of unused areas in Brooklyn. This is not one of them. I do not understand why they can't target another area -- That's it! Jared, come on! -- I'm a professional soccer mom, and I've been coming out here for many years. He's gonna be eight this year, and -- that's it, Morrell! -- he's been playing since he was four and a half, so -- that's it, Jared! C'mon, follow through! Jared knows how to take the ball. He's just not doing this aggressive thing at all. He's just not into this."
She corrals a younger girl playing at her feet. "Here, you. I have your comic book. There are other places in Brooklyn. I don't understand why it has to be here. I don't see how this area can accommodate the traffic, the parking, or sacrifice the fact that this is used as a park by the community. There has to be another area that they can set up what they want to set up without disrupting the community use. There has to be."
Once the game is over, a 30-something woman with a clipboard begins working the crowd, asking for signatures on a petition opposing the ballpark plan. "According to District 14, it is not a signed deal," she says. She explains that the Economic Development Corporation, an arm of the mayor's office, has struck a deal with the Parks Department for a "first-class minor-league stadium" in the park. "This would have permanent seating for up to a thousand people, and temporary seating for another 3,500 people. So total seating capacity of 4,500. We don't feel that this community needs that kind of facility. They haven't done any environmental impact studies. They haven't looked at the lighting, the traffic, the effects on Prospect Park, the migration of the birds, the peregrine falcons, how the community around this feels about this. This is a Giuliani project, and they're not asking what the community thinks about this. They don't care."
"That's not true," interjects a man in a windbreaker and baseball cap. "The soccer fields will be back in place when the project is done. Before you sign that, you should go to a meeting and hear what they have to say, because you're only hearing half the story."
"There's a public hearing on Monday, November 1st at Borough Hall," the woman tells her listeners, as the man departs. Once he's gone, she confides, "He's the baseball coach at Berkeley-Carroll School. He has a lot of baseball friends."
New York City has an exacting legislative process that development projects must undergo before they can be carried out. Among these are ULURP, the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure; EIS, the Environmental Impact Statement; and a series of hearings, ranging from the lowly (and only advisory) community boards up to the city council level.
The stadium at the Parade Grounds is not the only stadium Mayor Giuliani wants to build in the city of New York. In his ever-changing master plan, the mayor has proposed no less than eight different structures: new major-league baseball stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, three new minor-league parks scattered across Brooklyn and Staten Island (the latter, at an estimated $80 million, to be the most expensive minor-league ballpark ever constructed), a new football stadium for the New York Jets (who, despite their name, play in New Jersey), a new soccer stadium, and a new Madison Square Garden to replace the one that replaced the one that replaced the one that replaced the one that originally stood beside Madison Square. Each project made headlines when first announced, but none till now have gotten past the drawing-board stage.
For the Parade Grounds ballpark, though, the mayor thinks he has found a loophole. This would be only a pit stop for the as-yet-unnamed minor-league team to be launched by the New York Mets the following summer; the proposed permanent home, a vacant lot in Coney Island that was once home to the Steeplechase amusement park, is being delayed by its own legal woes. And as a temporary structure, according to the mayor's lawyers, the stadium would not fall under the category of a "major concession," and so would be immune to ULURP and EIS and the whole arsenal of municipal red tape. Instead, there will be only this one hearing, called by Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden as a forum for the various sides -- and Golden himself, natch -- to air their grievances over the ballpark project.
Borough Hall looks for all the world like a city hall, which is because it once was: City Hall of Brooklyn, the fourth-largest city in the nation until the Consolidation of 1898 merged it into New York City and reduced the Mayor of Brooklyn to the role of borough president. (Or, as the city tabloids soon dubbed him acronymically, the "beep.") Still, for the better part of the twentieth century, that was a heady title, for the five borough presidents (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) sat on the all-powerful Board of Estimate, which ruled on all issues of budget and land use.
It wasn't until the mid-1980s that someone noticed that in this system, tiny Staten Island (population: 350,000) had the same vote as teeming Brooklyn (population: 2.2 million). They sued, charging violation of the principle of one-person, one-vote, and won. As a result, the entire city charter had to be rewritten from the ground up; the Board of Estimate was abolished, its powers handed over to an expanded city council. And Howard Golden, who for 14 years had sat as one of the city's power brokers, was relegated to a legislative backwater with command of only a token budget.
