Pulse Of The Peninsula: Cheers for G.N. Park District’s anniversary

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The Great Neck Park District is celebrating 100 years of its existence with activities and special concerts on Sunday, Aug. 14.
The Great Neck Park District, the oldest park system in Nassau County and still one of the only park districts in New York State, was formed on Aug. 14, 1916 by a resolution of the Town of North Hempstead.
The district originally served 750 families; today the Great Neck Park District serves more than 13,500 families.
But we should never take what we have for granted.
Think about the effort it took to create, and build over the years into what it is today.
Certainly there are public parks — the Boston Commons being the oldest. And every colonial town had a public square of sorts.
But ours is a park district — a complex of 21 parks, three commuter lots and facilities and programs that serves residents of six villages plus unincorporated areas of Great Neck with a full gamut of recreational and cultural programming for all ages – even commuter parking.
It began with a remarkable woman, Louise Eldridge, and her husband, Roswell, the first mayor of Saddle Rock.
Louise Udall Skidmore Eldridge, a marvel of feminism, is believed to be the first female mayor in New York State, serving in her own right from 1926 until her death in 1947, and also was the visionary behind the creation of the Great Neck Library. (The gazebo on the Village Green has a 1928 marker from Louise honoring her husband.)
But think of the philosophy that had to be foundational to policy to creating the Great Neck Park District in 1916, the height of the Gilded Age, when dare I say, Great Neck consisted of very wealthy people like the Graces, Vanderbilts and Chryslers, and their servants.
It required a sense of community, of equal access, an appreciation for a government role in the quality of life of residents.
Just six months after New York State passed legislation allowing for the creation of special districts, Roswell Eldridge filed a petition before the Town of North Hempstead to establish a Great Neck Park District.
The petition was approved on Aug. 14, 1916 and the first meeting of the new Park District’s Board of Commissioners was held on Aug. 31, 1916.
“The GNPD set out to acquire land for parks,” according to a history of the park district. “As its first transaction, it purchased property on Long Island Sound for $40,000 for a Public Bathing Beach. It was located at the foot of Steamboat Road. In 1942, the U.S. Government purchased the old Public Bathing Beach site from the GNPD to construct the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. The Park District offset that sale to the government by buying property from Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.” to build our now cherished Steppingstone Park and Marina.
Concert performers never cease to be awestruck by the beauty of Steppingstone Park, affording all residents, regardless of income or station, a privilege that has all too often been restricted to only the wealthiest few.
In the early 1920s, the park district acquired land for Memorial Field and the Village Green, which was later expanded with 31/2 acres purchased from the Great Neck School District.
We shouldn’t take for granted all the facilities we have in the Park District, as the fight to acquire the property for Allenwood Park shows.
According to a history assembled by Alice Kasten, president of the Great Neck Historical Society (citing news accounts from the Great Neck News of 1928 and 1929, among other records): The Park District, having recently purchased Village Green, was actively looking for another Park which could accommodate a playground. On April 6, 1929, a realtor approached Gustav Zeese with an offer to purchase his 10.5 acres which contained roads, trees, shrubs, gas, electricity, a miniature swimming pool, a garage with an apartment above it, and a house valued at $50,000. He agreed to accept $190,000 ($2,645,911 in 2016 dollars, a sizeable amount for the time, not to mention the impending Great Depression).
The fight against acquiring Allenwood Park property is illustrative of the fact that nothing changes, as Kasten notes: “An active, heated campaign followed. The main opponent was the Chamber of Commerce…. Those in opposition also felt that the cost was too high, and that the park was unneeded as most people had yards. School taxes had recently doubled, and taxpayers were overburdened.”
More recently, the Great Neck Chamber of Commerce, prevented the park district from offering a farmers market on the Village Green.
You have to appreciate the passion and the effort of those who would work to public use of land and programming against the inevitable opposition.
Notably, the biggest growth of the park district occurred during the 1960s and into the 1970s, a period (I contend) when Great Neck was dominated by a group of passionate progressives who have left us a priceless legacy: The Parkwood Sports Complex opened in 1964 with an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool and ice-skating rink that served a membership of 2,000 families. The skating rink was enclosed to make it an all-weather rink in 1970.
(Parkwood underwent a major renovation in 2008.)
“Great Neck House was acquired in 1974 and was only the beginning of a new wave of expansion of the Park District in the 1970s,” Michelle Siegel, the park district’s publicist, writes. “This gracious English Tudor style building is an indoor facility, which was built by Roswell Eldridge at the turn-of-the-century, as the original location of the Great Neck Library.  Mr. Eldridge stipulated that if and when the library no longer housed the building, it must be used by the community and not sold for private use.” Today, Great Neck House is the cultural hub of the Park District, offering year round classes for adults and children, weekly presentations of current movies, recitals, lectures, concerts, family shows and art exhibits, and serving as a meeting place for local organizations.
