In an unexpected start for 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday a proposal to create a 407-acre State Park in Brooklyn. My first reaction was in line with the city’s independent spirit: “Do we really need more State Parks, state troopers and state tourism road signs within the city’s borders?” My second reaction was, “Here we go again, the Governor and the Mayor’s rivalry is now a literal turf war with a State Park inside the city.” My third and final reaction was, “Where in Brooklyn is there a 407-acre expanse of undeveloped land that can become a park?”
Reading the governor’s 2018 State of the State address, the park would encompass the Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue landfills in southeastern Brooklyn. In the photo above these two mounds are separated by Hendrix Creek.
Where It Is
Looking at an OasisNYC aerial image, the proposed park is bound on the north by Belt Parkway and on all other sides by water. This corner of Brooklyn can easily be described as the borough’s last frontier in terms of development. At the turn of the millennium, the residential towers of Starrett City stood alone with views of landfill mounds, dunes and wetland around them. The distance from public transportation and moist terrain kept this area undeveloped through the 20th century. In 1974 the two landfills were designated as federal parkland, but to this day remain closed to the public.
Looking at a map from 1898, the year of Brooklyn’s annexation by New York City, completed streets are colored yellow and paper streets appear in white. A rectilinear grid is imposed on the borough’s eastern edge, marching over existing farm paths, and marshland. As a nearly flat coastal plain its urbanization appeared inevitable to planners as subway and trolley lines were extended east like tentacles. And yet, we see a sizable chunk of blank space to the south of Vandalia Avenue. Even the most optimistic planners of 1898 were unsure what would be done with the wetlands along Jamaica Bay.
Vandalia, such a fitting name for a desolate location, conjuring up images of the Vandals, who razed everything in their path, leaving landscapes of rubble and desolation. Its name dates to 1888, honoring a town in Illinois. By 1916, city planners were more optimistic, extending the grid further. Vandalia’s parallel avenues were named Locke, Schroeders, Collins, Egan, and Border. That last one, Border Avenue would be the road running along Jamaica Bay.
At the time some of the planners had a vision for Jamaica Bay as an international seaport. Had that happened, the inlets of Jamaica Bay would be lined with wharves for oceangoing vessels. On the 1907 planning map for Jamaica Bay the grid surrounds a seaport of more than a hundred piers and two giant islands in the middle. Fortunately Jamaica Bay was spared and the international port was instead developed at Newark Bay.
The isolated nature of Fountain Avenue made it an ideal dumping ground for mafia victims, including those dispatched by Murder Inc., Gambino crime family, and the DeMeo Crew, which operated a car repair shop nearby.
Roy DeMeo’s income originated from loan sharking, car theft and narcotics. His victims, of which the number is believed to be around 200, included rivals, those who apparently disrespected him and members of his crew suspected of cooperating with authorities.
DeMeo himself was killed in January 1983 at the order of archenemy Paul Castellano. DeMeo’s career in crime inspired the 2006 film Fountain Avenue and a book by DeMeo’s law-abiding son Albert, For The Sins of My Father. Castellano himself was killed in 1985 on the order of John Gotti. Violence begets violence.
It’s quite rare when I must rely on a mafia history book as a source for information on an urban waterway, but that’s the case for Fountain Avenue. Although mob activity declined in the years following DeMeo’s murder, Fountain Avenue remained a dumping ground for victims of domestic violence. On Feb. 26, 2006, an anonymous tip to the police alerted officers to the bound body of forensic psychology student Imette St. Guillen. Through DNA evidence, nightclub bouncer and ex-convict Darryl Littlejohn was arrested for her murder.
Developing the Landfill
Between the 1930s and 1950, fill from the Milford Street Landfill, Crescent Street Landfill, and South Shore Incinerator covered the marshes south of Vandalia Avenue, creating a flat terrain. Sand was then dumped atop the fill and the site became known as Vandalia Dunes. In 1967, the city declared this site as an urban renewal area, proposing to transform the unused expanses between Flatlands Avenue and Belt Parkway into a mixed-use neighborhood.
Along Pennsylvania Avenue, the Twin Pines neighborhood would arise, later renamed Starrett City, and today known as the Towers at Spring Creek. Between Hendrix Creek and Spring Creek would become the campus of the state mental hygiene center. no subway access but there would be a highway spur running along Flatlands Avenue to this new Spring Creek neighborhood. A smaller campus of the mental hospital was built, as was Starrett City, but the rest of this urban renewal area remained empty for another three decades.