But the building is still nice. Climb the narrow marble steps that flank the rotunda (a rectangular rotunda, thanks to 19th-century budget cuts) and you're outside the second-floor courtroom. Originally the Brooklyn Common Council chamber back before consolidation, and later a state supreme court room, the space now serves as an occasional meeting hall and party space, but with all the accoutrements of pomp: trompe l'oeil cast-iron columns, a florid chandelier the size of an atom bomb, and an oak podium bearing the City of Brooklyn's Dutch motto: Eendraght Macht Maght, "In Unity There Is Strength."
A half-hour before the hearing, and already the room is packed. Just the line to get on the speakers' list pours out into the hall, as scraps of paper with names and addresses pile up on the guard's desk. At the front of the room stands the delegation from the Economic Development Corporation -- the EDC, the quasi-public development agency that is conduit for most of the city's spending on economic development. (Or "economic development," like the $900 million promised to the New York Stock Exchange for a new trading floor, in exchange for the exchange relinquishing its phantom threat to move to New Jersey.) The EDC representatives come bearing huge placards with photos of the Parade Grounds then and now, and, inexplicably, a lovely photo of Ebbets Field, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers that stood about a mile north of the Parade Grounds for 47 years before being demolished to make way for a nondescript housing project named for Jackie Robinson.
Squeezing into the rear and spreading out into the corridor are a group of American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) soccer players and their families, some with hand-lettered signs. One, showing a better command of crayon than of grammar, reads simply: Who's fields?
Golden calls the meeting to order, and begins his opening oratory. Unlike many of those in attendance today, Golden's beef is not with turning over a public park for pro baseball. The borough president, instead, is fixated on the level of the baseball to be played. He proceeds to deliver an impassioned soliloquy on the differences between single-A minor-league ball (as the Mets would provide) and unaffiliated minor-league ball (his preference).
When Golden stops to breathe, Michael Carey, president of the EDC, ascends the podium. The public's complaints, he insists, are wholly unjustified. "There will be no loss of soccer fields as a result of this program, okay? That is a misconception." The impact of 3,500 fans pouring into a neighborhood already beset by Brooklyn's only east-west truck route, he adds, are expected to be minimal: "Thirty-eight evening games will not conflict with programs that will go forward during the daytime. So again, this is a misnomer."
Carey tries to soothe his critics in the audience. "Look at it in terms of a six and a half million dollar improvement to the Parade Grounds to bring a world-class baseball facility that will be there for the people of Brooklyn."
And what, the borough president interjects, is the city getting from the Mets in exchange for its $6.5 million?
"Well," says Carey, "we're getting them to bring a team."
Alvin Berk takes the stand next. Berk is the chair of Community Board 14, which has oversight on the Parade Grounds -- or would, if the city were not insisting that it had no obligation to submit its plans to anyone, anywhere. Berk only found out about the plans a few weeks before, in a fax from a parks department functionary. Berk is not happy.
The community board chair questions EDC vice president Bob Baldur: Will admission be charged for the ballpark? "Yes, it will." Is there admission being charged for use of that area right now? "No, there is not." Who will get the revenues from that admission? "The city of New -- excuse me, the revenues would be going directly to the Mets." Who will bear the costs of the site preparation, design, and construction? "The city of New York will bear that cost." You mean, we the taxpayers of the city of New York? (The assembled taxpayers cheer.)
Berk steps down, and the microphone (after a bit more filibuster from Golden) is thrown open to the public. AYSO organizers and coaches decry the displacement of their kids to make way for paid professionals. "I support renovation of the baseball fields," says one soccer dad. "I support renovation of the Parade Grounds in general. But I do not support parking on an entire quadrant so the New York Mets can get a stadium. I was out there last summer night after night coaching soccer teams, and to say that there are not kids and young adults using the Parade Grounds at night is not true. All four quadrants are full of games being played into the night. These people will all be displaced by parking, and the Mets games. The kind of new development I would like to see in the Parade Grounds is where people play the game, not watch the game."
