Before we hikers can see the salt marsh’s baby birds and sea life in action, urban park ranger Bonnie, the leader of the excursion, lays down the rules. This involves gently breaking the news to a seven-year-old nature-lover that his friend (not present) who throws snaps and paintballs on parkland is a criminal. “Don’t hang around with that kid,” she advises, as the sea-scented air wafts toward us over the black mussel beds and across the sand. “When I used to cut Marine Park Junior High School,” a glammed-up woman on the hike tells me, “I came here. It was all overgrown.” Now, the Salt Marsh Nature Center maintains slightly less than a mile of scenic, well-kept trail and holds Brooklyn’s only rangers’ station. My new friend, who asks that her name not be used, has lived in Marine Park on and off for 49 years, and now works for the school system she once defied. Although Russian, Latino, and African American families have moved into this former Irish American and Italian American stronghold, she says that little has changed. “It’s still very conservative.” Flush with diners, slightly dilapidated houses, and gas stations, Marine Park boasts a solidly middle-class and lower-middle-class community that won’t win prizes for bohemianism. Still, the ungentrified prices seem unbeatable when you take into account salty winds, endless acres of pristine nature, and proximity to Jacob Riis Park, New York’s nicest beach.
Boundaries: Kings Highway and Flatlands Avenue to the north, Flatbush Avenue to the east, Avenue U and Avenue V to the south, and Nostrand Avenue to the west.
Transportation: Take the 2/5 to Brooklyn College/Flatbush Avenue and the B41 and Q35 buses down Flatbush, or take the Q to Avenue U and the B3 bus (or one of the new coach-style buses posing as the B3) east. About an hour and 20 minutes from Union Square.
Main Drags: The final, extra-wide stretch of Flatbush Avenue features furniture, carpet, and lighting stores, plus copious gas stations and diners. Avenue U rounds out the petrol and fried eggs theme, but with some useful stores and bordering greenery.
Average Price to Rent: Studios generally rent for between $650 and $750, one-bedrooms for between $850 and $950, two-bedrooms for $1,100–$1,400, and three-bedrooms for $1,400–$1,800, says Edie Okun, owner of Brooklyn Estates & Properties. Nearly all are in private houses; a three-bedroom rental may very well be the lease of an entire house.
Average Price to Buy: Not as cheap. One-family houses (usually two or three bedrooms) go for between $450,000 and $700,000, and two-families for between $460,000 and $850,000. “Prices are going up,” notes Okun’s co-owner, Inga Berkovich.
Landmarks: For four years ending in 2001, the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center excavated at the historic Hendrick I. Lott House (1940 East 36th Street, www.lotthouse.org), parts of which date to 1720. You can stroll by the old Dutch farmhouse, but it’s closed (for now) to the hoipolloi.
Community Hangouts: The Salt Marsh Nature Center (East 33rd Street and Avenue U, 718-421-2021, www.saltmarshalliance.org) perches on the hilly edge of the creek like a nesting marsh inhabitant, offering youngsters and oldsters year-round yoga, hikes, drawing, birding, and other science-and-arts events.
Green Space: The neighborhood’s 798-acre namesake has hosted the Metropolitan Opera and the borough competitions for Nutella Citywide Bocce Championships; you can also mulch your Christmas tree, launch flights from the John V. Lindsay Model Airport, and golf on the course. Ospreys, sparrows, rabbits, pheasants, and the like cavort seasonally, and in early summer female horseshoe crabs rush onto the beach to lay eggs, sometimes carrying several males each on their backs. “I see parakeets in Marine Park,” says seven-year-old resident Stanley Goldstein. “And when people go by, [the parakeets] scream.” At the Lenape Playground on Avenue U, a ghostly circle of wooden totem poles with screaming faces evokes the neighborhood’s history; a few yards away, toddlers skip along the body of a nightmare-inducing checkered snake statue facing off against a defiant turtle and its half-hatched offspring.
Best Restaurants: Brennan & Carr (3432 Nostrand Avenue, 718-769-1254) has been more or less unanimously lauded for its roast beef sandwiches. Visitors will notice that the menu has barely changed since the days of black-and-white photographs, although prices have jumped from dimes to (relatively few) dollars.
Best Stores: Bergen County-style Kings Plaza Mall (5100 Kings Plaza) boasts Brooklyn’s only H&M (718-252-5444), but don’t bother ducking into the mega-mall just to use the out-of-the-way bathroom-a brisk walk from the entrance took what felt like two hours. Marine Park Farmers Market (2961 Avenue U, 718-368-3557) now sports a big Kosher for Passover annex with oodles of matzo brands, plus pareve salad dressing, fish, cookies, juices, and canned goods. “I’m a Christian. I’m not allowed in there,” I heard a blonde patron tell a cashier, but I couldn’t swear she was talking about matzo heaven.
Politicians: City Councilman Lewis A. Fidler (Democrat), State Assemblyman Frank R. Seddio (Democrat), State Senator Martin J. Golden (Republican), and Congressman Anthony D. Weiner (Democratic Whip).
Crime Stats: The 63rd Precinct serves Mill Basin, Mill Island, Bergen Beach, Flatlands, East Flatbush, Paedarget Basin, Georgetown, and most of Marine Park (if these nabes were dangerous, wouldn’t you have heard of them?). As of late March, it reported zero murders, down one from the previous year-to-date; three rapes, no change; 66 robberies, up 10; 11 felonious assaults, down 20; and 42 burglaries, down nine. Between 1992 and 2002, crime dropped 70.56 percent, slightly more than the city’s overall 66.05 percent decrease.