The vibrancy and laughter of children have returned to Robert Rowley Park, where Brookhaven Town officials say the criminal element that had plagued the site has been discarded with the old playground equipment.
The park, which reopened last month, underwent a yearlong, $1 million renovation financed by the town park department's capital project fund. Its neighbor, the Boys and Girls Club of the Bellport Area, has undergone a $4 million face-lift and is scheduled to reopen Tuesday.
"I missed coming to the park," said Jonae Gonzalez, 13, who now regularly plays on the swings and runs the track.
Rob Powell, program director of the Boys and Girls Club just south of the park, said the state-of-the art center should help restore Rowley Park's former image.
"It's an exciting time for this community," Tracie Romandetti, executive director of the club, said in a statement. "This newly renovated park combined with the new Boys and Girls Club facility will create an overall wonderful space for the youth of North Bellport."
Better, officials say, is the community and the Suffolk County Police Department's plan to keep away gang members and criminal activity.
"Right now, the park is being well used by the parents, and that's a big win for the community," said Brookhaven Councilwoman Connie Kepert, who helped secure the project's funding. "The park had been taken over by gang activity, and many parents were reluctant to make use of the park."
Aristides Mojica, commanding officer of the Fifth Precinct, said the "gangsters were an intimidating presence in the neighborhood who dominated the atmosphere."
Last year, there were three arrests at the park for criminal possession of marijuana, and only one this summer for the same offense, Mojica said. Officers will increase their patrols in the park at Patchogue and Hoffman avenues, where lights, no-trespassing signs and security cameras have been installed, officials said.
Suffolk police officials say the pervasive criminal element declined during the renovation.
"In the long run, that was helpful because they [gang members] got used to not being there," Mojica said.
That's good news for local residents who believe the park needed a fresh start.
"The park isn't as bad as it used to be," said Iris Gonzalez, Jonae's mother, but she complained that the park's restrooms were locked.
"It's great they invested money in the park," Powell said.
John Rogers, president of the Greater Bellport Coalition, a community group, agreed. "The renovations that the town has undertaken restored Robert Rowley Park, which is a focal point of the community," he said.
Mojica said there will be zero tolerance for illegal or illicit behavior. "We want this place for law-abiding citizens," Mojica said. "I'm very confident we're keeping it a safe place to use."