This playground takes its name from the adjacent avenue, once called Gravesend after the historic town that existed here. In 1933, the City changed the street name to honor John R. McDonald (1871-1932), who served as chief clerk at Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court, and died as a result of swallowing a chicken bone.
McDonald began his career in the Surrogate’s Court in 1893, as an attendant. He rose through the ranks, serving as deputy chief in 1930 and ascending to chief clerk when his superior retired. Two years later, McDonald swallowed a small piece of chicken bone that fatally punctured his intestine. The West Flatbush Civic League prompted local Alderman Gustav Hartung, a member of the thoroughfares committee, to propose re-naming Gravesend Avenue in McDonald’s honor. On March 14, 1933, the Board of Aldermen (equivalent to today’s City Council) passed a resolution changing the name to McDonald Avenue.
This resolution did not pass without opposition. The Gravesend Chamber of Commerce believed that re-naming Gravesend Avenue erased an important link to Brooklyn’s past. Lady Deborah Moody (c.1583-1659), the first woman to be granted a land patent in the new colonies, founded the town of Gravesend in 1643, and created a four-square plan surrounded by protective walls. The plan included a school, a church and a cemetery. The town charter of Gravesend was one of the first documents in the New World to grant freedom of religious beliefs to its inhabitants. Lady Moody died in 1659, and is believed to be buried in or near the surviving Old Gravesend Cemetery, on Gravesend Neck Road between Van Sicklen and McDonald Avenues.
For more than 200 years, Gravesend Avenue was a key route through the county, connecting the City of Brooklyn, and all towns on its way, to Gravesend. Today, the picturesque Old Gravesend Cemetery is one of the last vestiges of this settlement. Its irregular shape reflects some of the historic roads that once traversed the area.
Parks acquired this site in 1949 and opened a playground in 1951. In 1987, the playground adopted its present name from the adjacent McDonald Avenue. Three years later, the ballfield inside the park was named in honor of slain Police Officer Jeff B. Herman. The playground includes adventure play equipment, and basketball, handball, and tennis courts. In 1998, funds appropriated by Council Member Eric Mattes financed major renovations of the park's New York Junior Tennis League courts.
Shrub plantings and London plane trees (Platanus x acerifolia) bring green to this asphalt park. The trees are planted because of their ability to withstand the polluted environment and dry soil common to urban parks. Their leafy canopies, 70 to 85 feet above ground, provide shade for all those here at rest and at play.
Four panels set amongst the tiles around the spray shower illustrate the early days of Gravesend: a colonial couple in a cemetery, a room full of men signing a document, a woman kneeling in prayer beside her bed, and a farmer plowing his field with an ox. These imagined scenes are based on what we know about the way of life in Gravesend during the 17th century.