But not all the young athletes in the crowd are soccer players, and not all have come to stop the stadium. Mark Naison, president of the Bonnies youth baseball league, takes the podium, and asks his players to stand. (Applause from another large segment of the crowd.) It's hard for him to watch "our elected officials so willing to sell out the Bonnies," says Naison, who have been playing at the Parade Grounds for 50 years, "not 1987, when AYSO came in." In the last 20 years, he says, conditions of Parade Grounds have become a national scandal. "I have watched hundreds of games at the Parade Grounds in the last ten years, and have seen players get cut by broken glass, fall into ditches in the outfield, break teeth and noses on routine groundballs, slice their backs and legs on broken fences, and wade through puddles, garbage, and dead animals in the dugouts. Where were the elected officials of Brooklyn while these conditions deteriorated?"
Naison extols the Bonnies, "overwhelmingly African-American and Latino" (applause), for playing "the best baseball in the city on fields that are the worst in the U.S. Right now the current plan offers the only realistic opportunity to build them a field worthy of their talents. If somebody else can provide an alternative, we're willing to listen, but no one has done it." More applause. A brief shouting match breaks out, then is stilled when councilman Stephen DiBrienza steps up to speak.
DiBrienza is a rising star in the city council, and the likely front-runner to be elected city Public Advocate in the 2001. (The same charter revision that cast the borough presidents into powerlessness eliminated the position of City Council President and replaced it with that of the Public Advocate, a sort of citywide ombudsperson. The job retains one very important aspect of the old council president: it's next in line of succession should the mayor be incapacitated or, say, elected to the U.S. Senate.) A Democrat from central Brooklyn, he made his mark when he got into a shouting match with welfare commissioner Jason Turner during questioning over the city's new work-or-else welfare program. The next time DiBrienza held a hearing, the commissioner refused to show up; DiBrienza promptly issued a subpoena. The mayor was so amused, he threatened to close a psychiatric clinic in DiBrienza's district and replace it with a homeless shelter.
"I was actually not going to speak," says DiBrienza. "But the last speaker, an old friend of mine, was actually disturbing -- but probably not for the reason he thinks." He turns to the EDC representatives. "It should disturb you guys, but you work for the Giuliani administration, so it probably won't. Because it's setting up part of the community against part of the community, and that's your fault. Because this plan" -- he points to the original, pre-ballpark renovation plan by Prospect Park administrator Tupper Thomas, which sits on an easel beside the stadium schematics -- "can be done without this temporary ballpark." (Yes! shouts someone. No! shouts another. No, it cannot be done!) "The administration won't spend this kind of money listening to all sides of their unified community. They'd rather divide them, by doing this project! You'd be better off committing some EDC money to get a complete restoration. And that would put Mark Naison on the same side as the AYSO folks. They are real New Yorkers -- not necessarily who the administration listens to!" DiBrienza walks away muttering to himself, waving his hands in exasperation, as the AYSO supporters in the crowd go wild.
A bit later, Debbie Romano takes the stand. She tells of how her kids played 25 years' worth of soccer and baseball at the Parade Grounds, of her efforts to scrounge funds from different city agencies to restore the fields. Then someone shouts out from the crowd, "I hear you brokered this deal!"
Romano is indignant. "That's not true!" she snaps back.
The crowd murmurs uncertainly. Most of them won't go home until late into the night.
Across the Brooklyn Bridge they pour: hundreds if not thousands of them, tramping across the wooden walkway from Brooklyn to their destination at City Hall on the far shore. It's hard to get a good count, because at least half the marchers aren't tall enough to appear on grownups' radar -- dozens upon dozens of girls and boys, many dressed in soccer uniforms, carrying signs reading "Save Our Fields!" and "Field of Schemes!"
