Fresh Kills at Queens Museum

This past Friday, I was invited to speak about my book before the annual investors conference for the 22nd Annual Investors conference of the NYC Municipal Water Finance Authority. It took place at Queens Museum, which coincided with Maintenance Art, an exhibit on the ecology, history, and future of Fresh Kills by Mierle Laderman Ukeles.

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The central piece of the exhibit was a model of Landing, an overlooks inside the dump-turned-park that will offer visitors a view of the city’s largest naturalistic landscape. What’s an architecture piece from Staten Island park doing at the Queens Museum?

Poetic justice to me, when you consider that the precursor to Freshkills Park is Flushing Meadows, a former ash dump turned park that is home to the Queens Museum. As a patron of the arts, New York City gives artists unique opportunities to find inspiration through city agencies. Programs such as Percent for Art, MTA Art for Transit, and NYC DOT Urban Art come to mind. Ukeles is a pioneer among municipally-sponsored artists, volunteering as the Department of Sanitation’s Artist In Residence for nearly 40 years. As Fresh Kills transitions from Sanitation to Parks, Ukeles is helping shape this new public green space.

Where it Flows

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Looking at a 1912 map of the site, it is an undeveloped expanse of salt marsh lining the banks of Richmond Creek, Main Creek and Fresh Kills.The dotted lines symbolize the mounds of trash that will be constructed on this site after 1947 and continue rising until their decommissioning in 2001. Since then, it has become one of the most ambitious public works projects in the city for this century, right up there with the Third Water Tunnel and the Second Avenue Subway.

Landscape Transformed

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One of the panels that I’ve found noteworthy is a set of six photos taken between 2007 and 2016 showing the capping of the mounds with views of Fresh Kills. This creek is formed by the confluence of Richmond Creek and Main Creek.

Prior to the landfill, it provided a rich estuary habitat where freshwater and saltwater species lived. In its place is something less familiar to New Yorkers- nearly 2,000 acres of hills with hardly any trees. The cover is thin and has the appearance of a vast hilly grassland.

Between the trash and the grass are layers comprising of soil, gravel, piping, and synthetic liners. Throughout the site, gas is extracted for fuel from the decomposing trash.

The Neighborhood that Wasn’t

Recently on a visit to the library, my eyes were glued to the recently published book Never Built New York, on the grand projects for the city that never got off the drawing board. At the Queens Museum exhibit, one panel had an unbuilt vision for Fresh Kills.

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How did Robert Moses sell the idea of a landfill to a skeptical Staten Island? By promising to eliminate the seemingly useless wetlands in favor of space for four new residential communities, an industrial zone, and generous amounts of parkland along the banks of Fresh Kills. The development would be linked to the rest of the city by the West Shore Expressway, Richmond Parkway, and a West Shore railway branch.

The project had its precedents, as most of Manhattan’s shoreline is comprised of reclaimed land, and the industrial zone along Gowanus Canal is landfill covering a once-sizable salt marsh. In the brochure promoting this vision, Robert Moses cites Flushing Meadows, where a salt marsh turned ash dump served as the site of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Also mentioned are LaGuardia Airport, Rikers Island, Marine Park, Spring Creek Park, Great Kills ParkGreat Kills Park, and Ferry Point Park– all formed using “improved methods of utilizing sanitation land-fill” where “great areas of former swamp lands are being prepared for future large-scale recreation.”

The necessity of this landfill kept pushing off its closing date and Robert Moses’ set of neighborhoods never came to be. The only element that saw completion was the West Shore Expressway in the 1970s, which cut through the dump.

What’s There Today

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I haven’t had the chance to take a tour of Freshkills Park, but I’ve seen it from a distance. In the image above, the view looks east from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center in Travis. The former farm once reeked of trash from the mounds next to it. Today, it serves as the Parks Department’s plant nursery abutting Staten Island’s largest park. Fresh Kills flows peacefully past the naturalistic trash-filled hills.

Learn More:

Maintenance Art, the Queens Museum exhibit on Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ works is on display through February 19, 2017.

To find out about upcoming events, tours, and construction updates at Freshkills Park, visit the Freshkills Park Alliance or follow its blog.

Meet the Author:

I will be discussing the hidden waterways of northeastern Queens at Douglaston-Little Neck Library on Thursday, November 10, 2016 6 p. m. For more details, call 718-225-0414.

In the News:

The News & Observer reports on the effort to restore Booker Creek in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Pensacola News Journal reports on the condition of Carpenter’s Creek in Pensacola, Florida.

Roanoke Times reports on the restoration of Glade Creek in Roanoke County, Virginia.

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