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A little less than two decades ago, the last steaming load of garbage arrived at Fresh Kills Landfill. A packed-high barge turned slowly out of the Arthur Kill — that long, dishwater-brown tidal strait that separates Staten Island from New Jersey — and then docked at the Sanitation Department’s pier, an event celebrated less as a matter of ecological stewardship at the time than a triumph of not-in-my-backyard politics.
I remember the last barge because I happened to be there. It was March 22, 2001, and I was embedded with the Department of Sanitation’s film crew, greeting the barge from the rain-soaked deck of what is known to the Sanitation Department navy as a trash skimmer, a little boat that snags flotsam, like a mechanized sea gull. The barge had set off that morning from a transfer station in College Point, Queens, heading south into the East River. Fireboats saluted the trash with water cannons, and as it passed Gracie Mansion, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saluted it from his front lawn.
About an hour later, Mr. Giuliani was at Fresh Kills himself, standing amid garbage hills 200 feet tall, alongside Staten Island’s borough president, Guy Molinari, and Gov. George E. Pataki. These three Republicans had worked together to close the dump that Mr. Molinari’s father first protested when it opened in 1948, a time when Fresh Kills was a saltwater marsh where kids swam. After 1948, it became an ecological nightmare and a political hot potato. A banner behind the politicians read, “A Promise Made, a Promise Kept.”
“No more garbage for the people of Staten Island,” said Governor Pataki.
Today, Fresh Kills has been rebranded as Freshkills, and the park that is now at the site of the old dump is poised to accept visitors: the North Park will open in spring 2021, the rest by 2036.
Freshkills is possibly the least likely poster child for urban ecological restoration in the world, and it is radical not just for the way it works — by encouraging flora and fauna do as they please — but for its sheer size. It is almost unbelievable that New York City would set aside a parcel of land as big as Lower Manhattan south of 23rd Street — and just let it go to seed.
But as the park nears opening, it’s important to remember the political archaeology of the place. At conception, it was not the cutting-edge expression of sustainability that it is seen as today. The voters of Staten Island, reliably conservative, rallied around Michael R. Bloomberg, who, down in the polls in his first term, promised to trade their dump for a park.
Not that you can blame them for preferring a park to what was in its heyday one of the world’s great eyesores. Imagine Central Park with trash mounds 20 stories high. Now imagine that times three. Imagine a not-delicious mix of household waste excreting noxious methane and millions of gallons of ammonium-rich leachate, the technical term for the juice that flows from trash hills into the waterways. By the late 1970s, an estimated 28,000 tons of trash arrived at Fresh Kills every day.
As conceived by James Corner Field Operations, the landscape architects responsible for the High Line, the idea was not just to build a park but to reimagine the idea of park. If Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park was the work of a static, pastoral painter, then Mr. Corner and his team were less artists than restoration biologists, jump-starting a framework and leaving the ecology of the site itself to finish things up.
“You start with nothing, and you grow,” Mr. Corner told me at the time. “You take a very sterile or inert foundation and move something in. It’s like lichen. They quickly grow and die, grow and die, creating a rich soil that something else can grow onto. And that’s how ecosystems grow.”
The core problem would be adapting the site to the trash — no less than 150 million tons of garbage had been dumped at Fresh Kills (roughly the equivalent of the amount of plastic currently floating in the ocean). The trash would be capped with plastic, then slowly covered with millions of tons of clean soils, the soils planted with native grasses. The four garbage mountains would be transformed into four soft green hills straddling the convergence of creeks. Tree planting (started by arborists, accelerated by seed-carrying birds) would occur in coordination with the careful engineering of what you might call the dump’s natural excretions, the methane and the leachate.
In this way, over the course of 20 years, the parks and sanitation departments worked together with Field Operations to restore or encourage tidal wetlands, to generate forests, scrublands, and the wide-open fields of grasses. The Sanitation Department refines the methane and pipes it to Staten Island homes for cooking and heat, which makes a cup of tea in a warm room on a cold day in the Arden Heights neighborhood a little miracle of noxious composting.
