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Mitchell Park is the heart of Greenport Village (Photo credit: David Benthal)

Louis and Anita Cicero, who run a Shelter Island barber shop where Louis has been cutting hair since the ’50s, love to reminisce about Mitchells, a long-gone, and much-beloved restaurant on the Greenport waterfront where they first met. Louis recalls looking up from a huge platter of steamers ($3.50), on a November day in 1973 to set eyes on Anita who was serving them and knowing at once that he wanted to marry her.

Then, as now, the five-plus acres and a marina in downtown Greenport were the heart of the village. Louis had been cutting hair for the seniors at San Simeon that day, so he hung out until Anita’s shift ended (a wait of six hours), during which coffee and Mitchell’s famous crusty rolls sustained him. The restaurant was destroyed by a fire in 1978, but Greenport’s Mitchell Park is still a gathering place today for lovers as well as concertgoers, dancers, ice-skaters and carousel-riders.

The history of Mitchell Park starts with Harry Mitchell, who started Mitchell’s restaurant in 1941 on the Greenport waterfront in a former automobile shop. Mitchell was a local businessman who ran the butcher counter of the Greenport grocery. He and his wife, Pauline, an organizing force of nature, built Mitchell’s into a successful restaurant, bar, marina and community living room.

Photo courtesy of Floyd Memorial Library

The Rotary Club held every meeting at Mitchell’s from its founding until the building was destroyed by fire in 1978, and the Lion’s Club held regular meetings there as well. A weekly excursion train from New York brought day trippers to Mitchell’s every week, and local weddings, anniversaries and birthdays were celebrated in the large dining room. The bar was huge; mahogany and crowned with a Tiffany bar canopy, repurposed from a defunct saloon on Main Street. It was often crowded with local businessmen, tourists and boaters using the marina, as well as the occasional celebrity. 

From the beginning, Mitchell’s was tied to the harbor, a deep-water port that accommodated American military ships during World War II. Long-time waitresses in Anita’s time told of sailors who left $50 tips before shipping off to war. The back of the restaurant faced the harbor, and giant murals of the ’38 hurricane told of the destruction of the storm, a recent memory when Mitchell’s opened. “Mitchell’s was a classic. Lobster Newburg, lobster thermidor, clams, weakfish, they fed their help well.” Anita said. “That was the first time I’d had oysters.”

By the time Mitchell’s was gone, Harry Mitchell had passed, and the restaurant was sold. For 15 years, the property was a weedy hole on the Greenport waterfront, until the village bought it in 1996 for less than $1 million to make it a multi-use community space. An effort led by then-mayor David Kapell to design and build what is now Mitchell Park began in the late ’90s. The park opened in June 2001.

Photos by David Benthal

The winning design came from SHoP, an architecture firm that came up with a plan to create a gathering place by linking Main Street to the museums, ferry and train terminals and creating spaces for gatherings large and small, with benches, shade and opportunities to relax and enjoy the harbor.

The park has always maintained its links to Greenport’s past. Greenport’s antique horse carousel, a gift to the town from Northrup Grumman, is a 36-horse carousel built in the 1920s and moved from a temporary home nearby to a new glass and steel structure to display and protect it. It became the heart of Mitchell Park and a link to the children who rode it in the ’90s and who can now watch their own children enjoy it. This spring the Village of Greenport completed a restoration of the paint on the ponies, a temporary ‘whoa’ to carousel-riding until the ‘giddy up’ of summer.

A bronze plaque mounted on a boulder on the Main Street side of the park honors those who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II; another commemorates the founding of the Rotary Club of Greenport on this site and lists Harry Mitchell as a founding member.

Across the way from the carousel is a small wooden structure that houses a permanent camera obscura, a device that was wildly popular in the 19th century, but is now one of only five in the U.S. The device uses natural light and mirrors to project the images of the surrounding area — live and in color — on a table inside the structure. It’s like watching a live movie of the Greenport waterfront, from Claudio’s to the ferry. 

Greenport commissioned the camera obscura, designed by New York City-based architect Gary Paul, and it opened to the public in August 2005 by appointment only. Stephanie King of the marina office said she meets visitors there, sometimes several times a week. 

Photos by David Benthal

Inside the camera obscura is a dark, intimate room with the image projected in the middle of the room and a controller that you use to pan across the viewing area. In addition to being visually interesting, the camera obscura is an engineering achievement. It was designed as a kit, with 1487 unique pieces delivered with a set of visual assembly instructions like a giant box of Lego bricks, making the construction fast and affordable. 

Other attractions to Mitchell Park such as the float-up, Fireboat Fire Fighter Museum, a retired firefighting vessel that opens for tours and special events when it docks at the marina, and a pop-up ice-skating rink that operates when winter weather permits, are part of the charm of the park. A free summertime concert series called Dances in the Park has brought local favorites like Gene Casey and the Lone Sharks to the Mitchell Park boardwalk to play for crowds on lawn chairs and beach blankets, dancing the night away. 

Whether it’s relaxing with people you love, meeting the one, honoring the past, or dancing on the grass, Mitchell Park is the place to be. Louis Cicero can attest to that, and if you hear it from a barber, you know it’s true. “The first time I saw your face, I said, ‘There’s my girl. There’s the girl I’m going to marry.’ ” 

“Yeah,” said Anita, “We hit it off.“