Will the transformation of an infamous landfill into a majestic park break the outdated stigma of Staten Island?
n Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel Super Sad True Love Story set in New York City’s near future, Staten Island has become the city’s hippest neighborhood, the future’s version of mid-2000s Williamsburg. In this world, the Sri Lankan restaurants and dusty immigrant markets have been replaced by “The People’s Republic of Staten Island” full of “half man half wireless bohemians” in vintage hoodies, pushing state of the art strollers up Victory Boulevard past pricey Victorian houses. The story’s ending is no paradise–as violence engulfs the rest of the city, the main characters are forced to flee via the Staten Island ferry to the relative calm of St. George and Tompkinsville.
Shteyngart’s hipster dystopia may have farcical roots, but there are also signs his vision for Staten Island as the final frontier of New York City may not be so farfetched. On a course of reinventing itself, a critical catalyst is at work as the stigmatic Fresh Kills landfill undergoes a monumental transition into the majestic Freshkills Park.
The current adaptation of Freshkills from wasteland to wilds has brought far more than birdsong to the area; the new wetlands are acting as an important buffer between residential areas and the impact of future storm surges, while the park’s redevelopment is playing an essential role in the rebirth of a once forgotten borough.
If the name itself echoes some familiarity, it’s likely because Freshkills is formerly the site of one of the largest collections of waste in modern history. Receiving over 29,000 tons of trash daily during its height, the Fresh Kills Landfill (visible from space as the largest man-made structure on earth) received its last load of refuse in 2001; soon after the environmental rehabilitation began. Today the land is a burgeoning eden of urban escape housing a playground, a soccer field, and a rotating series of events and programs. When it’s completed in 2036, Freshkills will be 2.7 times the size of Central Park and contain a wetlands preserve, extensive bike and pedestrian paths, recreational facilities and large scale art installations.
RUINS took a private tour of the park and commissioned landscape photographer Sam Kweskin to document the environs from above, capturing the active transition in its most vulnerable stage. Fields and lakes have risen to consume what was once barren and inhospitable. Crests of grassy knolls offer views of the Statue of Liberty and the southern Manhattan skyline unspoiled by mega-high rises and noise pollution, hinting at the promise of a nature-bound borough.
The park’s development is taking place as Staten Island cultivates more attractive draws for visitors and new inhabitants. With Manhattan’s real estate becoming increasingly inaccessible, and buzzy outer boroughs like Brooklyn sharing in the trend of housing shortages and escalating rents, Staten Island is suddenly being looked at as a viable if not highly compelling destination for early adopters of the next great migration.
To give context to its history, the Fresh Kills landfill was conceptualized in 1947 by the the powerful and polarizing master city planner Robert Moses to serve as a temporary solution to Manhattan’s waste dilemma. Soon after, New York City’s population began to boom beyond expectation and the need for a slightly distant dumping ground became fixed, sticking the borough with a stigma it has since worked hard to distance itself from.
obin Nagle is the New York Department of Sanitation’s anthropologist in residence. To research her book Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, Nagle actually worked as garbage woman in order to understand the culture of waste disposal and stigma attached to it. In her resulting essay “To Love a Landfill”, she connects the area’s origins from wetlands to landfill, to a darkly sacred space that contains much of the debris and remains from the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Landfills are a common resource, Nagle argues, and the act of extending the shoreline with trash is a technique that has been used to grow New York City for centuries, creating areas that benefit the collective good.
“In Manhattan, below City Hall,” she writes, “33 per cent of the land is built on street sweepings, ashes, garbage, ballast from ships, dirt and rubble from excavated building sites, and other forms of solid waste dumped along the shore.” Considering that roughly 20 percent of contemporary Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx is landfill, old perceptions of Fresh Kills’ linger begin to feel a little less justified.
Nagle describes the area as an early twentieth century immigrant utopia: “Old women roamed the marshes harvesting herbs, wild flowers, grapes for jelly, and watercress. Italians came for mushrooms and mud shrimp. In the fall, truck farmers harvested salt hay with scythes, while Jewish elders and rabbis cut carefully chosen willow twigs for Succoth.” Native American artifacts found in Fresh Kills have been dated to 10,000 years.
Constructed on top of an impermeable cap laid in 1997 and aided by the area’s natural clay liner—whose powerful organic sealant against contamination first attracted Moses to the site—Freshkills is being monitored by government agencies ranging from the EPA and the DEC to the New York City Parks Department, who conduct frequent testing of its soil and water. This liner also provides a crucial hydraulic barrier between the trash below and wildlife above, preventing water from flowing to the waste and promoting storage and drainage of water above. This critical layer also prevents noxious gases from entering the atmosphere.
