A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece for Wildsam, titled, The Circle Park. It is now in the reprint of their Brooklyn guide. The collection includes a host of cool and odd things to do and see. It also has words by the plenty from other Brooklyn writers and artists.
You can purchase it on their website or wherever books are sold. In the meantime, here’s what I wrote as a form of celebration during my grandmother’s birthday month.
On a double-laned two-way street, past Bishop’s purple high school, over the wiggly grate that trips my vintage cruiser. Up over the hill, past bustling Atlantic Avenue, and further than Dean Street and the ice cream shop with its own churner that was sold last summer. By the bookshop with the backyard, near the four-chair Dominican salon that burned my scalp at 13, and even closer to Mayday, a hardware store that opened in 1964, two years before my mother was born, the store my grandmother dragged me into to peruse for bits and bobs, door plates, fasternes and old knobs, or plain good Brooklyn conversation. Beyond all this sits what my family has always called the “circle park.”
For generations, Dr. Ronald Mcnair Park (formerly, Guider Park)has been quietly tucked between the expanse of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the stately Prospect Heights High School. At first glance, it is just a typical New York City park, with forest green benches peppered along the edges for folks to gather. It doesn’t offer a playground or beloved splash pad, but the trees bloom in the spring, fill out in the summer, and hibernate in the winter, as they do everywhere. Otherwise, the park appears unromantic, undramatic—and, quite possibly, unappealing, to the untrained eye.
In 2016, 4,000 pedestrians, and 2,600 bicyclists crossed Brooklyn Bridge Park per day, to take photos under the Brooklyn Bridge, hop on the ferry from DUMBO to North Williamsburg, or to dine in Red Hook or walk along the undisturbed Gowanus Canal according to the Department of Transportation. And in 2019 (one of NYC’s largest tourism years), 66 million people traveled to New York City overall. That number dropped 67% to 23 million in 2020 because of the pandemic. I wonder how many of those visitors allowed themselves to feel the coruscating pull of Dr. Ronald Mcnair Park.
Mcnair was a man, who, by chance, shares the same name as my uncle, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather. I did not know him, but I knew him only because he was a figure in the place I knew best. Dr. Mcnair taught karate and was a celebrated saxophonist before becoming America’s second Black astronaut to travel to space. In 1986, Mcnair was one of seven astronauts who lifted off in the Challenger from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Within 73 seconds, the Challenger was engulfed in smoke (what looked like an explosion), and eventually sent the Challenger and all seven of its crew plummeted into the Atlantic at a speed of nearly 200 MPH. There are several hypotheses of why the accident happened the way it did, but today I mostly wonder about how Mcnair’s life and legacy, shaped mine and several other Brooklyn-born Black kids. He was 35 when he died 3 years before my mother had me. Did his body feel held as he felt a unique kind of free-ness that would only be offered to a Black man shooting beyond space and time and time and space? What would he have told us about his adventure? And would my park, our park, the circle park, still be salient for us who know it well.
Now, three decades have passed since his death, and two since my childhood days dancing in that park at 10 under the sticky Brooklyn sun, and I’m raising two of my own tiny New Yorkers. As we move through our New York City home, I come across these intersections of history and personal experience, like stories that travel on us and with us, through space, told by generations of Black folk I only know from penny-colored statues and trees with plaques. Nevertheless, while I marvel at what has been carefully given to me, I hold to the task of writing my own stories at the feet of their grand and collective memories. So that I may continue to press-on in this magnitude, in this life. I suppose that when my grandmother spent her days in the circle park reading, planning, dreaming and praying, she may have felt connected to Ronald Mcnair: rocketing off into space, defying gravity and norms. Or maybe he was just a statue in a park where she daydreamed her own adventures.
Right next to the circle park, tourists snap selfies in front of the giant spouts of water that bursts on timers to music outside of the Brooklyn Museum. On good days, my children run barefoot through the spray as I sip coffee on the concrete steps, and they become little curly-headed dots. They float past the neighboring botanical garden, with its thousand trees and gardens of magnolias and roses. They run to the left, by the Mount Prospect Park and the Central Library, a meeting place for both learning and activism. There is the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch of Grand Army Plaza, fierce and attractive neighbors.
I spent my summers in the midst of these monuments too, and back then, just like for my children, it was just summertime fun. I wonder if, as locals, we do our due diligence, appropriately basking in the wonder. I wonder if my mother or grandmother thought the same, watching me dance in the circle park, thinking about Black astronauts.
For generations, that park has been a meeting place for my family. I imagine is a center of solace and safety for other Black folk and people of color in the community, protected, in a sense, by a four-point intersection and several plots of grass. There have been protests in the surrounding area to protect tenants from rapid gentrification—a kind of gentrification that, among many things, puts the park’s unmarred beauty and centrality at risk.
Sometimes, I dream of myself as an elder in that same park: a kindly older woman who remembers the blood-stained cement to the right of Mcnair’s monument where, when she was a girl, she skinned her knee while skipping and was told to “get back up!” Hopefully, she’ll remember the rollerblade skids she etched on that same sidewalk, and the exact bench where she devoured brown-paper bags of corner store Swedish Fish and Swiss Rolls. She’ll remember where she took her kids one evening to celebrate the legacy of her own grandmother—their great-grandmother—with their grandmother, at her favorite bench. It was October, in those same plots of grass below Dr. Ronald McNair’s rocket-ship shaped statue.
Someday, I’ll be her. For now, I’m a woman who remembers growing up in the circle park. I’m a mother who takes her own children there, where they squish their toes in the grass. I understand the immensity of this small park’s history, but I cherish writing my own story here too. In this city, there is excitement and ceremony and plenty to photograph, but to me, there is nothing more New York than sitting on a bench, in a little park, sandwiched between here and there, between the known and unknown, finding a place of your own as the city spins around you.
Photographs via The Frontier Blog