The march, on the last sunny Sunday of November, has been organized by the hastily organized Save the Parade Grounds Coalition, a bunch of soccer moms (and dads, and siblings) and community residents who were less than thrilled to hear that their neighborhood park was about to become the resting place of a 4,500-seat baseball stadium. Leading the effort: the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, universally known by its acronym ACORN. (The organization began its life in Little Rock, and the "A" once stood for "Arkansas"; there's still a fair amount of confusion over the name, as when one Brooklyn newspaper cited them in print as "ACORN (find out what it means).") Matters of interest for ACORN range from welfare policy to school reform; since the previous fall, the group has been sparring with the city over the future of the Parade Grounds, in a continuing battle that has rarely emerged beyond the pages of the local community weeklies.
Spearheading ACORN's push has been Bertha Lewis, the group's lead organizer. Lewis is the sort of person who was born to chair meetings. Put her in a room with a dozen other people she's never met, and you can bet that within 10 minutes, she'll be drawing up an agenda and assigning tasks for the demonstration next Tuesday.
Practically the first words out of her mouth when contacted about Giuliani's plan for a Parade Grounds ballpark are: "We're gonna sue the bastard."
To that end, when the first planning meeting is called following the Borough Hall hearing, a lawyer is present to update the assembled on the legal niceties of telling the mayor where to stick his ballpark plan. The listeners gathered around the conference table at ACORN's downtown Brooklyn office include AYSO parents like Mimi Parker (the woman with the clipboard from the soccer game) and neighbors of the Parade Grounds. George Dames, from the North Flatbush Youth and Community Coalition, co-chairs the meeting with Lewis.
A lawsuit is mentioned, but the talk around the conference table soon turns to a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall. Someone wants a Sunday march, because she'll be out of town on the nearest Saturday. Another voice insists that turnout will be diminished on a Sunday morning since people will still be at church. (Baffled looks from the residents of white liberal Park Slope in attendance.) "We need a name," someone else says. Minutes later, the Save the Parade Grounds Coalition is born.
The day of the march across the bridge arrives as the last gasp of autumn, a brilliant November morning that feels like early October. The crowd slowly fills up its designated plot of Cadman Plaza, the sparsely used strip of green created in the 1960s when Brooklyn demolished most of its downtown; impromptu soccer matches break out among the many kids. Standing by the on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, Mimi Parker's husband Tom declares to marchers and TV cameras, "Until now, Giuliani hasn't even managed to rake the leaves or cut the grass in the Parade Grounds. He's going to have a hard time getting elected to the Senate if he can't even do simple yard work."
Arriving in Manhattan after the mile-plus trek across the bridge (the kids chanting, "We like soccer a whole lot! We don't need a parking lot!"), the marchers gather as close to City Hall as the massed police presence will allow them. The speakers at the closing rally are mostly prepubescent, describing haltingly what the Parade Grounds soccer fields mean to them. One of the few grownups to speak is DiBrienza, in attendance with his soccer-playing daughter. The councilman points to the old-fashioned light fixtures in the newly renovated City Hall Park. "Hidden inside those lampposts are surveillance cameras!" he announces. "The mayor spent $30 million to build his bunker, but he can't find the money to fix the Parade Grounds!"
Now, Rudolph Giuliani has never been shy about skirting the letter of the law. This, after all, is a man who has lost innumerable lawsuits against his policies, most charging him with skirting either city law or the U.S. Constitution. But turning the city's public parks into a source of private revenue is a particular obsession with this mayor, beginning with Disney's two-week occupation of Central Park's Great Lawn in the summer of 1995 for a private screening of its movie Pocahontas (in exchange for $1 million in cash, 20% of which went to pay for police overtime for the event), and continuing with his scorched-earth march through the city's community gardens, dozens of which have been seized and turned over to private developers. Isn't there some limit, one begins to wonder, to what the city can do with public space?
"Basically, no," says Dave Lutz of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition. "In common law, the privatization of public parks for private recreational use has been largely accepted -- let's say a private golf course on a public space, which is one of the issues we're dealing with in New York right now, up in the Bronx in Ferry Point Park." There, he explains, the plan is to build a luxury golf course on the last stretch of undeveloped land in the Bronx.
