“FLOYD BENNETT FIELD, Flatbush Avenue and Jamaica Bay, one of New York’s two municipal airports, covers a rectangular expanse of 387 acres surrounded by fens bordering Jamaica Bay…Carefully planned to handle a large volume of traffic built on reclaimed marshland by hydraulic fill sixteen feet above sea level, Floyd Bennett Field has not been a commercial success because of its distance from the heart of the city…The airport’s attractive Administration Building is flanked by eight fireproof hangars, each measuring 120 by 140 feet. Four concrete runways, from 3,200 to 4,200 feet long and from 100 to 150 feet wide, crisscross the field.”
– New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis
(Works Progress Administration, 1939)
In 1935 – with the hardships of the Great Depression visible across America and FDR’s New Deal underway – the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was charged with employing the unemployed. One of the initiatives the WPA developed was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), intended to harness the skills of downtrodden writers, editors, and researchers. Over the next eight years, the FWP produced a crowning achievement of national documentation: the American Guide series, travel guides to the 48 states (of the time) plus Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC, and 1,200 additional books and pamphlets recording American cities, roadways, folklore, and oral histories.
The Guides prove to be not only one of the most comprehensive accounts of the United States at a specific historical moment, but they also provide a particularly interesting lens through which to view our present. With this lens in mind, a group of bloggers and multimedia journalists launched a blog project called The American Guide, which uses the original FWP guides as a springboard for documenting contemporary America. The article below inaugurates a series inspired by that effort, in which UO revisits sites as recounted in the FWP’s New York City Guide: A Comprehensive Guide to the Five Boroughs of the Metropolis and explores them in the present day. In the first of this new series of Field Trip posts, Jonathan Tarleton takes a camping trip to Floyd Bennett Field, a former airport and naval base in southeastern Brooklyn that is now home to a park, the surprising charms of which were chronicled in this 2010 feature.
Growing up in Georgia and North Carolina, the mountains – speckled with rivers lined by rhododendron and old-growth oaks guiding splotches of light onto leaf-coated trails below – were never far away and always calling to would-be campers. When they were inaccessible, the wooded acres and broad creek behind my house proved another space worthy of nights spent outdoors. Camping was a routine activity, one I prized for taking me away from all but a small group of people and surrounding me with nature. The appeal of “getting away” and the belief in the solace of the outdoors is something I believe to be fairly universal, even among (or especially acute for) city-dwellers.
The urge for an escape of sorts from my current home in the city led me to Floyd Bennett Field, a part of the Gateway National Recreation Area operated by the National Park Service (NPS), for a night of camping with a couple of friends. I did not expect to be isolated from humanity or embraced by ample flora and fauna at the park. The Field retains the form it took as New York City’s first municipal airport: broad concrete runways dotted with hangars and a small terminal building. It occupies a knob of land in South Brooklyn south of Marine Park, the product of distinct islands and marshland glued together by landfill throughout the 20th century. The NYPD bases its helicopters there, the Department of Sanitation trains employees there, and the US Marine Corps has a reserve center there. Planes appear as if they might have opted to land at the park’s empty runways rather than fight the hordes at nearby JFK. Floyd Bennett Field is as much a constructed environment as anywhere else in the city, and it certainly does not attempt to disguise the marks of this construction like Central or Prospect Park. While Olmsted and Vaux’s masterpieces build the illusion of laconic countryside into the concrete seas of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the Field adapts abandoned infrastructure for various and spontaneous uses not easily accommodated elsewhere in the city.
On a recent weekend, two friends and I made our way down to the Field. The reception of our arrival foreshadowed how interactions with people would be central to our camping experience. An NPS ranger stepped out of the front doors of the visitors’ center, housed in the newly renovated first floor of the original terminal building, and welcomed us inside. In the manner of a doting grandfather, he proceeded to discuss the history of the site, the relative merits of Brooklyn neighborhoods, our shared origins in the South, and the distinctions among our accents. Another ranger pointed us in the direction of our particularly “cozy” campsite, the free firewood pile, and the trails that would lead us to the best sunset view. They were glad to have us there.
The majority of the Field is either low grassland or concrete runway, so the enormity of its scale was readily apparent as we headed east from the terminal along a runway to the campsite. Despite the passing of an occasional car and the ambient noise of the Belt Parkway to the north, biking along a massive runway toward a stretch of bay struck a note of isolation, though one more akin to that in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Just a hundred yards off the runway, the campsite also gave the sense of being visually secluded: vines wrapped around the trees that surrounded fire pits, grills, and picnic tables. Hammock hanging, tent pitching, and firewood gathering commenced.
We decided to take the ranger’s advice and head across Flatbush Avenue for a walk along Dead Horse Bay. The Bay is also part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and like the Field had its own specified city use prior to its life as parkland: a dumping ground for trash and horse bones, a byproduct of rendering the carcasses into glue and fertilizer. Bones, shoes, smooth bricks, and old glass bottles litter the shore, which, with its border of golden reeds and views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the distance, retains a scarred beauty. We encountered a lone fisherman and two scavengers appreciating the antique bottles.
On our way back to the campground, cars streamed into the Field for the last weekend of the UniverSoul Circus, brought to the field by concessionaire Aviator Sports. The red and yellow big top proved the tallest structure in the area, peaking alongside the two restored hangars Aviator operates as sports facilities. In our site, dubbed “primitive” by the NPS, we stoked a fire, perfect for the high 40s of the evening.
