So here I am writing once again about Jones Beach. (I wrote about it before here and here.) It’s strange. My kids and I love the place. We’ve gone there several times this summer already, but many friends in the neighborhood tell us they hardly go there, preferring extended beach vacations in Cape Cod or Maine instead.
But Jones Beach is easy, requiring little planning and packing. And while the main attraction is always the sun, sand, and water, there are occasions when the place has surprised us with new experiences. We’ve gone there on a Memorial Day weekend celebration when the park boasts of a yearly air show featuring, among others, the Breitling Jet Team and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. The air show was spectacular, the jets flying in various formations in the sky, approaching and whizzing by each other at fantastic speeds. The show ended with one jet, an F-35, flying fast and low on the beach. It accelerated, then created a sonic boom as it sped past the sound barrier. It’s like the biggest clap of thunder you’ve ever heard, like a massive but momentary earthquake. The sound – it was beyond sound actually, but more like a bodily sensation – was stunning, almost violent, but also exhilarating. When I recovered, I looked around and saw people with startled and wondering faces. We were by the picnic tables near the parking lot and I saw, on one table, an Indian grandmother in a sari holding a container of curry and urging two excited boys to sit down and eat. On another table, a Korean family was eating noodles and kimchi.
On a Fourth of July celebration, we went at night and enjoyed the fireworks, then got trapped in an awful traffic jam on our way out of the parking lot. It was close to midnight when we neared home, so we soothed ourselves with bowls of pho in a twenty-four-hour joint nearby.
Most of the time, of course, we just go there to enjoy the beach. Sometimes, like last Sunday, the weather is simply perfect, the sun hot and bright, the water like cool silk on the skin, the waves big but gentle and jumping them feels like the sweetest roller coaster ride ever.
Jones Beach is a state park, one of many with beaches in Long Island. It’s the creation of a visionary builder in the 1920s, Robert Moses, whose legacy is mixed. While brilliant in envisioning parks, promenades, and highways and politically adept in getting his projects funded and built, he was also ruthless and displaced many residents in the poorer neighborhoods of the city, many owners of small farms. Jones Beach and the other city and state parks benefit New Yorkers by providing easy, cheap access to the outdoors, but creating it out of a tangle of wildernesses, public lands, and private property was necessarily a grim endeavor.
In a way, the problem that Robert Moses tried to solve almost a hundred years ago still exists. The city, with 8.5 million residents, is the biggest it has ever been and is, throughout the year, visited by record numbers of tourists. The city and state parks provide fresh air, recreation, the calming influence of the natural environment, but most of them these days are victims of their own success – they’re overcrowded, stressful, littered with trash. Central Park, according to the New York Times, will be visited by 42 million residents and tourists this year. The High Line, a lovely park created from an unused train track in the Chelsea and Hudson Yards area of the city, sometimes resembles an actual train platform where commuters crowd each other on their way from one place to another.
Jones Beach, despite my attachment to it, gets crowded too. Last Sunday, perhaps exactly because the water was the perfect temperature, I had to navigate through a mesh of legs and arms to get to a spot in the water where I could ride the waves. And while playing in the water was great fun, I took off after a few minutes because the overcrowding was not.
But these parks, I’m sure, will find ways to cope. They get millions of dollars in donations from conservancies, funding from the government, and hundreds of volunteers. We ourselves have volunteered. On a brisk fall morning a year ago, we went to Central Park, raked the fallen leaves, and spread mulch all over. The organizers even had tiny wheelbarrows and rakes so that kids could get involved. It was fun, and more tiring than I thought it would be. But the city gets many volunteers because residents recognize that the parks are a great resource, that the trees and open spaces make life in the city unequivocally better.
I haven’t visited Central Park or the High Line lately and after watching a few YouTube videos of the crowds there, I’m not particularly tempted to. But I still want to go to Jones Beach. Maybe once or twice more before the inevitable and quickly approaching end of summer.