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Atlantic City's notorious Brown's Park now looks amazing

ATLANTIC CITY - The transformation of Brown's Park, a vexing spot in a midpoint of the city that visitors rarely consider outside of disturbing viral Facebook videos, is startling.

ATLANTIC CITY -- The transformation of Brown's Park, a vexing spot in a midpoint of the city that visitors rarely consider outside of disturbing viral Facebook videos, is startling.

"From what it used to be to what it was now," said Grace Batiz, who lives a few blocks away, walking her shih tzu Nana along the park's border the other day, "I think it's awesome. It was a mess."

The park, formerly a leafy and expansive trapezoid of frustrating negativity, bordered by Bacharach Boulevard, Martin Luther King Boulevard, Kentucky Avenue, Arctic, and a sliver of Baltic, is undergoing a long-delayed reconstruction that last week saw the eye-popping arrival of brightly colored playground and other equipment designed for all ages and abilities.

"One mom said they drove by, and her daughter said, 'Mommy can I play on that someday?' " said Elizabeth Terenik, the city's ace planning director. "Yay. That's what it should be."

Terenik, who follows a Jane Jacobs-inspired urbanist philosophy that sees environmental and park design as tools of crime reduction and urban revitalization, and city parks as reflections of  neighborhoods, scrounged grants and donations to pay for all but about $50,000 of the $1.3 million cost.

Which was not an easy mountain to climb in a city on the brink of insolvency, for a park mostly off the beaten path of tourists, though a portion of it falls within the state's designated Tourism District.

Police had long denied that Brown's Park had turned into A.C.'s version of Hamsterdam, the fictitious spot on HBO's The Wire turned into a free zone for drug dealers and users in Baltimore. But it sure seemed that way.

Named for Army Tech. Sgt. Harold R. Brown — the first African American resident of Atlantic City to die in World War II — the park always contained the possibility of rebirth, as retired neighborhood men continued to use its benches as a spot for political debate and chess.

Despite the promises of an improved park, some of those men were skeptical. "Better for who?" asked Robert Callendar, 88, before the city's work began.

Pastors and addictions counselors and police on foot patrol regularly walked the park and tried to talk some hope and sense, and order, into the people who gathered there daily.

But mostly, the park — down the street from the Rescue Mission, across from the Stanley Holmes housing project, near what used to be a methadone clinic on Pacific Avenue, now moved to Pleasantville — functioned as an overflow of sorts for the city's most desperate, and those who might take advantage of them.

Drugs were openly sold and used, the park's trees seemed in need of water and care, crumbling infrastructure serving as a place for men to sleep. ("If you take away the park, where are the alcoholics going to go?" asked one man, Carlos Torres, before the park was sealed off for the makeover.)

Parents and children mostly avoided the place, or walked by quickly, and anyone attending the Worthington campus of Atlantic Cape Community College across Kentucky Avenue could only think that the spot might have been a great place to have lunch — its bones call to mind any great urban square from Rittenhouse to Fitler — but was currently anything but.

A 2015 Facebook video that showed a man brazenly knocking out a homeless woman inside the park sealed the image. The man, Ibn Hunter, 25, was later arrested.

The grants for reconstruction date to 2009. After fits and starts, state takeovers, and bureaucracies, and with $600,000 in planned-on capital funds suddenly off limits because the city's coffers had become so bare, the contract was awarded late last year. Prior to the park's being fenced off, social services were offered to park regulars.

Half the cost is from New Jersey Green Acres, most of the rest cobbled from Community Development grants, donations from individuals, and the housing authority. About $170,000 came from ACDevCo, a nonprofit developing Stockton's new campus in Atlantic City.

Command Co. of Egg Harbor City expects to finish construction in May. Of this year.

In recent weeks, play and workout stations have appeared. A paved lap rings the park. Landscaping is focused on the triangular end, which now incorporates Bacharach. The park is starting to project its new image around town.

The equipment will be appropriate for people with disabilities, Terenik said.

Batiz wondered whether there might be a place to walk her dog.

Terenik said the portion with trees had undergone light maintenance, to avoid costly environmental requirements. But a portion of that, she said, might naturally attract dog walkers.

Otherwise, the park's walkways will be laid out like piano keys, an homage to the old Kentucky Avenue clubs. Expect new benches, a stage, and grassy seating area, game tables, and "off-the-grid" solar- or wind-power lighting.

Brown's will, for now,  be closed at dusk and fenced off.

There will be a lot of programming, now being developed by a Stockton intern in the planning department.  Terenik and Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, also laser-focused on Brown's, have arranged meetings with nearby residents to solicit ideas.

In addition to ACCC's campus, a new Head Start nursery is being built nearby, and there are talks about changes to improve a sometimes-troublesome public-housing dynamic across Baltic. Traffic will be calmed, and the park's overall design had lots of police input.

A separate $50,000 grant will finance a memorial to the sometimes-overlooked Brown himself, and "sacrifices made by Atlantic City Servicemen."

Despite the challenges of funding such a project in a near-bankrupt city, in the throes of a state takeover, Brown's remained a priority of the mayor and city administration.  "It means so much to the community to have that park done," Terenik said. "That's what motivated us. It took a lot of resourcefulness. But it finally came together."