Members of two Brighton Beach shuls just want to be able to hear themselves pray.
And they say the Brooklyn borough president’s plan to erect a 5,000-seat amphitheater in their neighborhood’s 22-acre green refuge — Asser Levy-Seaside Park — will soon impinge on their right to daven in peace and quiet.
The two synagogues, Temple Beth Abraham and Sea Breeze Jewish Center, are each within a few hundred feet of the proposed band shell, and their leaders are urging thousands of Brighton Beach-Coney Island residents to protest the project.
In January, Borough President Marty Markowitz launched a $64 million campaign to overhaul the current playground with handicap-friendly equipment, build a new irrigation system with flood-free walkways and most controversially, replace the veteran concert venue with a state-of-the-art covered band shell.
A neighborhood legacy that dates back to 1875, Asser Levy park was named for the first Jewish policeman in North America — a Portuguese man who had fled from Brazil to New Amsterdam back in the mid-1600s. Markowitz hopes that the renovated music space and playground will revitalize the park, which in his opinion has become under-utilized in recent years.
“Asser Levy will remain a park,” Markowitz told The Jewish Week. “First and foremost it is a park. There has always been a band shell there, what we’re doing is bringing the band shell up to date.”
The neighborhood opposition is arguing that city law prohibits amplified noise within 500 feet of religious institutions — in this case, the two shuls — but Markowitz says that the original bandstand actually predates the two synagogues. Work is scheduled to begin in August, and local residents are doing their best to deter this process, heatedly petitioning over the noise, traffic and parking chaos they say would surely emanate from the new band shell.
“If they want to build a structure like this, it belongs in Coney Island,” said Ida Sanoff, chairperson for the Natural Resources Protective Association, which initiated the fight against the borough president’s plan. “Markowitz considers this the gateway, the first thing people see on their way to Coney Island,” she continued. “And that’s his opinion, but they’re not thinking of the people who live here.”
A circulating petition already has about 4,500 signatures, said Mendy Sontag, president of Sea Breeze Jewish Center, who is organizing a protest rally Sunday evening and hopes to have 10,000 signatures by this time. Angry residents charge that the amphitheater will be the size of a 10-story building, larger than Radio City Music Hall, and will lack any additional parking facilities to relieve the already crowded neighborhood streets, according to Sanoff. Others complain that taxpayer money is being wasted, when the $64 million slated for the band shell project should instead go to school and library services
“People are crying for money, and here they are throwing it out on an arena that people don’t want,” said Alvin Turk, president of Temple Beth Abraham, who calls the project an “ego trip by the borough president.”
But Markowitz insists this project is just one of many similarly priced park renovations across the city, financed by special capital funds that can only go toward such construction. Unlike a Manhattan tower, he argued, the band shell will have neither walls nor closed doors — it will simply have a covered performance area. And under that roof will be 5,000 temporary seats, with additional lawn space for about 3,000 people to bring blankets and folding chairs.
“It’s not going to be bigger than the shows we currently have,” Markowitz said, referring to the Thursday night summer concerts that he has hosted in the current band shell since 1991. “The park can only handle so many people.”
As far as car parking, Markowitz said that he and his team are aggressively searching for an alternative to the overcrowded neighborhood streets, such as the lot at Coney Island Aquarium or perhaps nearby off-street parking. Meanwhile, though congregants are dreading even noisier interruptions in their daily davening, Markowitz argues that if anything, the new sound equipment technology will actually make the future concerts much less obtrusive to surrounding homes and shuls.
“Of course we want to do everything we can so that the community that resides around the park is not in any way affected,” he said, guaranteeing that his concerts , as in the past, won’t take place on Shabbat. “They’re Jewish and I’m Jewish. Obviously the synagogues must be respected and they will be respected.”
But synagogue leaders say they don’t trust the borough president.
“You mean to say they’re not going to have a concert at 8 p.m. on a Saturday in June?” asked Turk, who doubts that concerts will continue to take place only on Thursdays. “You can’t soundproof honking horns, you can’t soundproof 8,000 people.”
Turk argues that Markowitz should hold his concerts instead at KeySpan Park, the minor league baseball stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones play, a mere 12 blocks away. Yet this stadium has no roof, Markowitz responded, and musicians can perform neither a day before nor after a baseball game, which makes show schedules very erratic compared to the reliability of the band shell.
Still adamantly against the band shell, however, Sontag retorted, “In four years after you’re elected to your next term, you’re going to say maybe I want to move to Florida or maybe I want to settle in Israel. You’re going to leave us with this edifice, with this monstrosity.”
This “monstrosity,” Sontag believes, will destroy the park as the neighborhood knows it, stripping the area of its peaceful landscape and making the site less hospitable to families.
“This is the only open green space in a residential area,” Sanoff agreed. “There’s no other place where there’s grass, trees and birds. It’s the respite from everyday life.”
Yet Markowitz guarantees that this green space will lose only four of its 201 trees during construction and will benefit both environmentally and socially from a newly installed irrigation system and an American Disabilities Association-compliant playground.
Still, community members are skeptical as to whether or not their children will actually have the opportunity to make use of the new swings and slides.
“The borough president claims that the children will still continue to play,” said local internist Abraham Fruchter, who doubts that such free play will be possible when loitering concertgoers are gathering prior to performances.
But Markowitz claims that his concerts are geared primarily toward mature adult audiences and insists that there will be no vagrant teenagers lurking around the park and surrounding streets.
“If I lived in the neighborhood and you told me that you were taking away the park and building an arena 10 stories high, I think I’d sign the petition too,” Markowitz said. “But they’re being sold a bill of lies.”