When telling people that I would be camping in Brooklyn — yes, that Brooklyn, the borough of New York — a swift, two-pronged response usually followed.
"You can do that?"
Wait a moment and then …
"Why would you want to do that?"
To answer in the order asked: Yes, you can do that.
Floyd Bennett Field is a former airport that sits on a thumb of land jutting into Jamaica Bay, in south Brooklyn. It was New York City's first municipal airport upon opening in 1931, but since the 1970s it has been managed by the National Park Service as part of Gateway National Recreation Area, a place for New Yorkers to fly model airplanes, race model cars, practice archery, fish, kayak and, yes, camp at one of more than 30 grassy sites.
As for why would I want to: Because it's camping — in Brooklyn!
And that's what I did on a warm June evening, turning off Flatbush Avenue onto the old airport road as the radio said a man had been fatally shot a few neighborhoods away. After a couple more turns, I found myself, literally, on a runway, a wide, gray tarmac bearing the number 24 in large white block letters.
On one side of the tarmac sat a ranger station in what looked like portable construction. Bathrooms with showers sat beside it. Across the tarmac, almost hidden in an overgrown thatch of trees, were the campsites. Way on the other side of the grounds, the Manhattan skyline peeked through the haze (it wasn't visible from the campsites, unfortunately).
For an urban campground, Floyd Bennett Field has the good taste of not allowing cars at the sites. I therefore parked by the ranger office and carried my essentials — tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, food and just a smattering of clothes for a humid summer night — 50 or so yards to my campsite.
Whatever biases camping in Brooklyn might evoke, I had them, and that's why I was relieved to walk into a perfectly normal campground: grass, trees, fellow campers and, as one couple pointed out in a whisper, a rabbit. It didn't smell like a subway. No discarded syringes littered the ground. No shady characters lurked. All good, Brooklyn.
I had picked my site online and was pleased to find a cozy little spot surrounded by thick greenery and equipped with the essentials: fire pit, barbecue grill and a wooden picnic table. This being Brooklyn, the table was chained to a cement pylon buried in the ground. And this being Brooklyn, someone had tried digging up the pylon. But the table remained.
I headed to the ranger station to check in and buy a bundle of firewood. Though I had a cellphone signal at my campsite — I was still in the nation's largest city — I was determined to trade in modernity for more camping-like things, like scratching my mosquito bites and making a fire.
Two women in park service uniforms stood in the ranger station, and both spoke with accents implying they would be far more at home in Brooklyn than Yosemite. As I paid for my $9 pile of wood, they ran through the essentials of camping in Brooklyn. Don't leave valuables unattended at the campsite. Don't leave food out, because "we have some funny raccoons." And the office would be closing early because of a "major incident."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"A major incident," one of them repeated. "See the stuff out there?"
In the parking lot sat a shopping cart teeming with folding chairs, a balled-up tent, a foam cooler, a blue suitcase, a plastic tub and pillows.
"Someone just outstayed their welcome," she said. "It's nothing to be concerned about."
Sure, nothing to be concerned about. It's just camping in Brooklyn!
But back at my site, things were lovely, quiet and green. I erected my tent beneath a tall tree, stepped back to admire my handiwork, then recalled the words of a Manhattanite I had told about my trip.