a field with grass and trees in the distance

Reading a Landscape: Freshkills Park

By: Scott Henson

By Marissa Paino, Draftperson, SHA

Freshkills Landfill was the reason my friends from Brooklyn made fun of me. It was Staten Island’s defining trait, visible from space, taller than the Statue of Liberty and infested with seagulls. At one time Staten Island had the unfortunate distinction of being home to the world’s largest landfill. No one on the island could escape the smell or the jibes that followed when someone found out you called Staten Island home. However the landfill’s slime covered slopes were not always a part of the borough’s ecology, and a lot has changed since my childhood.

On an absolutely freezing day last February, I set off to view an infamous landscape: The Freshkills Landfill. Armed with my sketchbook and unfortunately a dead cell phone, I arrived at the newly christened “Freshkills Park”. I parked, stepped out of my car and was surprised that the smell that once assaulted my nostrils throughout my childhood home was nowhere to be smelled. The air was crisp, clean and definitely cold. Expecting to find large mountains of trash, I instead found large mountains of fresh dirt housing hundreds of little saplings waiting for spring. Amongst the trees were tiny birds, pecking in the snow-blanketed dirt for a quick meal before flying off to find some shelter from the cold. I even saw deer -I couldn’t believe my eyes- white-tailed deer happily stepping around a buried trash heap as if the landscape had always been this way.

I’ve seen enough of natural areas of Staten Island to know something was amiss; there should’ve been low lying topography and marshy weeds there. There should be creeks frozen by winter crossed over by fallen trees melting back into the earth. Man’s touch was so obvious from where I stood- the fence, the dirt heaps, the perfectly placed trees- where was nature? Standing there, looking at that man-made forested hill beyond a chain-link fence, I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have seen before nature was replaced by trash to only be replaced by a man-made nature. What made people turn so much of this island into a trash pile?

Long before the landfill was opened in 1948, Freshkills was a landscape known for its salt marshland, tidal creeks and an abundance of plant-life growing out of sand and silt topsoil. The original topography was low-lying and was home to Lenape Native Americans who called the site Aquehonga Manacknong, or “haunted woods.” During the 1600’s, Fresh Kill’s original inhabitants established horticulture while they continued to hunt, gather and harvest shellfish from the once abundant land.

Though many attempts to colonize what was then called “Staten Eylandt” failed, Staten Island eventually became a stop on a stage coach route between Philadelphia and New York City. As a result, English settlement of the island began and in 1670 the Lenape surrendered their claim on the land. The Isle of Meadows, located at the mouth of the Freshkills Estuary, became Richmond County and land was divided into estates and farm shares. Those that lived on the site were self-sufficient farmers and fishermen living in small settlements. Oystering and farming became the Island’s main industry and salt hay, sold for cattle bedding and packing material, became its cash crop. The navigable creeks of the landscape encouraged trade and eventually would aid in the transportation of manufactured goods. This farming culture would last until rapid development pushed for land to be used for more housing and industrialization.

Farmland would fall away to yield factories and a history of waste disposal would soon begin. A number of brick factories harvesting local clay popped up and a waste disposal facility, used mostly for animal byproducts, was established. The digging of clay deposits created new ditches in meadows which would eventually provide the perfect place for dumping the city’s trash. Modernization continued to bloom with the creation of the Staten Island Railroad, which made travel of goods and people quicker and more efficient. While growth slowed during the Civil War, soon after, company towns were established to support the growth of factories in the area. Fire bricks, gas retorts, and drainpipes made from the local clay were some of Staten Island’s main exports.

In the 1800’s the population blossomed with the improvement of utilities, railways, ferries, and bridges. At this time, the shore was washed with oyster shells and there were forests of oak and chestnut trees, and rolling salt marshes. Naturalists explored the rolling Freshkills hills, painted its salt marshes in their landscapes, and rowed small boats in its creeks. It was a Naturalist’s dream landscape, seemingly untouched by human hands. However when Robert Moses came to town with a plan to change Freshkills, it would never be the same. He wanted to create new housing and parks, and his first step was to fill in the marshes with trash. He filled in ponds, displaced lakes, and eventually the marshes gave way to four massive piles of garbage, but Moses’s houses and parks were never built. Animals were displaced and native plants were killed for seemingly nothing, replaced by feral dog packs, flocks of seagulls and rats.

Instead of parks and houses, a new landscape of trash mountains was created. New government regulations forced other landfills in the area to close and eventually the once beautiful Freshkills became the only place for New York City’s trash. Barges and trucks brought almost 29,000 tons of garbage to Freshkills each day. The tallest mound rose about 200 feet above sea level, turning the once low-lying marshes into foul smelling mountains towering over Staten Island. The trash mix excreted gas and lactate, which posed a threat to the environment and those living around the trash heap. The noxious environment of Freshkills developed its own ecology of trash and slime coexisting with forests, tidal and freshwater wetlands.

Thankfully the landfill was closed for good in 2003 when Mayor Bloomberg selected a design proposal from Field Operations to turn the trash piles into the largest park developed in New York City in over 100 years. The thirty-year plan is well underway to clean up the toxic garbage and replace it with bike trails, walking paths, sports fields, a picnic lawn, a farm, a kayak launch, a bird watching tower, an earthwork monument and the city’s largest solar energy facility. Now that summer is fully underway, the newly planted saplings, freshly laid paths and hilltop picnic areas are slowly becoming a park. The area, which was largely ignored by the city for years is being rediscovered, both by its residents and its wildlife population. Since the winter, the site has attracted nearly a dozen animal species and a variety of at-risk bird species that are considered rare in the city. As bird watchers, naturalists, and weekenders flock Freshkills, the 2,200 acres that Staten Islanders once considered a scar on the landscape is now healing, restoring a sense a pride to the area.

With the plans in place to heal hundreds of years of damage, there is hope for Freshkills. There is proof of this in the return of wildlife including the deer, foxes, turtles, egrets, rabbits, coyotes, owls and even native bald eagles. A new nature for Freshkills is in the works, and in a few decades what was once a Wall E-esque landscape, will be wiped clean and instead hold a new image of nature for generations to come.

If you’d like to see Freshkills with your own eyes, Discovery Day will take place on Sunday, September 18th 2016 from 11:00 AM- 4:00 PM.

Image ©Leonel Lima Ponce for Inhabitat

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