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Brentwood's Freeman Avenue Park revamped

Freeman Park, once known for gun violence, tragedy

Freeman Park, once known for gun violence, tragedy and bloodshed a few years ago, has been revamped and reopened thanks to efforts by Brentwood civic groups. (May 24, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Ed Betz

In the heat of an August night in 2010, a 19-year-old was shot and killed at Freeman Avenue Park, a casualty in a rash of murders that had scarred the hamlet of Brentwood.

Police say the victim and his killer, who was indicted on murder charges in January, were members of the El Salvador-based international gang MS-13.

But even before that shooting shook the neighborhood, most Freeman Avenue residents were avoiding the park, which was rife with drugs and gangs, said Ivonne Garay.

"There were a lot of bad elements going on here," said Garay, 42, who has lived across the street for 20 years. "You just didn't feel safe walking past."

Early yesterday, things had changed.

A handful of children darted around the park's new jungle gym, shrieking as they tested out a yellow slide and mini rock wall. A few feet away, Islip Town Board members and Brentwood Association for Concerned Citizens leaders huddled to officially reopen the park, one of many that are slated for face-lifts as residents rally to revamp Brentwood's reputation.

"We're breathing new life into it," said Councilman Steve Flotteron. "When parks are abandoned and tired, that's when problems move in."

The mostly Latino community of 60,000 -- where Flotteron said 26 percent of all Islip residents live -- has seen its share of violence.

Last summer, the Concerned Citizens brainstormed at a barbecue with 80 neighbors. According to a survey, 80 percent of attendants said they felt Freeman Avenue Park was unsafe.

Armed with resident input, the group's parks coordinator, Tito Burrowes, approached town officials. A year later, the 1.3-acre park has a new playground, a cement pathway, fewer trees to block visibility and handicap parking spaces. In coming months, town officials plan to install a motion-detecting light, for a total cost of $40,000 for the park.

"In light of some of the increase in violence in the last few years, I think people are trying to come together and really take back the community," said Renee Ortiz, a Central Islip activist who unsuccessfully ran for town board last year.

In October, Brentwood's Timberline Park, long synonymous with drugs and violence, was renamed Roberto Clemente Park, to remove the stigma. And the Concerned Citizens started a neighborhood watch, which Burrowes said has grown and produced results.

Veronica Salinger, 55, said she and her husband almost sold their house and moved after the shooting.

"It has slowly gotten better," Salinger said as she watched her grandchildren on the playground. When her kids were young, they weren't allowed near the park.

Now, "It's wonderful," she said. "I just hope it stays maintained and safe."

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