Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mounds of Trash or Treasure? NYC's Fresh Kills Landfill/Park

Here in America it's Halloween. Traditionally, we dress-up in costumes and masks to mark this un-holiday. The point: to engage with the demon, the terror, the monster, the "other" within ourselves, our community, and within our limited bases of knowledge about our own existence and after-existence. Well, perhaps you might find today's blog post quite fitting on this theme: I am writing about a heaping pile of trash dressed-up - costumed - as a park. Fresh Kills Landfill/Park. It's one part masquerade, one part honest-to-goodness attempt to engage with the "other" (our trash), to pull this"monster" out of its closet (the underground), and advance our minds to a higher level of recognition about our trash's existence and after-existence. No, zombies do not lurk here; and yet thousands of bodies and body pieces from the World Trade Center buildings were brought here in September 2001 and perhaps some are buried beneath our very feet. Do you believe in ghosts? At Fresh Kills, weird gases (methane) bubble up and are released from the underground. Our buried trash has become the spitting image of Hades itself: a bubbling cauldron of heat, gas, and stench. No, I wouldn't take your child trick-or-treating here on Halloween night (unless he/she is parading as "Oscar the Grouch"). But I would visit the park sometime, as I did one week ago.

A Short History of Trash (and Staten Island)

Two views of Staten Island (from South Mound, Fresh Kills Park): in the background, what appears to be a nice middle-class housing community; in the foreground, a number of colorful pipes warning visitors that they are standing atop 150 feet of decomposing garbage.

The history of New York City's trash splits the twentieth century in two. In the first half, from c1900 to 1948, trash went everywhere except to Fresh Kills. In the second half, from 1948 to 2001, trash increasingly went nowhere but to Fresh Kills. Why? First off, in the nineteenth century New York City's trash had "organic" value: it was fed to urban pigs who could then be eaten in turn. In this way, trash was recycled back into food. Privy "trash" (otherwise known as human feces) was often collected by "night soil" men, frequently African-Americans, who carted the feces to the river (Hudson or East) and dumped our organic waste into the water. Other garbage was sometimes used as landfill. In fact, much of lower Manhattan is built on landfill. We only most recently were reminded of this fact when earlier this year, in the ongoing construction at Ground Zero, an eighteenth-century ship was discovered buried in the ground! Apparently it had been deposited there as landfill.

Skip to the so-called Progressive Era (turn-of-the-twentieth century) when New York, like many other cities across the United States, was being made into a "sanitary city." New municipal services, such as public health and sanitation departments, developed strict codes for waste deposition. Even earlier, in the mid- to late nineteenth century, the city had already banned pigs from the streets; this meant that no animals were going to eat away our trash anymore. The installation of sewers furthermore meant that "night soil" men would be out-of-work, and yet our feces would still find its way into the Atlantic Ocean. And, by the early twentieth century, much of New York's household "trash" also found its way to the ocean. You might recall from my post about Coney Island that I love to swim there even despite the trash that sometimes floats in the water. Well, imagine one hundred times more trash washing up on the beach: old mattresses, shoes, cans, you name it. Anything you "threw away" in Manhattan was washed right back at you while swimming in Brooklyn.

In 1934, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the City of New York to desist from dumping trash in the Atlantic Ocean. This left the city with only one remaining option: landfills. Apparently the city already had landfills in all five boroughs: some of these have since been converted into parks, while others remain under tight security in 2010 due to the lingering presence of hazardous wastes. You must recall that the 1920s were the great age of consumerism in America: a decade of big spending by a growing middle-class of consumers on increasingly mass-produced "stuff." The amount of trash produced must have been staggering: too much for the city's landfills to contain. Thankfully, Robert Moses had a solution.

He proposed converting Staten Island's Fresh Kills into a landfill. What was Fresh Kills? It was a low-lying area on the western shore of Staten Island containing thousands of acres of salt marsh. Through the marshland meandered the Little Fresh Kills, the Great Fresh Kills, Richmond Creek, and Main Creek. The Fresh Kills waterways ("kill" is a Dutch word meaning "creek" or "stream") were tidal, rising up and down following the orbit of the moon, and fostering just the right balance of salty and fresh waters, above-ground and submerged habitats, to be one of the city's most expansive salt marsh ecosystems. Nevertheless, we can't paint so rosy a picture of this past. By the 1940s brick and linoleum manufactories had operated in this salt marsh intermittently for decades. It was the easy water transport afforded by the Fresh Kills' many waterways and its abutment against the Arthur Kill (separating Staten Island from New Jersey) that had attracted these manufacturing companies. It was these same features that attracted Robert Moses. He imagined that barges brimming with garbage from Manhattan could float right into the Fresh Kills and deposit the trash into the salt marsh. When Fresh Kills Landfill opened in 1948 the plan was that the landfill would be operational for just 3-5 years. Instead, it operated for 53 years.

