The synthetic turf being completed at J.J. Byrne Park on 5th Ave.

Though the small Park Slope playground buzzes with the usual sounds of children playing one Sunday afternoon, the dark green field behind it doesn’t see nearly as much use. Two men are the only ones around, lazily kicking a soccer ball back and forth between them.

Looking on, 7th grader Justin Miro kicks at the synthetic turf field, spraying up dozens of little black pellets that hit the ground and are lost again amongst the plastic green stalks. “How do they do that?” he wonders aloud, watching the two men on the ground.  “That burning tire stuff really stinks. Why can’t they put real grass?”

In the Brooklyn home of the city’s second largest park, a redevelopment of a small 5th avenue playground has turned into one big stink. Launched in 2008 with heavy financing from City Council members de Blasio and David Yassky, the project was completed earlier this year and included two new basketball courts,  eight handball courts, a track, and the conversion of an asphalt yard into a synthetic field.

But the addition of the synthetic field has remained a heated issue, as local residents and parents charge that material used in the turf poses a serious health risk and demand it be replaced. Though the synthetic turf industry and Parks Department have insisted on the field’s safety, the debate has threatened this Summer’s potential park goers, as advocates call for a boycott of the space.

Artificial turf is made of crushed stone or sand-like material, plastic blades of grass, and bits of rubber. Critics point to a number of studies that have found the rubber to become increasingly toxic as it slowly wears away with use and exposure to sunlight. The rubber, known as “crumb rubber,” comes from recycled tires considered “special waste” by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation because of the toxins and carcinogenic chemicals they contain.

Critics like Geoffrey Croft, president of the NYC Parks Advocates group, claim the turf has a long list of potential hazards. “As those fields deteriorate, the lead content of the rubber can rise dramatically,” he said in a telephone interview. “The turf does not dissipate heat and, particularly on summer days, can easily get 60 to 70 degrees hotter. So you have all this heat wearing away at the turf people are playing and breathing around.”

A fact sheet from the New York State Department of Health cites three studies of crumb rubber that show the temperature of synthetic fields reaching as high as 200 degrees.

Last year, a park in East Harlem was temporarily closed when high levels of lead were found in its synthetic field, which led the city to conduct tests at over 100 areas where the turf is used. The evaluations showed that “newer fields had no lead or generally had the lowest lead levels. Although small amounts of lead were detected on the surface of some fields, none of the tested fields released amounts of lead that would pose a serious health risk to children.”

Many Park Slope locals are unconvinced. “They want to say that it’s safe for these kids to be rolling around playing soccer in stuff that’s got low levels of lead in it,” said Greg Tucker, who coaches a children’s soccer team on weekends.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t want them playing in something with any level of lead in it, regardless of how low that may be.”

Others agree that the synthetic turf is not their first choice for the renovated park, but acknowledge the difficulty maintaining natural grass fields in crowded city parks during the summer months.

“The park has tried for years to keep these little patches of grass green,” said park volunteer Matt Lambaise. “But between soccer and football, they are too small and overused to stay that way for any length of time.”

Kim Maier, is executive director of Prospect Park’s historical landmark, The Old Stone House, where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought. “The area covered by turf was nothing but asphalt for as long as anyone can remember,” she says. “Fake or real, the field is a definite community asset in terms of open space.”

Since the project’s completion, a number of concerned residents have joined forces in refusing to visit the new park until a safer alternative to the turf is decided upon. Audrey Komroff, “full-time mom” and head of a local advocacy group, is proposing a boycott this summer, suggesting others instead take the hike from 5th avenue up to Prospect Park.

Sheelah A. Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the group New Yorkers for Parks, explained “We’re not saying no to these fields. We’re trying to find a way to say yes to them. The reality is that we can’t afford to maintain grass in all the city’s parks, but because the technology changes all the time, a future standard for selecting all recreational equipment must be established.”


It’s barely nine in the morning and Adrian Mayson is hard at work. She climbs up and down several flights to her Park Slope apartment, lugging clothes, furniture, even a small washer and dryer — and arranging them all along the sidewalk. By 10 o’ clock she’s made a few more trips upstairs, and by 11, the first curious passerby picks up a stained glass lamp and asks the price. “Ten bucks,” says Mayson. “And you can keep the bulb in there. Works just fine.”