"Parks have always been a matter of developing neighborhoods for the affluent," continues Lutz. "The question now is, do we want to continue to exclude folks who don't have money. Okay, that's a little cynical -- we have built parks in all kinds of neighborhoods. Most of the parks in New York City appear where they appear by accident. They appear on land that was too rough to farm. Or on land that was left over after Robert Moses bulldozed through a highway."
In recent years, as parks maintenance budgets have dwindled nationwide, municipalities have turned to, shall we say, more creative forms of fundraising. In Michigan, the state park system contracted with Pepsi to be its official state park soft drink. In California's Sacramento County, consideration was given to bankrolling a giant new park by leasing out sections of it for a private conference center and golf course.
In New York City, the trend has been toward leaving parks budgets in the hands of private fundraisers. Ever since the Central Park Conservancy was granted control of New York's most famous green space in 1980, parks have become seen as the provenance of private charity, not public service; now, even tiny neighborhood parks (in the right neighborhoods) have private fundraising arms, just as public schools in yuppie districts have lavish PTAs to supplement their meager city budgets. As a result, private donations to New York City parks have increased almost four-fold since 1987, even as public spending has been slashed by 31% in real dollars. And the management of parks has been increasingly turned over to private groups whose security guards conduct donor-pleasing sweeps of the homeless, and whose taste in redecorating tends to run toward vagrant-proof benches and upscale cafes. Local sociologist Sharon Zuken calls it "pacification by cappuccino."
"There's no question," concludes Lutz, "that charging admission for baseball is the beginning of the mallization of Prospect Park."
(we're almost up to the fake turf now. You do remember the fake turf, don't you?)
Both ACORN and borough president Golden have filed lawsuits against the stadium project, each with its own array of co-plaintiffs. Two days after the march across the bridge, a Brooklyn judge hands down what they've been after: a pair of temporary restraining orders barring the city from beginning construction at the Parade Grounds until the lawsuits are resolved.
Thus begins an excruciatingly slow-paced routine for the handful of lawyers and interested civilians: Troop into Judge James Hutcherson's courtroom, wait for the proceedings to begin, then listen as the attorney for the corporation counsel -- the city's legal department -- asks for a postponement. And another. And another. As fall turns into winter, the city's lawyers keep delaying the legal process, even as the city continues to argue in public that time is running out.
Behind the scenes, however, plans are in motion. There had been rumblings of discontent at earlier Save the Parade Grounds Coalition meetings -- seemingly esoteric debates about how to compile a list of demands, and whether the phrase "No ballpark!" should be included. The behind-the-scenes tension breaks through one day after a court hearing.
In the hallway outside Judge Hutcherson's courtroom, George Dames and Bertha Lewis are engaged in a tremendous shouting match. Lewis, it seems, has met with EDC representatives at the ACORN offices on a Saturday afternoon with only a handful of other coalition members present; Dames charges that Lewis intentionally went ahead with the meeting without consulting the rest of the group. Lewis swears that she has no intention of cutting a deal behind anyone's back; she wants only to listen to what the city had to offer. Nothing will be decided, she promises, without the full approval of the entire coalition.
Three weeks later, a call arrives from Bertha Lewis. There's a press conference scheduled for the next day. A settlement has been reached.
And so, on another bright but cold day in the Parade Grounds, yet another crowd has gathered. There's Bertha Lewis, and the Rev. Ray Blanchette from ACORN, and lo and behold, Debbie Romano, all mugging for veteran local TV newsman Gabe Pressman and proclaiming how this settlement is a victory for everyone. The on-field parking is gone, the size of the ballpark has been scaled back, and the Mets have agreed to employ local residents and bring players and coaches to talk at a local public school. "Everything we asked for, they consented," says an ACORN member. "This Mets stadium coming here is a blessing in disguise."
DiBrienza, the only politician to sign onto both lawsuits, appears before the microphones and does a careful dance to avoid antagonizing either his ACORN allies or the borough president's team. "In a perfect world, we should be able to come up with the $10 million that it would take to renovate a major recreational facility for a major borough. Under the Giuliani administration, that's not quite possible." Under the ACORN settlement, "the benefits far outweigh the burdens," he says -- then notes that the EDC still needs to negotiate with Golden as well. "You can't come to terms with the community and ignore the borough's chief executive."
