By Diamond Bridges and Jasmin Suknanan
Stephanie Spezia remembers the crowds, and the hills packed with young kids from nearby schools. On weekends, she would watch them make their own rods, and then throw lines into the creek that runs through the park, fishing for minnows. They would stable their paper boats with wax, and then sail them downstream. But one day in April 2014, the chains appeared, barring families from the Roberto Clemente Park. No one knew why.
After three years, on March 27, the Roberto Clemente Park will start preparing its comeback. The second phase to rebuild the park’s soccer and baseball field for locals will start that day. The park, shut down due to high levels of asbestos, a toxic material known to cause mesothelioma, will be safe again to play.
When the park first closed, rumors swarmed the town and no one understood what was happening because they weren’t notified of the park’s closing. Members of Uplift Brentwood felt that there wasn’t a lot of transparency between the Town of Islip and its residents. Residents were angry but no one came forward with their concerns right away. On March 29, Uplift Brentwood, a small organization founded by nine locals who advocate for improvements in the town, will co-host a forum to connect community members and town officials, and discuss how restoration funds should be spent.
“People pay taxes to live in this wonderful town, and we have a responsibility to ensure that our parks are all that they can be,” Town of Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter said. The Town Board approved the Town of Islip council’s plans to begin restoring the park.
Thomas Datre Jr. and six others were indicted in the illegal dumping of hazardous material in Roberto Clemente Park. The park was loved by both children and adults because it provided easy access to two basketball courts, a soccer field, and a swimming and diving pool, compared to small “pocket parks” with less playground equipment.
“It took away from the places kids had to go in that neighborhood. There’s nowhere else for them to go,” Spezia said.
“Other communities have these nice, pristine beautiful parks with all sorts of amenities that ours don’t have,” Maldonado said. “We’re a community that’s the largest in the Town of Islip and one in the most need.” Maldonado is a board director of Uplift Brentwood.
When Maldonado was a child, the park was the main attraction for both children and adults in the town. During the summer, his father would take him to the park to hang out with friends. As an adult, he participated in a peace march along with other individuals concerned about gang violence in the neighborhood.
“You took away swimming pools from kids who don’t have access to swim anywhere else,” Spezia said. She has been a resident of Brentwood since 1974 and feels a deep connection with the park as she remembers flying kites there.
“Once school was out, we’d go to the park. We play manhunt, baseball and basketball; the park sits on 30 acres and we probably used every inch of that park,” Herbie Medina, a resident of Brentwood, said. Medina is eager for his three-year-old son to enjoy the same park that he grew up with.