Heading to the Beach this Weekend?

The boardwalk at Jones Beach State Park image: Alexandra Hay
The boardwalk at Jones Beach State Park
image: Alexandra Hay

With Memorial Day weekend comes the unofficial start of summer, and though the water may still be chilly at this time of year, many people will be heading to the closest beach for some start-of-summer celebrations.

For those in New York, and especially on Long Island, Jones Beach State Park is a destination that epitomizes summer. Though only 20 miles from New York City, Jones Beach could not feel further removed from the suburbs nearby, only a few causeways away. And, like Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Jones Beach is a site that has been dramatically transformed to create the iconic space we enjoy today.

Author and academic Marshall Berman has memorably described the “visionary landscape” of Jones Beach, characterized primarily by its spectacular—and entirely man-made—vastness:

[Robert] Moses’ first great achievement, at the end of the 1920s, was the creation of a public space radically different from anything that had existed anywhere before: Jones Beach State Park on Long Island, just beyond the bounds of New York City along the Atlantic. This beach, which opened in the summer of 1929…is so immense that it can easily hold a half million people on a hot Sunday in July without any sense of congestion. Its most striking feature as a landscape is its amazing clarity of space and form: absolutely flat, blindingly white expanses of sand, stretching forth to the horizon in a straight wide band, cut on one side by the clear, pure, endless blue of the sea, and on the other by the boardwalk’s sharp unbroken line of brown…Jones Beach offers a spectacular display of the primary forms of nature—earth, sun, water, sky—but nature here appears with an abstract horizontal purity and a luminous clarity that only culture can create.

Jones Beach is most definitely a cultural creation, a result more of Robert Moses’ ambitious vision and extensive dredging than of nature. Before the 1920s, what is now a wide, 6.5 mile-long, white-sand beach was a group of swampy barrier islands:

Jones Beach State Park and Jones Island which stretches east of the park were the creation of master builder Robert Moses…By dredging sand from what is now the State Boat Channel, Moses raised the elevation of the barrier islands by fourteen feet, connecting several small islands into one long stretch topped by Ocean Parkway. Moses created a great ‘people’s park’ from what he described as mosquito infested swamps and small islands.

One of Jones Beach's Art Deco bathhouses image: Alexandra Hay
One of Jones Beach’s Art Deco bathhouses
image: Alexandra Hay

From this humble beginning as swampland, Jones Beach State Park is now one of New York’s most-visited parks, with 6 to 8 million visitors per year, and it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

But in 2012, Jones Beach was named an at-risk landscape by The Cultural Landscape Foundation. As with many historic landscapes, maintenance was a critical issue: “Over the years, funding shortages, deferred maintenance, and a lack of comprehensive preservation planning for the site has led to an incremental yet significant loss of integrity.” Or, as an opinion piece in The New York Times vividly put it:

New York State parks officials have a huge job ahead of them in repairing Jones Beach State Park, which was dilapidated before Hurricane Sandy and devastated after, its boardwalk crumpled and its buildings ravaged. The park’s central mall, designed in Robert Moses’ day to evoke an ocean liner, today looks like a ship’s deck after a bad encounter with a very large, cold, floating object somewhere in the North Atlantic.

The Jones Beach boardwalk, November 2012 image: Alexandra Hay
The Jones Beach boardwalk, November 2012
image: Alexandra Hay

Earlier this spring, Jones Beach received some much-needed attention. On March 20, 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Jones Beach State Park’s Revitalization Plan, emphasizing the importance of restoring the park’s historic grandeur, strengthening its resiliency to storms, and improving and expanding recreation options. The preliminary drawings included in the Draft Conceptual Proposal were completed by Rhodeside & Harwell and Beyer Blinder Belle, and they depict an array of proposed updates that will need to balance imperatives to preserve and restore with the equally important addition of new park features.

Among the changes illustrated are the restoration of the Central Mall’s formal landscape and plantings and the development of the East Mall with a new tea garden, picnic area, and parking area with porous pavement. Other planned changes include restoring the lawns around the East and West Bathhouses, building additional shade structures, and expanding the popular Jones Beach bike route.

This summer, a pilot outdoor food court—organized in partnership with Brooklyn Flea—will take over a spot on the East Mall that has been vacant for years. In the future, the East Mall Marketplace will be expanded, with a green roof as shown in the renderings—an exciting change to what had been a giant, waterlogged hole in the ground for years, and a dramatic improvement from the 86,000-square-foot catering hall and restaurant that was previously proposed for the site. A restored natural area with flood-resistant vegetation, an elevated adventure playground, rock climbing walk, zip line, and splash pad are among the other proposed changes that should one day make the East Mall a far more inviting place.

However you plan to celebrate Memorial Day weekend—whether at the beach, by the pool, enjoying a backyard BBQ, or watching some fireworks—I’m sure you’ll find yourself in a park (or maybe even at Jones Beach!) one day soon. I hope you remember to appreciate the monumental efforts needed both to create a park and to sustain it through the years.

by Alexandra Hay, Professional Practice Coordinator at ASLA

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