Bay Ridge’s ‘Dust Bowl’ park — insensitive to America’s great national tragedy?

Bay Ridge’s ‘Dust Bowl’ park — insensitive to America’s great national tragedy?
The Brooklyn Paper / Mike Short

So what if it harkens to an environmental catastrophe in American history — if Bay Ridge wants to permanently name a once-grass-free section of Leif Ericson Park “the Dust Bowl,” it will happen, according to organizers of a contest to rename the once-gritty area.

But would that be right?

In American history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was an ecological catastrophe that spanned a decade — and dispossessed thousands in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas while also unleashing a Biblical plague of sand into Eastern cities.

The event compelled John Steinbeck to write “The Grapes of Wrath,” the story of Oklahoma sharecroppers driven from their land: “They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless — restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do — to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut — anything, any burden to bear, for food.”

Great name for a park, right?

At one point, at least, the monicker made a little sense. Former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern dubbed the area “the Dust Bowl,” for its seeming inability to grow grass. But this year, the city spent $2.8 million to renovate it — and cover the bald patches with a verdant carpet of synthetic turf.

Hence, the “renaming” contest.

Under the rules, “The Dust Bowl” remains one of the three finalists, battling it out with “Quaker Parrot Park” and “The Parrot Bowl,” both a nod to the birds who have taken up residence in and around the field at Eighth Avenue and 65th Street.

And if Bay Ridgers actually vote to permanently link a beautifully restored greenspace to one of the worst disasters in American history, the local councilman is behind them.

“If our neighborhood chooses to [make official] a long-standing nickname, we are totally and completely supportive of that,” said Dena Libner, a spokeswoman for Councilman Vince Gentile.

Historians are not so supportive.

“There’s a more-innocent name to call a piece of ground that’s dusty,” said Bob Brigman, the coordinator of the historical markers program for the Texas Historical Commission.

“Several generations removed from the event, the emotion and all the physical impact has been forgotten,” he said. “It’s like calling a boat that sinks today ‘Titanic-like’ — and they lost only three people. It’s like an echo or ripple from the original event.”

Andrew Needham, an environmental historian at New York University, agrees that naming a park “The Dust Bowl” at least reveals a lack of knowledge of the grim history of the event.

“People don’t really understand the scope of the Dust Bowl,” he said. “This is something that had people in the East Coast cleaning off dirt from the Great Plains on their window sills in Boston and New York. But it has fallen out of people’s minds. Today, they associate it mainly with the Joad family of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ or maybe ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ ”

He said that because the Dust Bowl has fallen out of people’s minds as an environmental disaster, the name is not offensive as, for example, naming a regulary flooded wetland, Katrina Park.

Indeed, Needham said he was far more surprised that the Parks Department would want to associate the park with the agency’s failure to properly maintain it. But that’s what Stern intended all along.

It was the then-Parks Commissioner who officially named the field in the 1990s — even having a plaque created.

“It was ironically named in the hope that it would induce people to get money to clean it up. This had nothing to do with the ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ ” said Stern, who had no apologies. “If people learn a little history, so much the better. As a historic event recedes in time, the tragedy is maybe overlooked and becomes more of a folk symbol.”

Stern had a reputation for the quirky and literal names he would give to parks, people and animals. He said he once found a dead dog in a park in Washington Heights and promptly named the park Dead Dog Park.

Residents said the field has been called the Dust Bowl as long as they can remember, and that’s just fine by them.

“They don’t see it as anything bad. [The field] was named that just because it was dirty,” said Peter Scarpa, 79, a member and former president of the Bay Ridge Historical Society. “Some of these things, they just pass into history and they’re forgotten.”

And sometimes, a dust bowl is just a dusty bowl.

“The name stuck,” Scarpa said.

To vote in the contest, go to vincentgentile.blogspot.com/2010/08/rename-dust-bowl.html. The voting period will end on Sept. 30, and the winning name will be announced in October.