Mindy Burgos sat outside the gated-off Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood and wondered where her children, on the verge of adolescence, would spend their after-school hours.
The park has been closed since April 2014 after nearly 40,000 tons of illegally dumped material was found there. But the recent killings of two teenage girls, found beaten to death in Brentwood last week, have spurred calls to fast-track the park’s cleanup and reopening. Many in the community said the nearly 30-acre park had served as a safe space for teenagers.
“Growing up I had the park and things to do. I wasn’t involved” in violence, said Burgos, 31, of Central Islip, whose four children range from ages 3 to 11. “I want my kids to grow up the same way.”
Dozens rallied Sunday on a narrow strip of pavement outside of the closed park, collecting signatures for a petition urging the Town of Islip to reopen it. Town officials say a water park will open on the grounds in 2018 and that athletic fields could open next year after the grounds have been re-seeded. The fate of its deteriorating Olympic-sized pool is unclear. It was last opened in 2012, but closed after budget cuts.
“The park being closed symbolizes where we stand as a community,” said Herbie Medina, 33, of Brentwood, and the father to three children ages, 3, 9, and 10. “There really aren’t many options here in Brentwood. That’s why the kids are hanging out in the streets.”
The body of Nisa Mickens, 15, was found on Stahley Street at Ray Court on the side of the road Tuesday night by a passing motorist. Her friend, 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, was discovered in a wooded area on Wednesday off Ray Court. Cuevas had recently been involved in a dispute with MS-13 gang members, a law enforcement source has told Newsday.
Islip Councilman John C. Cochrane said that finishing the park remediation and renovation project required getting permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk County.
The DEC recently approved a Site Management and Restoration Plan for the park, which the agency said was the final step in the park’s remediation.
“Would we like to open it up right now? Yeah, but we can’t,” Cochrane said in an interview Sunday. “The process is in high gear right now.”
Cochrane said the park had also been a meeting place for gangs and that cameras were installed there in recent years to monitor for and deter crime. In June 2009, a 13-year-old boy was shot in the head and critically wounded while playing basketball at the former Timberline Park. It was renamed Roberto Clemente Park in 2011 as part of a rebranding effort to revitalize the park.
“We’re strategically moving forward, providing new playground equipment, fixing fences, and hopefully we’ll have these parks secured for the residents and not as free gathering places for gang activity,” Cochrane said.
Outside the park Sunday, drivers stopped and signed petitions, slowing up traffic by the park’s entrance. Young children held up signs that read “Stop The Violence” and “We Want Our Park Back.” Activists said they would show up at Tuesday’s town board meeting with the pages of petition signatures.
“Fifteen years ago, the park flourished,” said Stephanie Spezia, 51, a social worker from Brentwood who has lived in the community since 1974. “If we had a park that had a police presence, or even the parents, the kids would have a place to go.”
The slayings of Cuevas and Mickens last week has led residents like her to believe that violence “is in my backyard now.”
“These are kids who go to our schools. They’re our kids,” Spezia said.