NEW YORK — When telling people that I would be camping in Brooklyn — yes, that Brooklyn, the borough of New York — a swift, two-pronged response usually followed.
“You can do that?”
Wait a moment and then …
“Why would you want to do that?”
To answer in the order asked: Yes, you can do that.
Floyd Bennett Field is a former airport that sits on a thumb of land jutting into Jamaica Bay, in south Brooklyn. It was New York City’s 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.
As for why would I want to: Because it’s camping — in Brooklyn!
And that’s 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.
On 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 wasn’t visible from the campsites, unfortunately).
For 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 — tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, food and just a smattering of clothes for a humid summer night — 50 or so yards to my campsite.
Whatever biases camping in Brooklyn might evoke, I had them, and that’s 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 didn’t smell like a subway. No discarded syringes littered the ground. No shady characters lurked. All good, Brooklyn.
I 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 table remained.
I headed to the ranger station to check in and buy a bundle of firewood. Though I had a cellphone signal at my campsite — I was still in the nation’s largest city — I was determined to trade in modernity for more camping-like things, like scratching my mosquito bites and making a fire.
Two 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. Don’t leave valuables unattended at the campsite. Don’t leave food out, because “we have some funny raccoons.” And the office would be closing early because of a “major incident.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“A major incident,” one of them repeated. “See the stuff out there?”
In 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.
“Someone just outstayed their welcome,” she said. “It’s nothing to be concerned about.”
Sure, nothing to be concerned about. It’s just camping in Brooklyn!
But 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.
“Don’t forget to lock your tent,” he said.
But I had no lock, and my skepticism was being quickly assuaged. So I walked over to the couple who had been admiring the bunny.
The 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 don’t always stay the night but buy the daily $20 permit anyway to lounge in folding chairs past sundown and make meals on the campfire.
“It is green and it is nature, and I like that,” Paul said.
I 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 dinner!”
It was incredibly generous — 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.
Finally, I zipped myself into the tent for a night on the New York City ground. I heard barely a sound as I fell asleep.
At 4:21 a.m. my eyes opened.
The sky was starting its drift back to blue.
Birds were chirping in the trees.
I slept some more.
I woke again about 8 a.m. My tent’s blue skin was aglow from the morning light, and sun-dappled trees swayed overhead.
One 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 Sandy restoration.
“We 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, you’re 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 $40.”
“We’re simple people,” said his wife, Beth, 62.
The 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 s’mores.
“There’s huge novelty in camping here,” Beth said. “It’s an adventure. No one in their right mind would do it!”
But then she laughed and said that the family, which included 13-year-old twins Kyle and Madeline, would do it again.
“The showers are beautiful!” Steve said.
I 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 campground.
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