Growing up across the street from Brown's Memorial Park in Atlantic City, Ricardo Belgrave remembers homeless men and women sleeping on benches, fights in the street, broken bottles scattered across patches of grass.
"It was a reminder of what you did not want to become," said Belgrave, 32, now a teacher at an elementary school near the park.
On Memorial Day, Belgrave and his wife, Lisa, watched their four sons scamper up and down a set of brand-new playground equipment, as nearby a group of city leaders, residents, and local military veterans celebrated the reopening of the park after a $1.5 million renovation.
The event also was a rededication ceremony for the site, named after Army Tech. Sgt. Harold R. Brown, the first African American resident of Atlantic City to die in World War II.
"We can never allow this park to go back to what it was in recent years," said Charles Garrett, a former Atlantic County freeholder and a Vietnam veteran. "Let us from this place, and this time, send the message throughout our town that we will not tolerate the destruction or defacing of the park."
On a chilly, overcast day that kept many Shore beachgoers inside, several hundred attended the park reopening and neighborhood cookout afterwards. As temperatures lingered in the 60s and scattered raindrops fell, many tourists chose to end the holiday weekend early, and some major roads started backing up by 1 p.m.
The Brown's Park revitalization project was funded largely by grants and donations, and on Monday many city officials recognized planning director Elizabeth Terenik for her work. The new playground features brightly colored equipment that can be used by children of all ages and abilities, and new trees and shrubs line a series of walkways curving through the area.
Mayor Don Guardian credited Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, whose ward includes the park, with having a larger vision for the space. In the months to come, activities will be planned for the park that include church meetings, sports, and a community garden.
"He was convinced it's not good enough to plant the grass and build playground equipment," Guardian said. "Our children need more."
Over the years, the park had become associated with the nearby Rescue Mission, as well as with the methadone clinic that recently moved from the area. It was even the scene of a 2015 Facebook video that showed a man punching a homeless woman and knocking her unconscious.
"We can all bow our heads in shame over the last 30 years over the condition of this park," Guardian said. "Sgt. Brown would not have been proud."
John Thomas, 91, a longtime Atlantic City resident who served in World War II, was one of several veterans who spoke about the racism they faced after returning home from battle, even after defending the country.
"It was the residue of slavery," Thomas said.
Despite that, he said, he and many others took advantage of the GI bill to help them go to school and buy homes.
Belgrave, the teacher who grew up in Atlantic City, was one of many attendees Monday who confessed to some doubt as to whether the park renovation would ever happen.
"It didn't really become reality until the gates went up and the construction equipment got here," he said.
For Belgrave, who said he and his family go to nearby beaches in the summer and to Chuck E. Cheese in the cooler months, the park will be a safe haven for his kids. He also said he saw it as a commitment to supporting the city's middle-class families.