This Used to Be My Playground


It isn’t much of a park, as parks go: a couple rows of trees, wide expanses of uneven patchy grass, some crumbling concrete bleachers behind the aged backstops.

Still, go out to Brooklyn’s Parade Grounds any day of the week, and you’ll find every field packed with athletes playing soccer, football, baseball, even cricket. Their ages range from toddler to post-teen, with a sizable skew in the direction of youth: Every grown-up game seems to have at least one peewee soccer match going on in its end zone or outfield. They are here, dodging the ruts and puddles, for one reason only: This is one of the few places in the borough that offers open athletic space, and lots of it.

“This is one of the biggest facilities for teams to play that I know of,” says Wister Dorta, a Williamsburg teen out for practice with his Sky hawks football team on a brisk fall Saturday afternoon. “Ours is the intermediate league, 14 to 16. And then we have midgets, which is younger. We have about five different divisions. And then you have a lot of soccer going on, and the Bonnies [a group of youth-club baseball teams with various age divisions like the Skyhawks] also play here. There’s got to be at least a thousand people in this park as we speak.”

The Giuliani Administration looked at the Parade Grounds and saw something different: a home for the short-season single-A minor-league franchise that the New York Mets want to bring to Brooklyn. The mayor’s preferred permanent stadium site, the old Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, will not be ready until at least 2001—and so for at least one summer at the Parade Grounds, the Mets would be in (in a 4500-seat ballpark built at city expense), the kids out.

“This organization has kids from all over Brooklyn: East New York, Brownsville, Flatbush, Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene,” says Horace Anderson, a coach for the Skyhawks. “This area right here is centrally located. If we couldn’t play here, I don’t know where else we could play.”

Or as Dorta’s Skyhawks teammate Leonard Jones sums up more succinctly: “It sucks.”

ââ After decades of neglect, a campaign to restore the Parade Grounds began two years ago, when Debra Romano, the mother of a Bonnies baseball player, started organizing representatives of the various youth leagues and appealing to elected officials for funds. The effort had cobbled together about $1.5 million, enough to renovate about half the park, when the mayor stepped in with a offer: The city, via the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation (EDC), would throw $6.5 million of city money at the Parade Grounds—if the Mets could use two of the park’s four quadrants for a stadium and parking. Take it or leave it.

The Bonnies took it, and have been the plan’s prime backers ever since. “We understood that in the short term we would lose some space, but in the long term we would end up with a field that we could go forward with. Yes, we’d lose some space, but this would be a major step toward getting the Parade Grounds renovated,” says Bonnies president Jerry Katzke. “The way sports are in the U.S. today, it’s a supply and demand thing, and if you want to have a team, you have to put up money.”

For the Skyhawks football teams, though, the promise of a baseball stadium—even one that could be used by local leagues once the Mets were through with it—is less than fair compensation for the loss of their fields. “I guess the Mets as a corporation have the resources to do this. We’re just a little old football organization trying to keep these kids off the street,” says Garvin Dublin, a player on the very first Skyhawks team in 1977 and a coach for the last 14 years. “It’s disappointing because we’ve been out here for 22, 23 years now, and the city hasn’t recognized that at all.”

The growing opposition to the minor-league park now includes soccer moms, parks advocates, the community group ACORN, nearly every community board in the borough, and elected officials from boro prez Howard Golden to councilmember Stephen DiBrienza. In addition to the issue of access, they’re concerned about increased traffic before 7 p.m. ball games—adjacent Caton Avenue, points out Community Board 14 chair Alvin Berk, is the main east-west truck route through Brooklyn—and the plan to park as many as 600 cars a night directly atop the soccer fields in the park’s entire southwest quadrant. At a November 1 informational hearing called by Golden’s office, the EDC’s Bob Baldur promised “an inspection of the entire field every morning” to spot lurking oil slicks, a remark that drew derisive hoots of laughter.

Still, some residents are fearful that without a stadium, they’ll be stuck with the same old pockmarked fields and no funding to repair them. As Bonnies parent Betty Williams told the hearing, “I want the Parade Grounds fixed by any means necessary. If that means being inconvenienced for a year, so be it.” Which leads to the $6.5 million question: Since it’s all city money anyway (the Mets will put up only a token investment for team offices, and will keep all ticket and concessions revenues), why not just spend it on renovations, and skip the ballpark? “You’ll have to ask EDC,” says Prospect Park administrator Tupper Thomas; “You need to talk to the Parks Department,” counters the EDC’s Baldur. The mayor’s bunker, meanwhile, has remained mum.

One answer lies in the six-page letters of agreement the city signed with the Mets and Yankees on January 13, in which EDC and the city promised to provide interim ballparks for both minor-league teams “commencing as early as June 1999.” (For the Yanks’ farm club, this has meant the College of Staten Island, whose ball field was gussied up at city expense for the Staten Island Yankees’ June debut.) Those agreements were what laid the ground work for the mayor’s grand plan for ball fields across the boroughs: $60 million for a stadium alongside the Staten Island Ferry terminal, an estimated $31 million for the Coney Island stadium, and the $6.5 million for the Parade Grounds site. All told, city expenditures on minor-league baseball are now approaching $100 million—nearly as much as the city’s entire annual budget for parks maintenance.

ââ Increasing the frustration for residents is the fact that the Parade Grounds ballpark is not subject to hearings or environmental impact studies. As a temporary facility, it’s been deemed by the city not to be a “major concession” and thus removed from such public scrutiny. But the Coney Island ballpark will be so examined, and residents there are likely to challenge that project, especially since the same Steeplechase site has long been pegged as the home of a city-funded amateur sports arena. It’s one reason Parade Grounds neighbors are worried: If the Coney Island ballpark gets bogged down in environmental studies and community opposition, what’s to stop the Mets from just hunkering down in their “temporary” park for good?

“There are lots of unused areas in Brooklyn, and this is not one of them,” says Lynn, a self-proclaimed “professional soccer mom” watching her son play on what would be center field of the Mets ballpark. “I don’t see how this area can accommodate the traffic, the parking, or sacrifice the fact that this is used as a park. There has to be another area here in Brooklyn that they can use without disrupting the community use.”

ACORN and CB 14 are discussing a lawsuit against the project for violating public review requirements, and the newly formed Save the Parade Grounds Coalition is planning a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge this Sunday. Meanwhile, the youth leagues just hope that they’ll still have a place to play next spring, with or without puddles. “I guess the soccer teams would have to rearrange their schedules, and we’d be reduced to this one field,” says Dublin, the longtime Skyhawk. “I don’t have any problem with the Mets bringing their farm team over here. My only gripe is that with all the different things needed within this park that are not in their budget, there are funds to build this stadium.”