Friday, July 31, 2009

Rebuilding Humpty Dumpty

This passed weekend I went on a tour of the future Fresh Kills Park. I had lots of questions, or I thought I did, but most of my questions could be better answered by scientists. So instead, I enjoyed the view. You too can go on a tour, so sign up here. It lasts about an hour, but the whole adventure will take you longer. Especially if you arrived via MTA bus.

Funny thing about traveling somewhere new, like Staten Island, you never know when your stop is coming or has gone. Now I've done it, now I know, but there was some anxiety there for awhile. I took the S79 from 4th Ave and 86th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It seems like a short trip on the map, but it takes about 45-60 minutes with all the stops. It is nice to go over the Verrazano with your monthly metro card instead of paying 11 bucks for the toll. So one bus ride to the Eltingville Transit Center makes Fresh Kills Park a fairly easy adventure for Brooklynites.

We were picked up in this NYC Parks van for the tour. Yes, you're primarily in the van, but you do get out on two mound tops. The roads are bumpy, make for dreams of anti-shake cameras.

Fresh Kills was the 20th century landfill for NYC brought to us by Robert Moses and our unstoppable ability to produce trash. These are shovels left over from its hay day. I hear one will remain for roadside display.

This is one facility amongst several, designed to process and refine the gases produced by the anaerobic breakdown of the trash.

In every way, Fresh Kills is a technological landscape. Its imported skin of soil conceals 50 years of mounded and compressed trash. You can find a description of the cap system on the Fresh Kills Park website. It's as artificial as Central Park, but in a monolithic way. In its current state, it is both ecologically simpler and technologically more complex than Central Park. Settlement of waste, gas production and capture, liquid leachate capture and treatment, water testing, not to mention the capping technology. After 30 years, the time frame for constructing this park, we can show the states that are taking our trash the ins and outs of topping it with a park.

This facility with the two stacks in the distance is the burn-off plant. You've seen them wherever there's petroleum refining -they've got the fire on top. When the gas collection system is down, gas will be rerouted to this facility for combustion.

This photo (click on for larger size) shows the twin stacks of the burn-off plant in the middle ground. Hard to see, but deep in the distance is lower Manhattan and Jersey City. Up close is one of the many gas well heads in a field of weeds and grasses. This view is from South Mound which may be called South Park later on.

Here are many grasses growing around the well head at the peak of the mound. I asked why so many wetland grasses appear to be growing on the sides of the mounds (and in this case, the top) when the information states that everything is designed for good drainage so that water does not collect and permeate the barrier. It's possible I don't know my grass from my ass, so maybe those aren't wetland grasses. Its also possible that the barrier and growing medium are holding water above the trash mound, saturating the soil in spots. But I am just guessing here -scientist needed.

Looking south-southwest towards West Mound. That hill is where the remains of the World Trade Center attacks were taken, further complicating an already complex space. It is said that a earthen memorial will be built there.

On our drive to the other mound, we passed the tidal creek. Our tour guide was eager to point out the Osprey nest.

On the North Mound, looking east, you can see the East Mound still being capped. Imagine how much fill and soil it takes to cover these mounds. To the right is the gas burn-off stacks we saw earlier from the south. Again, click on the photo for a larger image.

To the north is the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge, a small parcel of tidal marsh and some woods that will essentially be absorbed into Fresh Kills Park. I tried to visit the refuge last year, while locals on the tour and our tour guide suggested it was highly overgrown and in disuse.

Looking west you see the Arthur Kill and industrial New Jersey. But that is rendered lovely as it hovers above a field of Queen Anne's Lace. The previously capped mounds are all to be re-covered by another 2 feet of residential-grade topsoil, so that all vegetation you see will be destroyed. Much of the vegetation I saw at the park, while attractive as a whole from a distance, were weed species like mugwort, knotweed, q.a. lace, and phragmites.

Other landfills have been made into parks, such as Flushing Corona Park -once a dilapidated ash dump, but it's the scale of the systems in this new landscape that make it interesting. It is a laboratory for ecological concerns and brown-field re-development. It is both in-place as a series of large mounds situated in post-glacial moraine landscape and out of place as a series gas well-heads on stepped mounds of unforested expanse.

Most importantly, Fresh Kills Park shouldn't lose its history to it's new park-i-ness. Yeah, sure -it's a great redevelopment of a 50 year eye and nose sore, but if we forget how we got here, while we pay billions to ship our trash to far away states that one day will say no more, we will back into the same old place with garbage up to our ears.


  1. Great first-hand report.

    Why do think those are wetland species? Just the size of them? I have native grasses in my garden that top 4' every year, so I know upland grasses can reach substantial sizes. (Come visit!)

  2. Xris,

    Its the reed grass. The others are ordinary as far as I can tell. But I've often seen reed grass growing on the slopes of capped dumps. I expect (maybe wrongly) to see reed grass in wetlands.

    Thanks for the invite! On my way back from Cortelyou market one sunday...

  3. Nice work Dear,
    I wish I could have been there.
    You do pose a good question: What do we do with our trash now? Jersey?
    Is it NYC policy to move the landfills around? When do they know they're full?

    In Minnesota they built a ski hill on a retired landfill. Much much taller than the mounds in your photos, but then, what do Minnesotans know about mountains!


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