The Approach

It's not hard to see why Staten Island got shouldered with this huge, smelly burden from 1948 onwards. It has to do, I think, in part with city-hinterland relations. It may be hard to argue that Staten Island, as part of New York City since annexation in 1898, was a "hinterland" to Manhattan's "metropolis." Staten Island was New York City. But the numbers argue otherwise: at over twice the size of Manhattan island, Staten Island was home to only about 190,000 residents in 1950. Manhattan in 1950 had just under 2 million residents. Staten Island had available land; Manhattan did not. Two million Manhattanites produced lots of trash every day; Staten Island had a place for that trash to go.

I disembarked the Staten Island Ferry at St. George and boarded a bus to Eltingville, near the landfill. The bus ride took about 45 minutes. Looking out the windows, I was impressed by all the lawn signs with political candidates' names on them. Staten Islanders seemed to care a lot about their political representation (perhaps because they feel overwhelmed by their more liberal neighbors in the other four boroughs who constitute a super-majority among citywide voters). But it's not just that: it's that here in Staten Island they actually have lawns on which they can place lawn signs. Few New Yorkers have such a patch of grass at their disposal. This small difference made me think more about how spatially and chronologically distinct Staten Island's history is, as compared to the rest of the city. Staten Island's development seems to follow its own unique sense of time and space. And it's no wonder that some of these "Islanders" are "mad as hell" (as in, those who support Carl Paladino for Governor): these Islanders are the youngest sibling of New York's five children, and they frequently pull the shortest straw. Example A: they got this landfill!

From Eltingville we board a NYC Parks bus and enter into the restricted area of the landfill. Our first stop, South Mound.

Mounds of Trash, Mounds of Meadow

View looking west, towards New Jersey, from South Mound, Fresh Kills Park

The mounds of Fresh Kills Landfill are a sight to be seen. They rise high from sea level, high above the Fresh Kills and the Arthur Kill; the highest mound, West Mound, is supposedly 200 feet high. South Mound, which we visited first, stood 150 feet above the tides. Our tour guides, from the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, tell us that landfills can only be built so high, because it is necessary to maintain a particular slope to the mound. It cannot be graded too steeply (otherwise we get trash-slides?). West Mound, at 200 feet, has reached that peak. In fact, all the mounds have reached their peaks here, in that there are no more active landfills at Fresh Kills. Some, like South Mound atop which we stand, have already been capped, and "nature" is already returning. West Mound, on the other hand, is not ready for humans to walk upon. West Mound was the last trash-mound to be used by the city: after September 11, 2001, remains from the site of the World Trade Center buildings were brought to West Mound where bodies and body parts were identified, objects were sifted through by museologists, and everything thought useless was buried in the mound. The Parks Department plans to build a memorial on top of West Mound to remember this important debris beneath our feet, 200 feet above the sea. We might then properly refer to West Mound as "sacred trash": but how strange to think that debris from the World Trade Center site mingles and stews there among the juice cartons and newspapers that perhaps your mother threw out one morning on a Manhattan street in the 1980s. Perhaps some of my parents' trash is there: my dad created trash in the Bronx from 1953 to 1960, and my mom created trash in Brooklyn from 1950 to the mid-1960s. Are these mounds hollowed ground for me, too? Do I stand here on the shoulders of my parents' trash? Am I the person I am today because they consumed all this stuff? Because they built these mounds?

View of West Mound from South Mound, Fresh Kills Park. You can see West Mound's gargantuan size (from left to right) in the background. You can, as well, notice its unfinished state. As the highest and largest of Fresh Kills' mounds, West Mound is also home to the debris from the World Trade Center site from September 2001.

What about these mounds-as-"nature"? The original "nature" of Fresh Kills was, as already mentioned, low-lying tidal salt marsh. Now we have these mounds, 150 to 200 feet high. What was once rolling meadows of cattails and reeds, of salty muck inhabited by frogs, turtles, and shorebirds has become the rolling hills of Appalachia in miniature. Where the Fresh Kills once flowed unbounded, where the greatest topographic changes were the differences between how the land lay at low tide as compared to high tide, now we have a landscape containing over two thousand acres of mounds. Here the Fresh Kills meanders like the tiny Colorado River through its Grand Canyon: this Grand Canyon of Trash.