One of the speakers, meanwhile, hasn't gotten with the program. "I am not happy with this agreement," she says, as the cameras whir in silence. "What about the children who aren't part of the organized leagues? Will they be able to get permits?" Lewis and a bunch of other ACORN members surround her afterwards, arguing heatedly atop a frozen, lumpy infield as reporters watch some kids kick around a soccer ball.
Once her ACORN antagonists have departed, the woman, Annie Williams, speaks freely of her qualms about the settlement. She is president of the Woodruff Block Association, a neighborhood group whose district stretches out to the west of the Parade Grounds, a long fly ball from the proposed ballpark.
In her judgment, the city has struck a deal with the wrong people. "You meet with AYSO, which is organized. You meet with the Bonnies. A lot of parents over here can't afford to put their children in these leagues. Especially when you got five or six kids, you can't pay eighty-five, ninety dollars a month, whatever it is that they charge. So the children have to wait until nine, ten o'clock at night to sneak in here and play their little bit of football, play their little bit of baseball."
The lingering autumn warmth that was here on my last visit is long-gone now. The wind blows cold as we walk past the tattered backstops, the fields strewn with icy puddles. "They say to us, we're gonna go play football, or we're gonna play basketball for a little while. And they come out here, play their little football, and they come back on the block, tears in their eyes. What happened? I thought you were going to play? Oh, they chased us off the field. We don't have uniforms, so we can't play on the field."
A nearby basketball court slumps to one side beneath netless metal backboards. The court was just installed in the last few years, Williams explains, and already is practically unplayable.
George Dames is also none too pleased. Chairman of the North Flatbush Youth and Community Coalition, one of the founding members of the Save the Parade Grounds Coalition, he has not even been invited to the ACORN press conference to announce the deal that has been struck.
"I don't know what ACORN's motivation is at this point," he says dispiritedly over the phone. "I think that people need to be straight-up in terms of what their issue is." He speculates that ACORN, which receives city contracts for several projects, may have been dissuaded from carrying its fight with the mayor too far.
"It seems very suspicious to me that when we had the upper hand, that the community group is the one to make a deal."
This is not the first time around for renovation of the Parade Grounds. The fields were rebuilt in the '50s (temporary ballfields were installed in Olmsted's beloved Prospect Park as a stopgap measure; they're still there today), and again in the '70s. Each time, the wear and tear of pounding feet swiftly reduced the re-sodded fields to dirt and mud, the hummocks and drainages reappearing as erosion outstripped the efforts of understaffed parks maintenance crews. And this is not longer the city government of the '50s or even the '70s. "We have the lowest parks budget in the history of the consolidated City of New York," notes Dave Lutz. "We have the lowest staffing, not counting the WEP workers" -- the unpaid workfare participants who have largely replaced public employees as parks maintenance workers under Giuliani -- "in the history of the City of New York."
And this, finally, is where FieldTurf comes in.
When Houston Astros owner Roy Hofheinz first approached the Monsanto corporation in 1966 about making an artificial turf for his brand-new Astrodome, it was for one reason alone: his grass was dying. The original Astrodome design called for skylights to allow grass to grow indoors, but the sunlight that drove photosynthesis also turned out to make it impossible to see flyballs. The skylights were painted over, the field swiftly turned brown, and Hofheinz put in his call to the plastics people.
It turned out, however, that Astroturf (as Monsanto's product came to be known) had another side benefit: while it cost money to install, it cost next to nothing to maintain. And so, despite a mounting toll of injuries running from dislocated knees to new concoctions like "rug burn" and "turf toe," and in the face of widespread player antipathy (Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Dick Allen took one look at the stuff and declared, "If a horse can't eat it, I don't want to play on it"), Astroturf spread like crabgrass across the athletic fields of America.
This fad lasted until the 1980s, when it became apparent that athletes were injuring themselves on turf fields at an alarming rate, and ballparks began converting back to natural sod. (Since grass wasn't an option for the several domed stadiums that had sprung up in the interim, their tenants promptly began demanding new buildings with no roof, or a roof that retracted to allow sunlight to reach the field; by the end of the '90s, almost every bedomed team would have its wish fulfilled.) Artificial turf became a pariah among the international sports community.