“Additional expansion has added neighborhood parks to all boundaries of the Park District. Upland Park opened in 1963, Lakeville Park in 1966, Ravine Park in 1968, Manor Park in 1970 and Thomaston Park with wooden structures and quiet game areas in 1978.”
The commuter parking lots by the Long Island Railroad Station might seem an odd activity for a park district.
That came about after the explosive growth in middle class homeowners on Great Neck peninsula after World War II, commuting into New York City, who appealed to the Town of North Hempstead to provide parking.
Instead of setting up a new agency, the town turned to the Great Neck Park District. (A present challenge for the park district is somehow expanding commuter parking to accommodate more LIRR passengers once the link to the East Side is open.)
The park district has served as a steward of public greenspace – saving property like the 175-acre Kings Point Park (which since 1938, the district has managed for the village of Kings Point, turning swamp land into a park, when it would have been turned into a garbage dump) and the Peninsula Property in Thomaston (which was slated to be redeveloped for housing).
I remember the fight over purchasing the 2.4-acre waterfront section of the former George M. Cohan estate, adjacent to Steppingstone Park (for $2.95 million).
In truth, the entire waterfront should be public — as it is in certain communities and even countries (I’m thinking of Spring Lake, N.J., and Delray Beach, Fla., for example, where development is set across a roadway from the beach and Portugal and Albania where the beachfront is public land).
The park district’s plan to acquire the former Waldbaum’s, now BMW, on East Shore Road and create a shoreline path was brilliant but thwarted).
Now, the park district is one of the partners, along with the Great Neck Historical Society and the Town of North Hempstead, to save the Stepping Stones Lighthouse from being knocked down and replaced with a steel pole.
It would be wrong to take for granted all that we have, to imagine that the superb maintenance and operation and wide programming and extraordinary facilities exist without the constant effort of the Parks staff and particularly the commissioners who, generation after generation, take on the mantle of stewards, protecting the heritage we have inherited for future generations.
“We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children,” a Native American expression goes.
Today, we have Bob Lincoln, Dan Nachmanoff and Frank Cilluffo, to thank for having taken on the responsibility of leading the park district.
It is this sense of community, this notion of  “public,” and what is “local government” that is fundamental to appreciating our Great Neck Park District, especially with rising tides that would uproot local government like special districts.
And here I take vigorous exception to John Oliver who last March did a rant against special districts, attacking them universally as “ghost governments,” suggesting that they are undemocratic (mocking one board for going through the protocol of asking for comments when there was no one in the audience).
In fact, they are the most democratic form of government — if residents choose to be informed and involved. The difference is a special district that is well governed and one that is allowed to run amok because of apathy — which is true at every level of government.
One could say “government” but in a “government” formed “of the people” that means “community.” “Public” means “us.”
We don’t pay more to have local control — if anything, our park district operates in the most efficient way possible and is accountable for every dollar and to the interests of the community
The dollars raised are spent locally, not sent to other, less endowed, districts (as would have been the case if Tom Suozzi got his way and shut down the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District). And the larger the government entity, the more bureaucratic and less responsive it is.
Yes, we have had to rein in some projects — as with the first proposal for the indoor tennis facility and an early plan for the rebuilding of Parkwood Pool (remember all the “visionings”?)
And we did have fights over whether a Lazy River was an unnecessary luxury or something that would prove healthfully beneficial source of exercise for an aging population, as well as a delightful amusement that multi-generational families could enjoy together. And programming went into the neighborhood parks, became more multi-cultural because that’s what we asked for.
On this 100th anniversary, we should properly celebrate, and also appreciate, and be ever vigilant to protect.
The concert at Steppingstone on Saturday, Aug 13 will feature the Band of Long Island offering a program marking the 100th anniversary with narration and selection of music over the decades.
Then, on Sunday, Aug. 14, the 100-Year event will include: Brady Rymer, children’s musical performer (2 p.m.);  Great Neck Chinese Association presentation (3 p.m.); Magic Show (4 p.m.);
Fusion Marching Band (5 p.m.); Town of North Hempstead presents Park District with Proclamation (7:30 p.m.) and Concert by TUSK: The Ultimate Fleetwood Mac Tribute (8 p.m.).
In addition, there will be boat rides out to the Stepping Stones Lighthouse, as well as kayak and sailboat rides.

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