Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Rocco Brescia

April 6, 2012

Sometimes, a city park becomes more than just a park. It becomes an engine for community building and fostering camaraderie among neighbors. Sometimes, it becomes a portal to the past. Sometimes it becomes a force for social good.

Thanks in large part to Rocco Brescia and his volunteer organization, Kaiser Park, on the northwest edge of Coney Island, has become all of those things.

Brescia, 58, is more than a park steward. He’s an advocate for the neighborhood itself. He lives just a block from Kaiser, jogs there nearly every morning at 5:30, and visits almost every evening. When he’s not there, he runs a mission and food pantry down the street.

His volunteer job and his day job often overlap – both in terms of their missions and the work he does for them. When he’s not helping to feed the needy at his mission, he’s helping Friends of Kaiser Park (FOKP), which he has run since 2001, partner with organizations like Salt & Sea Mission, another local pantry, where canned goods, clothing and blankets are always in demand. Friends of Kaiser Park runs food drives and prominently features a call to help Salt & Sea on its website. When he’s not applying for park funding grants, he’s often applying for grants to support his pantry. 

For Brescia, also a member of Brooklyn Community Board 13, all this work is part of his personal mission to help the Coney Island community.

“I’ve seen a lot of park leaders and groups, and Rocco is absolutely ideal for leadership and stewardship in a community,” said Anthony Feliciano, Catalyst Coordinator at Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of City Parks Foundation and the Parks Department, which has helped support Brescia's efforts at Kaiser Park. “He really shows how a neighborhood group can lead and advocate for a neighborhood with dedication and commitment.”

It began much smaller, though.

In 2001, Brescia, who grew up in nearby Bensonhurt and has lived in Coney Island for more than 30 years, saw in Kaiser a neglected space with boundless potential. The 26-acre park had a lawn and ballfields, a waterfront area with fishing piers and majestic views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and migrating birds in Gravesend Bay. But no one took care of it.

“If it rained, the baseball diamond would be muddy three weeks later,” Brescia said.

He organized a group of seven volunteers and they began a relentless park awareness and fundraising push, going door to door to homes and stores for donations. The group hosted cleanups and plantings, and sponsored events, which have now become annual neighborhood traditions: the Easter Egg Hunt, Halloween in the Park, Tree Lighting and Caroling, Senior Day and others.

“I wish FOKP had a dollar for every time one of the volunteers had a kid ask them when the next event would be,” Brescia writes on the group’s website.

He also began a push for funding from the local New York City Councilmember, Domenic M. Recchia, Jr.

"When I first got elected, Rocco came to me and said we have to restore Kaiser Park – it's the people's park for Coney Island," Recchia said. "And by working together and with the community, we've made Kaiser Park one of the city's premier parks."

Funding secured by Recchia – along with State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny and State Senator Diane J. Savino – spurred more events, helped FOKP form sponsorship deals with local businesses, open three information kiosks in the park, assemble banners for local advertising space, and eventually led to capital improvements – most notably ballfield lighting, a state-of-the-art track and a new park house, which is now nearly complete and will soon accommodate community meetings and other events.

“We started small, but now we’ve seen a complete turnaround,” Brescia said.

In 2004, FOKP securred its 501(c)3 status and now with its sister organization the Alliance of Calvert Vaux Park, oversees upkeep for three other open spaces in the area: Coney Island Creek Beach, which runs just west of Kaiser along the northern edge of the Sea Gate neighborhood; the 85-acre Calvert Vaux Park across the inlet in Gravesend; and a waterfront trail that runs behind Home Depot next to Calvert Vaux.

“I let Home Depot know what needs to be done with the trail, and they take care of it,” Brescia said.

Combined, the spaces form a chain of parks and greenspaces, making much of western Gravesend, Coney Island and Sea Gate’s waterfronts accessible, clean and welcoming.

But Brescia’s work is far from finished. He’s working to advocate for a series of kayak landing banks throughout the four properties, and says Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz likes the initiative. He’s also pushing for new barbeque equipment and completion of the park house, which is still awaiting the installation of a new heating system.

When he surveys Kaiser Park on a summer Saturday – “It’s packed from when we open at seven to when we close at seven. And it’s packed after that.” – he sees families from Coney Island, Sea Gate and Gravesend. He sees rollicking reunion partygoers from Bensonhurt that have come to reconnect in the old neighborhood and youth groups from Coney Island Generation Gap, a social service group he frequently assists. Sometimes he sees Councilmember Recchia, who is now an old friend and trusted ally. It’s a scene that parallels the theme of “We Are the World,” FOKP’s official song.

“When Rocco walks down the street in Coney Island," Feliciano said, “Everyone knows his name and says hello. There’s a mutual respect there. He’s tough; he has high expectations for the park and the people in the community, and that’s what helps make it all work.”

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