Also in place is a complex system for collecting and controlling the gas emissions from the subterranean level of trash via a network of wells, connected by pipes below the surface. Put bluntly, these pipes suck the gas up through a vacuum–dotting the verdant landscape like periscopes. Once harvested, the methane is either burned or turned into renewable energy and sold to National Grid, helping to power the area and providing a unique source of revenue.
Through studies conducted by the Parks Department, it’s been proven that “gas emissions, non–methane organic compounds (NMOCs) and other hazardous pollutants are reduced by almost 100%. In addition to this active gas collection and recovery system, a… safety system is in place to prevent the migration of gas off–site.” While it will be at least thirty years before the site’s gas dissipates, the Department of Environmental Conservation has established that no area would be open to the public before it was deemed safe.
he island itself has never ceased to attract urban explorers, history buffs and adventurous foodies. Urban photographer Nathan Kensinger has been documenting New York’s industrial and waterfront neighborhoods for decades. He had first taken an interest in Staten Island’s development in 2006. “I was drawn to the island because of its many historic sites,” says Kensinger, one of the few to capture Staten Island’s disappearing history as wartime infirmary and sailor retirement community. He explains, “Freshkills Park will be an interesting new addition. It’s part of a whole system of new parks that the city is creating in post-industrial areas as it tries to re-establish waterfront access for citizens. Brooklyn Bridge Park was created on top of a demolished system of waterfront shipping warehouses.”
Freshkills program manager Mariel Villeré adds, “I like to compare it to going out to Dia: Beacon but on your MetroCard.” It’s also drawn speculative comparisons to the Storm King art center, which draws hordes of visitors each summer. Villeré has also come to appreciate some of the things that make Staten Island unique—like the Sri Lankan restaurants that punctuate communities in Tompkinsville and Stapleton, as well as culture treasures like Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, and Crimson Beach—the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in New York City.
But is it realistic to expect the borough-hopping trendsetters to put Staten Island in their sight lines?
“I love my borough and am quite happy here, but I understand all too well about the inflating prices in this city,” says Brooklyn DJ and musician Lauren Flax, who spins at some of the most elite clubs internationally and has collaborated with Sia, Miike Snow and Tricky. “I would absolutely work on something music related on Staten Island. I’ll back anything that can bring and maintain creativity–because what is New York City without its art, its music, its culture? If things were like this when I first moved here 13 years ago, I may not have survived.” The “things” Flax is referring to are the staggering rent prices that have led to an exodus of creatives from a city that has long been regarded a world class mecca of artistic zeitgeist. Priced out of the more popular boroughs, Staten Island is well positioned to become a new enclave for creatives and young professionals.
Ground has broken to develop the waterfront along the St. George area, including the 630 ft. tall New York Wheel which is earmarked to become a world class attraction for New York City. (It shares a lead engineer with the London Eye). Further south on the Stapleton waterfront, Urby – a forward-thinking mixed use residential development – just opened its doors on over 900 modern units. Architected by Concrete, the cutting edge Dutch design firm, it’s a dense and stylish block of smartly designed, space efficient apartments and proprietor-driven retail spaces. The residents benefit from built in perks intended to connect the new transplants to the uniqueness of the landscape itself: free bicycles to roam the rambling island, an expansive urban garden, a swimming pool and integration with the waterfront esplanade.
These new developments are engaging arts and farmer communities already simmering on the island, such as the Snug Harbor Arts Association, Lumen, and Maker Space—a creativity incubator run and founded by local and commuter artists.
“I mean, anything stands a chance,” says party promoter and life-long New Yorker Nicky Digital. “10 years ago who would have ever thought people would be gentrifying Bedstuy and Bushwick?” Asked if the park’s site as a former landfill would dissuade him, Digital responds, “I think that’s a great use of the land.”
he park also suggests a more promising boon to its surrounding residential areas than other dumping ground adaptations throughout the five boroughs; visionary landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations (lauded for The High Line) has been commissioned to carry out the design and cultivation of the vast park. Meanwhile, the high levels of eco-maintenance the grounds undergo by local officials could make it one of the cleanest and safest areas in the city.
By contrast, popular Brooklyn areas like Greenpoint and the Gowanus Canal still languish on government lists as toxic Superfund sites with frequent warnings about looming “toxic plumes” and the need for vapor testing in residential homes. Interestingly, this has done very little to stunt the growth of either neighborhood as attractive housing and nightlife destinations.
As Nagle points out, “No one can heal land that has been claimed for a landfill; Fresh Kills will never again be the salt marsh that it was before 1948.” Still, she and many others believe we can fashion from the framework of the landfill another kind of commons; a public space that combines the best of what we as a society and culture have to offer while acknowledging that the future of a post-industrial coastal city is intimately tied to environmental stewardship and adaptive reuse.
While the culmination of Staten Island’s evolution towards becoming New York City’s next important destination might be a slow burn, it appears the wick has already been lit.