We live in a park: Families celebrated their summer memories at these public spaces

City Park in Long Branch, N.J., has served as a summertime playground for generations of families. Yet, facing the loss of his large family’s beloved summer home a decade ago, the pastime had taken on a special significance to 54-year-old Ernie Tolbert. Indeed, Mr. Tolbert was spending the weekend working on his new home, which he and his wife, Rose, had built themselves on their own personal lot. “It meant more than anything else, that my children and my siblings would still be able to enjoy this park,” Mr. Tolbert says. “As hard as it was to give it up, I felt a part of the kids I knew in the park.”

Mr. Tolbert was referring to the Long Branch City Park, a modest, municipal-run park that he and so many others turned into a safe place for their children to spend their summertime. People sitting on the swing, munching on burgers, or relaxing on the Jersey shore pushed away the traces of nature; they opened their childlike imaginations to a world of imaginary creatures and adventures. The park was also a hub for free concerts and dance performances, featuring regional acts as diverse as the Guitar Summit band from Columbus, Ohio, and the band Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. “I remember the big, life-size peanut butter and jelly sandwich hanging in the new playground,” Mr. Tolbert recalls. “Everybody hung out in the park, and they played in the jungle gym. My dad drove us there and back in the car, and a lot of other people in town did, too. It was the most kid-friendly park in town.”

Ms. Tolbert remembers the glowing affect the park had on her own children. “I would take him there on his bike in summertime and he’d grab my shoulder strap and get on,” she says. “He’d say, ‘La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.’ He loved to play on the slides and the swings. The bands were great. Stevie Wonder was in the park sometimes. I’d go to all the concerts on Saturday nights.”

It is not uncommon for parks throughout the country to attract large crowds in summer months. But Long Branch — located on the southernmost barrier island of the Eastern Seaboard — had quite a bit more to offer than a collection of playgrounds and picnic tables. Its draw is more than weather. Today, about 55,000 people visit the city’s City Park annually, despite summer heat and humidity. In addition to the popular picnic areas, four tennis courts, one gymnasium, and even a kayak launch are scattered throughout the park.

Since 1986, the owners of the City Park concessionaire and operating company have been the Town of Long Branch Parks and Recreation Department. The P&R Department was only able to run City Park for a few years after the Hogar family purchased the park on the condition that they continue the park’s successful operation.

However, things were on the brink of collapse for years. Over the course of about 30 years, the town’s budget — and its overall financial health — dwindled as the local population and businesses declined, according to Borough Manager Peter R. de Castillo. In 1977, just before the Hogar family purchased the park, the borough had more than 11,000 residents. In 2010, the borough had fewer than 8,000 residents. Yet, despite the financial struggles, Mr. de Castillo points out that there was a change in attitude that transformed the Town of Long Branch from a year-round haven for the vacationing crowd to a culturally vibrant community. “We introduced a lot of activities to the park,” he says. “We started offering public programs during the summertime. It meant going to the theater and events. That got the imagination of the community out into the park.”

Among the former attractions were a pond with fishing, natural sandy beach, sand volleyball, beach volleyball, and ping pong. According to Christie Tolbert, the play area was named for her grandfather, who built a tractor and outdoor building in the park and a hotel attached to it. “Most of the people who lived here then came in during the season and stayed,” Christie says.

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