Spring is here, bringing the stoop-sale to brownstone Brooklyn as never before. “It’s great,” says Michael Russell, 29, at his own sale just a few houses up from Mayson. “I’ve been looking to make some room for a new TV, and I just couldn’t throw some of this stuff out.”

But for many stoop-sellers, the decision to part with their belongings has become a matter of necessity over luxury. Adrian Mayson has been out of work for three years, and lives with her middle-aged daughter and young granddaughter. With the end of April comes the end of her unemployment check, and “the end of us all living with a roof over our heads,” says Mayson, 63, while laying out kids’ toys.

“We used to just leave these kinds of things along the fence, and by morning someone had picked it up and brought it home,” Mason tells me. Now she’s the one picking up the castoffs of others and saving them for the next stoop-sale.

Almost every Saturday, weather-permitting, she can be found in front of her 12th Street apartment building planting bulbs in the tree pits or reading paperbacks, while neighbors and park-goers browse through her makeshift store. Although she wouldn’t tell how much money she earned, she did say “Enough for the weeks groceries — maybe a bill or two.”

"The Early Bird Catches the Worm"

An early morning 12th street stoop sale patiently awaiting its first visitors.

Though she’s never opened up shop herself, lifelong resident Gloria McAlister the President of the 12th Street Block Association praises the sales as a “charming part of Brooklyn’s sidewalks. Ten years ago you’d never see these people on their stoops chatting with the neighbors. When money’s tight, it’s simple things in life people look to for entertainment. ”

Indeed, one recent sunny April weekend, a quick glance out the window showed how many people were engaged in curbside retail. Between the corners of 8th avenue and Prospect Park West,  14 different stoops bustled with the noises of bargain sales and thrifty purchases.

Others around the neighborhood find the stoop-sales to be more of a nuisance, likening them to the illegal sidewalk vendors of Manhattan city streets.

“These things just clutter up the sidewalks all afternoon,” says landlord Jill Berman. “There needs to be some kind of regulation going on.”

Many landlords do not allow their tenants to hold stoop-sales, citing safety issues and pedestrian traffic jams. One person even went so far as to call the police on a neighbor whose display was in the way of the apartment’s garbage bins.

Steve Collier, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs, said that the number of stoop sales for a given year “is not gauged or recorded by the city’s services. For the fiscal year 2004, 311 fielded less than 100 of the city’s stoop and sidewalk related complaints versus almost 1000 in 2008.”

Despite its detractors, the stoop-sales are here to stay. “It’s not just about the money,” says resident Giovanni Rodriguez as he barbecues hotdogs for neighbors while wife and kids man the fort. “It’s the interaction more than anything else. The conversation definitely beats mornings around the water cooler.”

With the possibility that her kids may no longer be provided discounted train fare, single-mother Zenobia West considers her options. “Do I find another job, or borrow more money? Do I tell them to start biking to school now?”

As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority grapples with service cuts to remedy an $800 million budget shortfall, Ms. West and others like her worry about covering travel costs for her four children, ages twelve to sixteen. All of them currently receive the green Student Metrocards, which allow them three free rides a day.

“It would be financially impossible to send all my kids to school,” says West, a lifelong Brooklyn resident. “At $89 each, ten unlimited Metrocards for every month of school would cost me almost a thousand dollars. That just shouldn’t be.”

Along with the phasing out of free student Metrocards are plans to cut service on subway and bus lines across the city.

Six bus lines serving Brooklyn would be extended or eliminated altogether. The B67, which goes from Windsor Terrace, through Park Slope to Downtown Brooklyn, would no longer run overnight.  The B69, which travels along Prospect Park, would be merged with the B67, forcing about 1,200 riders to walk several long blocks. Further measures include the elimination of the W train as well as cuts to the Access-a-Ride service for the elderly and disabled.

The MTA has held public hearings this month to address the reductions, which are valued at $77.6 million in annual savings.  The Brooklyn hearing drew a particularly large and spirited crowd, as residents gathered to give the reviled corporation an earful.