But topographic changes aside, there is undeniably still so much "nature" here. From atop South Mound we see the waving grasses of the mountain meadows on all sides. Trees cannot grow here (the Parks Department will literally strive to keep them from growing) because tree roots may endanger the impermeable "cap" that separates the soil on top from the trash below. (Not so impermeable is it?) And so these mounds will never be re-forested. Indeed, re-forested is the wrong term. I asked the tour guide how the Parks Department plans to "re-create" the original habitats of Fresh Kills. He remarked that much of the salt marsh cannot be restored, although some of it, immediately adjacent to the kills, will be. As for these unnatural mounds, they will be kept as meadows, as they are now. But they never were meadows. Their meadow-ing is the result of what appear to be natural processes within a very unnatural place. A wide array of grasses are seen here: some are native, some are perhaps invasive. Will the Parks Department mow it all down and plant turf grass? I hope not. Why not classify some of these mounds as "forever wild"? It's a problematic term for classifying mounds of trash, but a "forever wild" designation would guarantee that from this day on these mounds will be provided with the very best opportunity to become "natural." As for animal life here, we did not see any rodents. We saw a few red-tailed hawks soaring overhead, especially near West Mound. Is there garbage for them to pick at? Or field mice? The answer to that question may determine whether or not most New Yorkers see the hawks' presence here as "natural" or not. We are told that white-tailed deer also visit the mounds. We all anxiously anticipate the return of "nature" to these mounds, but what exactly is returning? And what are they returning to?

One species that just loves North Mound (and in fact, loves just about every nook and cranny in New York City) is the phragmites. Here you can see a field of phragmites waving in the wind. It was incredibly cold and windy atop North Mound. Richmond creek (?) is on view below the mound.

There is a faint smell of trash. Is this the smell of methane slowly released into the atmosphere? How will human park-goers respond to this changed landscape? What do the birds want from this new landscape? What do the mammals want from it? I can begin to see how we - humans - will learn to see mountain meadows where once there was tidal marsh. But will New York's wildlife find mountain meadows just as useful an ecosystem as what was here before? I've seen the shorebirds - the egrets, the herons - at the salt marshes at Pelham Bay. What will make them choose Fresh Kills instead? I can imagine the deer roaming Fresh Kills' new mounds, but where will they sleep without trees and forest cover? Mountain meadows is not a habitat for deer, nor is it habitat for squirrels or for any of the birds who nest in trees. It will attract different plants and animals; to be sure, not all of New York's flora and fauna will be happy about that change. From 1948 to 2001, when the landfills were still open to the sky, I am sure that certain animals had many enjoyable days picking among the trash in these mounds. Now that the mounds are capped these animals will have to move on. It's a big change us: all of us, human and otherwise. Some of us will take to Fresh Kills Park. Some folks will enjoy the views from the mounds just as the red-tailed hawks enjoy the views from up above. Others will avoid these mounds; your average Manhattanite may be as unwilling to visit Staten Island (it takes about two hours to get to Fresh Kills Park from mid-Manhattan) as the Canada geese are unwilling to budge from the field at Van Cortlandt Park.

Not everyone is going to like what they find at Fresh Kills Park. It is a park 30 years in the making, and we're only a few years into it. The park offers free tours for the public once a month allowing you to explore and engage with the city's vision for the site; you can sign up online. Some of the guests on my particular tour had difficult questions for our tour guides. One woman asked whether the design of the park would actually help New Yorkers come to grips with their garbage problem, or whether the park would just hide our trash and its history from sight beneath a prettily-manicured cover. Later on the bus I overheard her remark that she thought the city should leave one mound uncapped, like an open volcano, so that visitors could walk up to the rim and peer down into the stinking, decomposing trash below. The tour guide had told us that capping the mounds was necessary to comply with safety laws. But the image she offered stuck with me. I think she also wanted to be able to search around through the trash and look at different things: to read an old moldy newspaper from 1964, or to examine a hot dog that miraculously still looks like a hot dog. She may have wanted to examine the archeology of our trash, to better know the history of our collective consumption. She suggested that this face-to-face encounter with the "other," with this Halloween-esque "monster" that is our trash, was the only way that New Yorkers would come to grips with their own role as Frankenstein, as the creator.

View of Manhattan from North Mound, Fresh Kills Park. In the foreground are the grasses of North Mound's rolling meadows. Below, at sea level, is a partial view of Main Creek (?) and its surrounding salt marsh. Beyond are woods protected within the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge. Beyond that are Staten Island's human settlements. Beyond that is New York Harbor. And beyond that, Manhattan.
You can see how the garbage would have been able to see Manhattan, while Manhattanites did not necessarily have to see the garbage.

Whether you are dressing up tonight as a sanitation worker, as "Oscar the Grouch," or perhaps as Frankenstein himself - or as Frankenstein's monster! - have fun. But remember: when you throw your day-old costume into the trash can tomorrow morning, you will be setting into motion an even more frightening event. If you live in Manhattan, your costume will be shipped to New Jersey to be either landfilled or incinerated. If you live in the Bronx or Brooklyn, your costume will be shipped via rail to Virginia to be landfilled. If you live in Staten Island, your costume will be shipped via rail to a landfill in South Carolina. If you live in Queens, I don't know what will happen to your costume: let's just hope I don't come across it while swimming at Coney Island next summer!

New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Freshkills Park: Site Tour Guide. n.d.
New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Fresh Perspectives: Freshkills Park Newsletter. Spring/Summer 2010.

To NYC Parks: Thanks for the tour!