Niantic Park on the rebound

A real community effort to bring back the Oak Bluffs playground and courts.

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Kids hold some of the plans for the upcoming park. From left, Anderson Cramer, Charlotte Cramer, Ella Ehrman, Hazel Ehrman, Wren Robertson, Jocelyn Smyth, Hannah Buckley, Roger Schilling Jr., Bella Schilling and Shealyn Smyth. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The whup-whup-whup of a bouncing basketball at the Courts has been silenced this summer as Niantic Park in Oak Bluffs undergoes a major renovation, designed to upgrade, repair, and improve facilities for inter-generational use. When complete, the playground will be redesigned, the basketball courts replaced, and the tennis courts expanded to new uses, including pickleball.

How is all this possible? Amy Billings, chair of the Oak Bluffs Parks and Recreation Department, said to The Times that it’s important people understand the entire process. Two years ago the town appropriated $750,000 to rebuild Niantic Park. Since then, expenses have increased, the project has expanded, and the community is much more involved.

Mark Rivers, recreation director of the town, oversees the basketball program and tennis courts. The summer basketball league relocated to the Oak Bluffs School, “which has been so accommodating,” said Mike Joyce, who runs the program. For years, basketball has been the key attraction of Niantic Park. Mr. Rivers said, “Nothing is as centralized as Niantic Park — by the beach, downtown, the ferry; it’s like Central Park in New York.”

And like Central Park, Niantic Park has a backstory. Before Boston had its “Emerald Necklace” of a greenway, Niantic Park was a charm on the bracelet of Oak Bluffs.

As the Wesleyan Grove Camp Meeting Association attracted crowds in the mid-1800s, the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Co. developed a planned community beyond the Campground. They hired landscape architect Robert Morris Copeland. As he planned the 75 acres in 1871, he inserted more than a dozen parks, large and small. Today, the people of Oak Bluffs are the beneficiaries of these greenswards, from the imposing Ocean and Waban/Dennis Alley Parks, to Viera and Niantic Parks.

The upgrade of Niantic Park is a big project, and more money — in the neighborhood of $75,000 — is needed to complete the landscaping, irrigation, and furnishings of the Courts, from bleachers and benches to picnic tables and park signs.

And a bathroom. Yes, when Niantic Park is complete this autumn, there will be public restrooms. That alone is a game changer.

The Courts is really a single basketball court, created in 1970 when Police Chief Peter Williamson encouraged local young people to play. The Courts emerged, with the support of Dan McCarthy and Jay Schofield, evolving into a site where summer kids played with locals, blacks with whites, rich with poor. Competition on the Courts was supplemented by support from the sidelines, and traditions and friendships sprouted and blossomed, along with fundamentals of the game.

Jay Schofield ran the program well into the 1980s. “I set it up with five separate leagues based on age,” he recalled to The Times. “It had as many as 32 teams, with about eight players per team.” He added, “Bijan Bayne’s book, ‘Martha’s Vineyard Basketball,’ recently published, stated in its subtitle, ‘How a Resort League Defied Notions of Race and Class.’ That is actually what happened.”

“Martha’s Vineyard Basketball” recalls those halcyon summers with fond memories. But time and activity played havoc with the Courts, and by 2014 the fence was sagging, the court cracked, and the Courts required major repair. After renovations, the Courts will be bigger, better, and beautiful.

Using Community Preservation Act funds, the Parks Department designated $46,000 for new playground equipment. That would have been fine, but when local parents learned they could supplement CPA funding, they spearheaded fundraising efforts to expand the original design. Jen Smyth of Slice of Life held a pancake breakfast, and Guinevere Cramer promoted a dance party at Dreamland. “We have the potential to do so much more,” she said.

With a core group of fewer than a dozen, the Niantic Park Playground Project (NPPP) hired Leathers, a company experienced in playground construction. NPPP has raised thousands of dollars toward a state-of-the-art playground, yet are still short about $14,000. To create the playground, NPPP will purchase materials, enlist volunteers, both skilled and unskilled, and literally put the project together.

This “playground barn-raising,” or Community Build, will begin Wednesday, Oct. 14. The intent of NPPP is “to create a playground with elements that have to do with Oak Bluffs,” says Greg Ehrman, an architect/parent with a vested interest in the project as a whole. He seeks a sign on Circuit Avenue to “pull you around the corner,” and into the park, where children will be able to climb a lighthouse, play in a sandbox steamship, and slide out of a campground cottage. Robert Copeland, who designed Niantic Park, would be pleased.

From the Courts to NPPP, great improvements are in store for Niantic Park. Interested parties are encouraged to view the worksite. Donations may be sent to the Niantic Park Fund, Town of Oak Bluffs, P.O. 1327, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557. Playground donations may be sent to NPPP, Friends of Oak Bluffs, P.O. 1281, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557. With volunteers and town officials working seamlessly, this project will be sewed up this autumn, and the sound of a bouncing basketball will return next spring. “Everybody wants to support this,” said Guinevere Cramer, speaking for the community.