The night songs of crickets and tree frogs tend to be one of my favorite parts of camping. One’s environment dictates sounds, however, so we instead took in the screeches and revs of apparent drag racing, the thumping bass and cheers of the circus, and the whir of helicopters and planes. Reasonable expectations in place, these were not terribly distracting, and even provided a sense of comfort: a dead-quiet, obsolete airport is not necessarily the most settling place to be. I would have, however, gladly taken natural sounds over motorized as we dug into squash, sweet potatoes, onions, and s’mores prepared in the fire’s glowing coals. A raccoon visited briefly, a fellow camper sang an ambiguously facetious rendition of “Kumbaya,” and soon enough I was quite asleep.
Assuming that the Field would be all but deserted before sunrise, I got up at 5:30am and, running on leftover marshmallows and chocolate, started to explore in earnest. The sun rose over Jamaica Bay, glinting off the windshields of the few fishermen already out and alighting the speckled windows of another eroding hangar. At closer range, I caught a glimpse of tail wing through broken glass: the hangar was the home of the Historic Aircraft Preservation Project (HARP), unfortunately closed that weekend. I walked north along the small beach, as trashed as Dead Horse Bay’s but imbued with none of the same nostalgia. On the north edge skirting Mill Basin, more fishermen had set up, one launching his kayak into the water nearby.
Back near the original terminal building, the circus now dormant, I made my way along four fenced-off hangars, the two southernmost (unintentionally) accessible. The towering space reminded me of the armories scattered around the city: lit through the remaining panes of 1930s glass, they seem to await a creative use for their expanse beyond a warehouse. East of the hangars, the Floyd Bennett Community Garden sprawled, a mishmash of individually tended plots bearing the personal touch of their caretakers: a trellis, a small pond, compulsively straight furrows and mounds. A hefty man with a heftier beard invited me into his plot, offering chives and the long list of his charges grown over four years biking down from Crown Heights: sugar snap peas, onions, garlic, lettuce, chard, basil, sage, and more.
I then biked into the section of the park largely grayed out on visitor maps. Oddly enough, this southeast corner had the look of an abandoned high school campus. A few houses sat across from two- and three-story institutional buildings. Streetlights lined empty roads. Farther west, the US Marine Corps Reserves Center blocked off the waterfront. Through an open gate, I walked along the waterfront, the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge heading across the water to Fort Tilden nearby.
Now back at the campsite, our group welcomed a couple and their dog. Staying only for the day but intent on making a day of engaging with the scraps of nature, they carried in a tent, inflatable bed, and ample salmon steaks. We packed up and went off to survey the woodlands of the park reserved as a natural area: 40 acres on its northern edge. The kayaker I had seen earlier stood near the trailhead and once again we were treated to a personal history of park use as he worked his way out of his waders. The former cop and fireman reveled in the fishing, kayaking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing to be found there. He promised us fish jumping out of the water in a couple of weeks, just in time for an international fishing competition that would bring in anglers from the whole East Coast.
Rather than faint trails hemmed in by trees, the North Forty’s paths were broad roads of grass weaving through scrubby second-growth forest. I had heard birding here was good. We caught sight of a bright yellow finch and at least 18 herons congregated around a small, algae-filled pond. Wandering along, we came upon the debris from Sandy that had been temporarily gathered here from across the city and workers sifting through the piles before turning it into mulch. Though greener than the rest of the park, the natural reserve did not quite conform to the rustic ideal of nature.
With commitments awaiting us in North Brooklyn, we headed toward the exit but stopped briefly to survey the action at the model plane field nearby. I had imagined a runway speckled with kids flying plastic planes powered by AA batteries. Instead, when we biked across the runway, we were buzzed by a four-foot metal jet at high speed. Drones came to mind. Behind the two men intensely guiding the plane in dives and rolls, other teams awaited their turn, oiling and buffing the only active fleet in the airport.
We lingered for another dose of wisdom from our favorite park ranger storyteller back at the visitors’ center. We were rewarded with a session that included a slideshow of the some of the restored planes at HARP, a full accounting of bike routes to the Gateway’s parks on Staten Island, and a brief history of one of Robert Moses’ few failures at ramming a highway through a neighborhood. We told him we would be back.
And I definitely will be. The park’s informality, slowly degrading infrastructure, and environment recovering from and continually being shaped by human use may make the Field one of the city’s “wilder” places. The possibility for meeting people involved in its many subcultures also seemed heightened in the park. People were proud of the hobbies, lifestyles, and passions they were able to act out there, and they clearly wanted to share that with others, which is certainly not always the case in this city. I hope that continues to be the case as the park is developed further, though no concrete plans are in place at this time.
The “pristine” nature I usually seek and enjoy while camping cannot be found at Floyd Bennett Field. But neither can it truly be found most anywhere in the city, its great parks bearing the marks of human design as much as this old, rusty airport. The Field’s foreignness and its embedded history, intricacies, and peculiarities satiated my yearning for a break from the city in a different way from a night in the mountains. And though the nighttime noises cannot rival the soothing croak of a tree frog, they also did not tarnish the precious opportunity that is a campfire, friends, and sleeping outside within the density of New York City.