- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

OAKLAND, N.J. (AP) - When borough Recreation Commission Chairman Mike Guadagnino came up with plans three years ago to refurbish the 40-acre wooded tract along Ramapo Valley Road once known as “Pleasureland,” people told him he was crazy.

But he’ll have the last laugh on Sunday, when a 10 a.m. ceremony officially opens the land, now known as Great Oak Park, to the public for the first time in nearly 30 years.

The tract has a notable past. It was used for decades as a recreational area featuring pools, picnic areas, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and even a driving range. But an Aug. 4, 1985 gun battle between rival New York gangs that killed two and injured more than a dozen led to its abandonment.

Now the property, which borders the Ramapo River and is accessible via Doty Road, will offer quiet respite to hikers, fishermen and picnickers.

“I just didn’t let it bother me,” the 49-year-old Guadagnino said about the initial naysayers. “It wasn’t going to happen in a weekend; it was going to happen over a period of years. It was a lot of physical work . (but now) I mean, we have a park. A 40-acre, riverfront park.”

“We’re very excited about this park,” Mayor Linda Schwager told The Record (https://bit.ly/1IzOqRJ ). “The borough purchased the property years ago, but it just sat there. Now we have something we can all be proud of.”

The shootout, which occurred when both the Pleasureland pools and the FRG Sports Complex called the property home, was between members of rival gangs from Brooklyn celebrating Jamaican Independence Day, Guadagnino said. In press accounts at the time, then-Bergen County Prosecutor Larry McClure said “pandemonium broke loose” once the shooting started at FRG, and hundreds of the estimated 1,000-3,000 people present rushed the barbed-wire topped fence that separated the two parks in trying to escape the bullets.

Two shooting victims died: 28-year-old Hopeton Reid and Ricardo Quiles, a 37-year-old bus driver. Five men were arrested on charges of aggravated assault, attempted murder, and weapons possession. Another was arrested for handgun possession. Authorities later recovered two dozen handguns, two machine guns, and countless knives and machetes.

Ron Beattie, 64, now a retired Oakland police officer, was reading a newspaper on the patio of his borough home- it was his day off -when the firefight began. Initially, he thought the distant crackling was fireworks, until he- along with officers from across the region -was called in to help restore order. The next day, he said, as police scoured the site for evidence, he noticed the sunlight glistening off the plethora of shell casings littering the field.

“It reminded me of gunfights in the Army; there was brass everywhere,” said Beattie, a veteran. “They came armed to the teeth.”

One suspect eventually stood trial, Beattie recalls, but was found not guilty- “The problem with the people arrested that day is it was just pandemonium, and building a strong case against somebody requires finding witnesses of who did what to whom,” Beattie said. Both complexes were shuttered soon after. The site changed hands several times over the next two decades until the borough, using $1.6 million in state Green Acres money, bought it in May 2010 for $2.2 million, said Borough Administrator Richard Kunze.

But still it sat vacant, and by 2012, had fallen into utter disrepair, overgrown and littered with dead trees. Garbage was strewn about, Guadagnino said, and the Little Pond Brook, which runs through the area, had broken its banks to create a soggy delta and a second, weaker stream.

“The first day we did the walk-through- before any cleanup -I said ‘Can’t be,’ ” Schwager said with a laugh as she strolled along one of the dozen-or-so perfectly manicured, six-foot-wide trails on a recent sun-drenched morning. “But he had the vision.”

Guadagnino was reappointed to the Recreation Commission in 2012 and began to outline the park’s future. Borough Council hearings were held, and public comment gathered. Some residents wanted ballfields, but with 85 percent of the land in the Ramapo River floodplain and a state-protected trout-producing stream bisecting it, Department of Environmental Protection regulations only allowed for passive recreation.

A five-member committee dedicated to the project was created in summer 2013, and Guadagnino was made its chairman.

Much of the physical work has taken place in the last year, and Guadagnino has documented it on the website newoaklandpark.com. It’s been arduous, but volunteers have been aided by a half-dozen local tree companies and the borough’s Department of Public Works.

The Pleasureland pools were filled in with stone to make a 100-car parking lot, and Guadagnino and others cleaned and rebuilt the banks of the Little Pond Brook by hand last June. Two Eagle Scout projects created and improved the trails, and a third, finished just weeks ago, built benches and a sign next to the towering 250-year-old white oak tree that lends the park its name.

Guadagnino estimates more than 300 citizens have volunteered to date.

“Everybody, when they get done, is exhausted, but we stand by our cars afterwards, and we really feel an immense sense of pride and accomplishment,” he said. “Nobody has complained.”

But the work isn’t finished, especially in the park’s eastern half, which is still home to a sea of concrete that was once a parking lot, pool, and 18-hole mini-golf course. Weeds and grass poke through every crevice in the crumbling cement, and a few scrap-metal ghosts remain, like the faded sky-blue swingset or the rusted monkey bars sitting a few yards into the woods.

Guadagnino envisions new, more modern attractions: a dog park, a skate park, a great lawn with a band shell, maybe even reopening the mini-golf course. “There’s a lot of history with this place, and a lot of people want to keep that history alive,” he said. “Imagine if they knocked down Seaside Heights . there’s a lot of attachment to it.”

Mike Tersigni, 65, would agree- his family owned Pleasureland in 1985. He vividly recalls the shootings, but also the “tons and tons and tons of great memories” from that time.

The Pompton Lakes resident said walking the serene ground is like being in a “time warp,” and he is thrilled with the restoration work- “It was the best thing the town of Oakland ever did,” he said “It took ‘em too long.”

Meanwhile, Schwager dreams of a day when the borough can connect Great Oak Park with the Oakland Recreation Complex a half-mile to the northeast via a river-walk along the Ramapo.

First, though, the borough engineer, the South Hackensack-based Boswell Engineering, must send a “Letter of Interpretation” to the DEP describing work already done and what’s planned. Not all of the proposals will get a green light, Guadagnino said, but if he knows which ones the state agency is okay with, he’ll know where to focus efforts.

The letter will go out “shortly,” he said, and he hopes the DEP responds by year’s end. But that, he admits, might be optimistic.

“Everything,” he noted, “takes longer than expected.”


Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), https://www.northjersey.com

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