A National Park That's Become A Neighborhood Park
When the National Park Service (NPS) and the Department of the Interior took over the land that now makes up Gateway National Recreation Area, the park was hailed as the first urban national park, to rival Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the others. It has never quite lived up to its billing. Last year, it was rated by a conservation group as the "worst" national park in the entire system. Over the years, Rockaway adopted the parks, using Floyd Bennett Field for its local gardening programs and camp-outs, Riis Park for quick dips in the ocean and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to provide education and bird watching. It was Fort Tilden, once a Nike-Ajax missile base, that became Rockaway's center for art, culture, education and sports, not because the NPS made it so, but because organizations such as the Rockaway Artists Alliance and the Rockaway Theater Company poured grant money and sweat equity into the project, turning wasted, dilapidated ex-Army buildings into something of which the community could be proud. The Rockaway Artists Alliance has two galleries at Fort Tilden that regularly presents free exhibits, music events and art classes; and Camp kidsmArt, an arts-based summer program that serves many young people who would otherwise have no camp experience. The Rockaway Theatre Company presents professional-quality productions in the Post Theater, as well as acting, dance and music classes. These organizations have changed people's lives. Until this summer, the Rockaway Music and Arts Council hosted the highly-successful, free Sunset Picnic Concert series each summer, in addition to its Fall Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of people to the park. Hundreds of kids, perhaps thousands, cram the fort each summer for little league baseball, soccer and rugby games. Many Rockaway residents have come to look at Fort Tilden as "our park." Recently, however, the NPS has made it clear that it is not our park, that the park belongs to them. The first brush with NPS officials came three years ago, when the RMAC was forced to move its Fall Festival from Fort Tilden to Riis Park, a venue that does not work as well for the organization or the public. Then, it began to squeeze the local group for more money in payments for using the venue. This year, the summer concert program may have to be scrapped entirely because the NPS has demanded that the concerts be moved to a site in Riis Park, which could not accommodate the Wenger Wagon, a stage that can hold an entire orchestra or a small ensemble, a dance troupe or a western line dance. In addition, the parade grounds at Fort Tilden is a grassy field where people can comfortably sit. Riis Park is not. Recently, we have heard that the NPS wants Fort Tilden to focus on the history of the park and the ecology of the region. That may leave little room for the little league or other youth leagues, for music or art. Those venues, we have heard, may ultimately have to move to Riis Park and pay a high price to use the NPS venue. That is wrong. It is wrong for the NPS and it is wrong for Rockaway. Rockaway is an isolated, underserved peninsula, whose residents must travel off the peninsula to see a movie or enjoy other entertainment. We need the RAA , the RTC and the RMAC to provide the entertainment and culture we can't get elsewhere on the peninsula. We need the sports leagues to keep our youth and teens motivated and moving on a straight path. We welcome opening the park to new ideas and visitors from all over the world. We don't mind sharing "our" national park, but we would like to retain the feeling that we are welcome in a park that sits in our community and has been such a big part of the cultural and sports world of the peninsula for the past decade.