Kass of Carol Steam, Ill., and his children
Madeline, sitting, and Kyle lounge at their campsite
at Floyd Bennett Field, a campground in south
YORK ó When telling people that I would be camping in
Brooklyn ó yes, that Brooklyn, the borough of New York
ó a swift, two-pronged response usually followed.
can do that?"
a moment and then Ö
would you want to do that?"
answer in the order asked: Yes, you can do that.
Bennett Field is a former airport that sits on a thumb of
land jutting into Jamaica Bay, in south Brooklyn. It was
New York Cityís first municipal airport upon opening in
1931, but since the 1970s it has been managed by the
National Park Service as part of Gateway National
Recreation Area, a place for New Yorkers to fly model
airplanes, race model cars, practice archery, fish, kayak
and, yes, camp at one of more than 30 grassy sites.
for why would I want to: Because itís camping ó in
thatís what I did on a warm June evening, turning off
Flatbush Avenue onto the old airport road as the radio
said a man had been fatally shot a few neighborhoods away.
After a couple more turns, I found myself, literally, on a
runway, a wide, gray tarmac bearing the number 24 in large
white block letters.
one side of the tarmac sat a ranger station in what looked
like portable construction. Bathrooms with showers sat
beside it. Across the tarmac, almost hidden in an
overgrown thatch of trees, were the campsites. Way on the
other side of the grounds, the Manhattan skyline peeked
through the haze (it wasnít visible from the campsites,
an urban campground, Floyd Bennett Field has the good
taste of not allowing cars at the sites. I therefore
parked by the ranger office and carried my essentials ó
tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, food and just a
smattering of clothes for a humid summer night ó 50 or
so yards to my campsite.
biases camping in Brooklyn might evoke, I had them, and
thatís why I was relieved to walk into a perfectly
normal campground: grass, trees, fellow campers and, as
one couple pointed out in a whisper, a rabbit. It didnít
smell like a subway. No discarded syringes littered the
ground. No shady characters lurked. All good, Brooklyn.
had picked my site online and was pleased to find a cozy
little spot surrounded by thick greenery and equipped with
the essentials: fire pit, barbecue grill and a wooden
picnic table. This being Brooklyn, the table was chained
to a cement pylon buried in the ground. And this being
Brooklyn, someone had tried digging up the pylon. But the
headed to the ranger station to check in and buy a bundle
of firewood. Though I had a cellphone signal at my
campsite ó I was still in the nationís largest city
ó I was determined to trade in modernity for more
camping-like things, like scratching my mosquito bites and
making a fire.
women in park service uniforms stood in the ranger
station, and both spoke with accents implying they would
be far more at home in Brooklyn than Yosemite. As I paid
for my $9 pile of wood, they ran through the essentials of
camping in Brooklyn. Donít leave valuables unattended at
the campsite. Donít leave food out, because "we
have some funny raccoons." And the office would be
closing early because of a "major incident."
me?" I said.
major incident," one of them repeated. "See the
stuff out there?"
the parking lot sat a shopping cart teeming with folding
chairs, a balled-up tent, a foam cooler, a blue suitcase,
a plastic tub and pillows.
just outstayed their welcome," she said. "Itís
nothing to be concerned about."
nothing to be concerned about. Itís just camping in
back at my site, things were lovely, quiet and green. I
erected my tent beneath a tall tree, stepped back to
admire my handiwork, then recalled the words of a
Manhattanite I had told about my trip.
forget to lock your tent," he said.
I had no lock, and my skepticism was being quickly
assuaged. So I walked over to the couple who had been
admiring the bunny.
man introduced himself as Paul. He was a beefy guy in a
T-shirt and spoke with an Eastern European accent. He and
his wife live in Brooklyn, he said, but spend many days at
the campground for a natural escape. They donít always
stay the night but buy the daily $20 permit anyway to
lounge in folding chairs past sundown and make meals on
is green and it is nature, and I like that," Paul
went back to my campsite and built a fire that I poked and
prodded as the sky faded from light blue to dark blue and
then to a smudgy urban orange-gray. Soon Paul walked up
with a foam plate and said, "Here is your
was incredibly generous ó a small fire-roasted potato, a
thick piece of bread, a hunk of Parmesan cheese, green and
black olives, a mango and an ear of sweet corn, also
warmed on the fire. I thanked him profusely, and before I
could offer a beer for his kindness, he was gone. I sat at
the picnic table and munched my dinner, watching planes
stream toward JFK. Soon the stars were out, including a
Big Dipper framed perfectly by the trees above.
I zipped myself into the tent for a night on the New York
City ground. I heard barely a sound as I fell asleep.
4:21 a.m. my eyes opened.
sky was starting its drift back to blue.
were chirping in the trees.
slept some more.
woke again about 8 a.m. My tentís blue skin was aglow
from the morning light, and sun-dappled trees swayed
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campsite over, the Kass family, of Carol Stream, Ill., was
eating breakfast. They had spent two nights at the
campground after volunteering for a week of superstorm
were looking for hotels everywhere, and when you look at
$250 or $300 a night plus taxes, fees and parking the van
for a couple of nights, youíre looking at $700 for a
place to sleep," said Steve Kass, 54, a pastor, as he
ate cereal at his picnic table. "We stayed here for
simple people," said his wife, Beth, 62.
family had spent their days as classic New York tourists:
visits to the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial, Ellis
Island and Chinatown. But after dinner, instead of dessert
and back to the hotel, they returned to their Brooklyn
campsite for símores.
huge novelty in camping here," Beth said. "Itís
an adventure. No one in their right mind would do
then she laughed and said that the family, which included
13-year-old twins Kyle and Madeline, would do it again.
showers are beautiful!" Steve said.
packed up my gear and headed back to my car. New York City
sanitation trucks were whipping around the runway, the
drivers practicing operating the behemoths. Police
helicopters took off and landed behind the ranger station.
Planes continued to stream overhead. It was one busy
else do you expect from camping in Brooklyn?