Land Reclamation Using Trash
Throughout the city, highways and trash dumps have been used to create more land along shorelines. In 1940, Belt Parkway was completed along Jamaica Bay, the exit at Rockaway Parkway given #13, and the following one at Cross Bay Boulevard assigned #17. The gap in the count was in anticipation for future development. Despite the highway link, the dunes and marshes remained untouched until 1956, when the city designated land to the south of Belt Parkway for trash disposal. The first trucks arrived in 1961, dumping more than 8,000 tons of trash daily at these two landfills, or 40 percent of the city’s refuse.
In 1996 the city approved the development of Fresh Creek Urban Renewal Area as the Gateway Center, a complex that includes a shopping center, park, school, playground, and housing. Ground was broken on November 16, 2000. Built by Related Companies, the project included an Erskine Street exit on Belt Parkway, and expansion of Spring Creek Park. Although the project is located three blocks south of the Linden subway yard, the only transit connections to this new neighborhood are extensions of bus lines. It as a missed opportunity for a subway connection. Visually the mall tries to avoid the boxy image with a striped brick appearance, and the residential area gives green medians to Vandalia Avenue and Elton Street.
The expanded Spring Creek Park wraps around the mall, lining Hendrix Creek and the northern shoulder of Belt Parkway. The park includes a bike path, cricket pitch, and constructed wetland with interpretive signage.
The park brings me to Hendrix Creek, the slim inlet of Jamaica Bay that separates Gateway Center from Starrett City.
At the head of this inlet, a straight line continues north as Hendrix Street. Its name first appeared in 1887.
East New York Project argues that the namesake is local political figure Joseph C. Hendrix, but in a coincidence Revolutionary War spy Hendrick Wyckoff’s family owned a sizable farm on land that became Hendrix Street. The only undeveloped remnant of the farm is Wyckoff Triangle, less than a quarter acre bound by Riverdale, Miller, and New Lots Avenues, a block west of Hendrix Street.
Among the bay’s inlets it is among the least accessible to the public, with much of its shoreline located within the borders of the 26th Ward Wastewater Control Plant. On the 1950 aerial survey above, the sewage treatment plant is the only facility standing between Flatlands Avenue and Belt Parkway. There are no footpaths or boat launches on the shore of Hendrix Creek, but that’s what Hidden Waters is about- telling the story of such obscure waterways.
Trash to Parkland
Traveling downstream on Hendrix Creek across Belt Parkway, one sees the mounds of the Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania landfills. This is where we pick up the story of New York’s newest proposed State Park.
The long process of closing this landfill in favor of parkland began in 1974 when the site was given to the federal government as part of Gateway National Recreation Area. Yet the use of the site as a city dump continued through 1985, with the Fountain Avenue mound topping off at 140 feet. At the time, complaints of pollutants seeping into Jamaica Bay and seagull flocks disrupting airplanes bound for JFK Airport added to the calls for its closing. Between 2002 and 2009 the mounds were capped, seeded, and planted with trees.
According to Governor Cuomo’s proposal, this State Park would include a variety of passive and active recreational opportunities:
“3.5 miles of waterfront, paths and trails, and access to a unique coastal highland with unmatched views of Jamaica Bay. Activities will include biking, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and environmental education, and amenities will include comfort stations, shade structures and concessions.”
On State Parks Within NYC
From a political viewpoint there is something quite Trumpian about Cuomo’s proposal. In contrast to his predecessors, Donald Trump has not been shy about reducing the borders of National Parks sites and opening them up for commercial use. As with healthcare and immigration, where Washington makes cuts, Albany steps in. And so it is with parkland.
On the other hand, there already is a state park on Jamaica Bay, Bayswater Point State Park in the Rockaways. I recognize that this park’s mission is to preserve nature, but why not allow for footpaths, benches, and a few informative signs? Before proposing a new park, why not reopen those that were closed earlier for budgetary reasons? Not only Bayswater Point, but also a certain State Park in Westchester Country whose namesake is unpopular around here, but it’s still a park.
In total, there are eight State Parks within NYC. Spring Creek State Park, (or whatever its eventual name), would be the ninth. Of the 62 counties in this state, 8 of them do not have State Parks (not counting Adirondack Park, Catskill Park, State Historic Sites, State Golf Courses, and DEC preserves). Nevertheless with 140 State Parks to name, New York should be proud. We came up with the idea.