That is, until FieldTurf.
The new turf is made from a composite of sand, rubber, and something called "Nike Grind" that, appropriately enough, is made of ground-up recycled sneakers. John Gilman, its U.S. office's tireless president, sends off an endless string of e-mails with different minor sports celebrities endorsing the virtues of FieldTurf. Even FIFA, the body that oversees international soccer and about as much a fan of artificial surfaces as the Pope is of birth control, gave its qualified blessing to FieldTurf, saying it would consider the fake turf for use in World Cup matches.
For $2,000 extra, Gilman's company will spray your FieldTurf field with the aroma of fresh grass.
What's driving FieldTurf's business, though, is its price tag. The new artificial surface is about five times as expensive as natural sod, but costs only half as much to maintain, and is supposed to last eight to 12 years.
And this is why that box of FieldTurf is sitting under the Parks Department desk: a sample from the company, it's making the rounds of city officials charged with deciding how to keep up the city's fraying athletic fields on a shrinking budget.
Even professional green-space agitators like Lutz have little bad to say about bringing plastic into city parks--at least, into some city parks. "There are places, and there are places," he says. "In a funny sort of way, when Olmsted designed Prospect Park, he designed the Parade Grounds to be different. And if different at the dawn of the 21st century means artificial turf for the 'parades' that we now engage in, then I guess that's what it is.
"I wouldn't want to see it in Prospect Park proper," he notes. But Lutz isn't averse to making concessions to convenience. "I have plastic chairs in my community garden. Some of the community gardeners don't think that's appropriate."
While ACORN has settled its suit, Golden's separate challenge is still in place, and the beep isn't budging. ACORN stages a protest of its former ally outside his Borough Hall office, but he remains unmoved.
The denouement, when it comes, comes suddenly. One minute, the lawyers are back in court for the fourth time to discuss the remaining lawsuit. The next, city lawyer Christopher King is announcing that his client is withdrawing its plans for the ballpark. "The plan," he says, "has been abandoned."
The word spreads quickly: the Mets are going to St. John's. While insisting that the Parade Grounds were the only viable location for a ballpark, it seems, EDC had been quietly scouting around for an alternate site. And now they'd found one, on St. John's University campus in Queens, several miles to the northeast. On privately held land, this ballpark would truly be outside the scope of ULURP: once off city parkland, the project can proceed unfettered by rules governing public developments.
Outraged Queens neighbors immediately file a lawsuit, charging that the St. John's ballpark would bring traffic and litter and threaten their "continued existence as one of the best places to live and raise a family."
But back in Brooklyn, at least, it's all smiles. One day a few weeks later, a call comes from Alvin Berk: Howard Golden is having a press conference to announce the allocation of $10.3 million from his capital budget to restore the Parade Grounds. The renovated park will have baseball fields and football fields and soccer fields -- yes, even some with FieldTurf -- everything, in short, that ACORN and Debbie Romano and George Dames and the Bonnies wanted, but without the minor-league ballpark.
Berk is jubilant -- the deal, he says, is "a win-win situation." Golden's office will even work with park administrator Tupper Thomas to set up a private endowment fund for future maintenance of the park. "That's really key," says Bonnies president Naison, "The problem with the Parks Department has always been that it is nobody's primary job to maintain the fields. So we're hoping this is going to be a very different situation."
(Bertha Lewis, who had publicly declared that there was no way to get renovation without the Mets ballpark, is unrepentant, insisting that "there's no way Golden would have come up with the money if we hadn't been pressuring him," and pointing to the loss of the 40 jobs that had been promised to accompany the new ballpark.)
With the stroke of a pen, Howard Golden has ended the battle of the Parade Grounds. (Asked what made it possible, a nonplussed spokesman for the borough president insists, "There was no breakthrough. He just made a commitment.") And as spring returns, so do the youth sports hordes, to engage in combat on the dusty fields and await the bulldozers, the work crews, the FieldTurf. The lawyers and the newspaper reporters disappear and move on to other matters. No one builds monuments to peace.