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Locking Up Memories: Vandalism, other issues prompt new park fence

Brookhaven’s old guard speaks with fondness of being young atthe Exchange Club Fair.

They talk of cotton candy and carousel horses, dividing timebetween the tilt-a-whirl and the Ferris wheel on those warm,endless nights. They remember the sweat and the sugar, playing hardwhile doting parents amassed on the stone gray benches in the coolof the pavilion. Now, with decades gone by, they bring in theirgrandchildren from far-off places every August, so the young canbuild a foundation of memories on those same family fixtures.

But, years from now, their progeny will remember a new fixtureat Exchange Club Park, a colder feature not present in the exalteddays of old.

It’s a tall security fence, topped with barbed wire andenclosing the park, a $20,000 fixture of steel meant to keep outlate-night vandals and thrill-seekers.

“It’s the cost of vandalism,” said Ted Ratcliff, vice presidentof the Brookhaven Exchange Club. “Is it a sign of the times? I hopenot, but things are different. It’s just where we are.”

Since the Exchange Club began hosting the annual weeklong fairin 1951, vandalism has been a problem at the park.

The club has always just lived with it, repairing damage andreplacing stolen items a few days after the scenes were discovered.They soldiered on, spending club funds to re-hang busted doors andwindows, painting over obscene messages scribbled onto the wood.One of their dear old buildings was set ablaze, and still theymanaged.

But in recent years it’s gone beyond simple troublemaking, andthe acts committed at the park in the dead of night are becomingmore and more alarming to the quiet, conservative club.

“Vandalism occurs weekly. You name it, and we’ve had it stolen,broke, tore up, painted, carved on … there’s no sense in that,”Ratcliff said. “If you leave the lights in the sockets they comeout there and break the lights out. If you leave the bathrooms openthey’ll break the toilets out of the floor. We put heavy-duty doorsand locks on the buildings, and they’ll compromise the locks oneway or another.”

But once they get in, there’s nothing for them to steal, clubmembers said. No valuable items are stored there.

Sometimes, park intruders don’t take a thing, instead using thegrounds as an office for their shady business.

“There’s a lot of drug activity going on over there,” saidExchange Club member Harold Gary. “Cars from out of state would bethere at midnight, and as soon as someone would pull up they’d alltake off. I witnessed a drug deal out there one day.”

Less prevalent but still troubling are the fights that seem toerupt in recent years at the late-summer event. They’re not all-outbrawls and they usually don’t last long, but they always seem tohappen when the sun goes down and dozens of teenagers begin togather in the park. There’s never an admission fee to the park, soanyone can come in – whether they actually ride any rides or buyany food or not.

“There’s no sense in them ganging up down there, and peoplestart going home as soon as they start doing that. It was hurtingthe fair,” Gary said.

The recurring midnight misdeeds at the park weigh heavily on thehearts of a club that has done nothing but support the communitysince it began.

Exchange Club programs include scholarships for local seniors,the dissemination of American flags and the poles to fly them onand cooperation with, and donation to, other local civic clubs. TheBrookhaven Exchange Club pours funding into organizations andfacilities that work to treat and prevent child abuse – thenational mission of all exchange clubs.

All totaled, the Brookhaven Exchange Club spends more than$50,000 each year on charitable programs, pumping out another$10,000 or more to keep the park maintained and running.

The mostly elderly members work long days year-round to raisethe funds and give them freely. It’s discouraging for them whensomeone sneaks into the park in the darkness and smashes a doordown or spray-paints profanity on a booth.

Exchange Club members don’t blame the Brookhaven police,pointing out local officers patrol the park regularly. But the copscan’t afford to just sit at the park all night – other areas of thecity need their attention, too. Intruders would regularly slip inunseen.

Knowing this, the club voted to build the fence.

Construction on the barrier wrapped up in mid-April, and theclub’s line in the sand was drawn. The 8-foot fence runsapproximately 1,500 feet around the park, enclosing everything putthe playgrounds and park benches used daily by children and workerson their lunch breaks. There is a gate at each corner of the park,and they remain closed at all times.

Since the fence went up almost a month ago, vandalism hasstopped, and the chain-link wall has paid off in other ways,too.

Brookhaven Elementary School students recently celebrated theend of their school year with a short party at the park, andteachers remarked to club members about how safe it was inside thefenced-in space for kids to run wild.

The fence will also allow club members to begin setting up forthe August fair in advance, no longer having to put on aconstruction blitz in just a few days for fear of their motors andtools being stolen. There will be more time to work on the grounds,more time to safety-check the rides.

The barbed wire-topped fence may take some of the city’sold-timers by surprise, but it’s necessary, it’s working and it’ssomething that will have to be bent around those softly glowingmemories.

Things just aren’t the way they used to be.

“Thirty years ago, did people lock their doors every time theyleft the house? Bet they do now,” said club president Greg Hoff.”Did they lock their cars every time they stopped 30 years ago? Betthey do now. Had they ever seen a woman shot in downtown Brookhavenbefore? They have now. Times are changing in Brookhaven.”