The MTA panel, headed by Transit President Tom Prendergast

“It’s an insult, plain and simple,” Senator Martin J. Golden (R-NY) told the MTA board, headed by Transit President Tom Prendergast. “As is, the people from my district couldn’t make it here. Sheepshead Bay, Gerritsen Beach — for them it takes two or three trains or four buses! It’s inconceivable.”

The biggest topic at the hearing was the discounted student Metrocard program, which the MTA has provided since the 1940s.

The program is paid for between the MTA, New York City, and State government. The MTA maintains that their costs have increased, while reimbursement from the City and State has not.

“We can yell and yell ’til we got no voice, but if this is what they gotta do, it’s what’s gonna get done,” said high school senior Celeste Debrei. “These politicians should be talking to their friends in Albany instead of wasting their breath on the panel of puppets in this room.”

An angry Brooklyn crowd.

Tensions boiled over at the hearing as cries for more student speakers grew louder, but the MTA board continued to call only senators and local representatives to the podium. When a young girl approached the microphone and was physically restrained, the entire crowd rose to its feet. The girl and several others were arrested for inciting a riot.

Outside the auditorium,  police officers ushered onlookers to the lobby. “A public relations disaster,” ex-MTA worker Timothy Burghers described the evening. “These kids have a right to be upset. It’s no way to handle the future customers and taxpayers of this city.”

A strong police presence after several arrests were made.

Although his name may not be as familiar as some other men and women in politics, Marty Markowitz’s presence here in Brooklyn is huge.  The kids at Park Slope’s middle school William Alexander 51, have a basic familiarity with Markowitz, even if they’re not exactly sure what the Borough President is supposed to do.

“I’ve seen Marty everywhere,” says 14-year-old Lucy Gotfried. “My older brother’s graduation, my elementary school graduation, concerts in the park. I always just thought he was the President of Brooklyn.”

Not a bad guess for a 14-year-old. Here in this Brooklyn community , it seems as if everyone you talk to knows Markowitz (“Marty, please…”) on a first name basis.

Born in Crown Heights Brooklyn to Jewish parents, Markowitz graduated from Brooklyn’s Wingate High School on Kingston Ave in 1962. He spent nine years pursuing his B.A in political science, piecing together night classes at Brooklyn College and graduating in 1970.

“That became the underpinning of my sense of responsibility,” said Markowitz in a telephone interview last week. “Losing my father at the age of 9, living in poverty in public housing, evening classes at Brooklyn College. They all formed what would become my life’s work. Trying to better the lives of others to the best of my ability.”

As a boy, on a trip to Borough Hall with his mother, Markowitz met Abe Stark who was Brooklyn’s Borough President from 1962-1970. “Being Mayor was always secondary for me,” Markowitz says. “Stark’s job was what I dreamed of as a kid. Because it really represented Brooklyn, and Brooklyn has been my love, my home, for all my life. Never wanted to live anywhere else, and never have.”

Immediately upon graduating, Markowitz dove into politics, forming the Flatbush Tenants Council, which grew to become the Brooklyn Housing and Family Services, the largest tenants advocacy organization in New York. He ran for the State Senate and was elected in 1978, spending more than 20 years there before becoming Borough President.

Markowitz  has focused his role on promoting tourism in Brooklyn. “By the time I was elected, the power of the presidency had changed significantly,” says Markowitz. “A lot of things I wish I could do I can’t because the powers have really changed. I wish I could make a greater dent in unemployment, affordable housing, and strict rent regulation.”

Though he might not have the powers of a mayoral office, he strives to make dents whenever possible for his borough.

Markowitz is heavily involved with the Atlantic Yards project, a longstanding and contentious issue over the fate of a chunk of land in downtown Brooklyn purchased from the M.T.A by a developer several years ago. He supports a plan to move the New Jersey Nets basketball team to Brooklyn, and building an arena in the empty space along with a number of rental units for lower income families.

The Borough President’s Housing Development fund has donated millions of dollars in support of affordable housing across Brooklyn.

So what’s the best part about being Brooklyn’s President? “Meeting the characters of Brooklyn,” says Markowitz. “Really, it’s just getting to see the diversity and eclectic nature of all the folks here.”

“The ability to make things happen,” he continues. “Not at the level of the mayor, but to make things happen. When an elected official delivers for anyone that is what it is all about. You never forget that.”