I have visited the site on various occasions since that last garbage barge — most recently last summer, in a rowboat, when I paddled through Fresh Kills Reach and out into the Arthur Kill, winding up just up the shore from Freshkills. Over the years, I have often stopped outside the park’s boundaries to study the great mounds, visible along the West Shore Expressway, or from the edge-of-the-kills neighborhood that 30 years ago was a hellscape: hordes of vermin and putrid smells that I heard a resident once describe as akin to having your head in a garbage can.
Today, there are four giant trash hills, though you see just the hills, no trash. The South Mound was capped in 1996, the North Mound the next year. Shortly after that last barge arrived in 2001, the park’s design contest, sponsored by the Municipal Arts Society, was complicated when debris from the World Trade Center disaster wound up in Fresh Kills, now buried in the West Mound.
In 2007, capping of the East Mound began, and in 2011 a regular old park appeared, or reappeared, on the northwest edge of Freshkills. The renovated Schmul Park — a relatively small old-school park, with playgrounds, baseball fields and basketball and handball courts — was a tentative step, designed to keep nearby neighborhoods interested.
A few kayaks were permitted in the waterways in 2011. Goats were brought in for their ecological restoration abilities in 2012. (They eat phragmites, a common reed that tends to take over.) An art gallery popped up in 2018.
All along, park officials occasionally escorted groups of birders through the closed-off park-in-progress, as well as artists and school groups. Even in a group, a visitor feels like an interloper in a quiet, faraway green space, dotted with glimpses of infrastructure: plastic sheeting, methane extraction pipes, concrete troughs to channel rainwater. Truckloads of imported soil enter the site, much of it from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, an iron-rich coastal soil that stains the roads on the Staten Island mounds red.
Back in 2015, I was teaching a science seminar at CUNY’s Macaulay College when I visited Freshkills along with hundreds of sophomores, all of us part of a bioblitz, an invasion of citizen scientists who in this case documented Freshkills’ growing list of flora and fauna: bats skittering past the methane recovery stations, herons wading in the murky trash-bottomed tidal streams. My first trip in 2001 was marked by sightings of mostly gulls; that weekend, our group reported 314 species in North Park’s 233 acres. Our bioblitz team was said to be the first to spot a blackjack oak tree on Staten Island, formerly a resident exclusively of the south, now showing up in New York as New York warms.
That’s what’s most wonderful about Freshkills; it’s a place to witness change, a giant viewing station for ecological adaptation. You’ve seen all the photos of big cities in the weeks after Covid-19 locked the world down — visibly cleaner air, flocks of birds, herds of animals in the streets — tagged with the ironic social media meme, “Nature is healing.” Fresh Kills is a pre-Covid healing place, where game cams spot the red fox at play on the edges of the rising woodlands or in the wildlife crossings that are codesigned by humans and the wildlife doing the crossing.
Acres of wide-open grasslands are rare anywhere in the U.S. — and unimaginable in a city overrun by development. Meanwhile, newly planted grasses in Freshkills have attracted a steady population of birds, including the largest colony of grasshopper sparrows in New York State.
As an ongoing experiment in a megacity’s quest for a healthy future, Freshkills asks the kinds of questions we hadn’t thought to ask: Why does the grasshopper sparrow prefer the East Mound’s grasslands to those of the North Mound? Is it the more advanced drainage system in the more recently capped East Mound that makes for a drier soil? Is it the slight difference in ambient noise, which includes the sound of methane mitigation that always reminds me of the 1975 Joni Mitchell LP, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”?
The next creatures park planners are hoping to attract are humans, who have been locked out since these 2,200 acres of the island’s west shore were first locked down for trash. When 20 acres of trails and fields opens next spring, it will be a monumental event. Since the founding of the Freshkills Park Alliance, the nonprofit that manages the park and funds it, Freshkills publicity has tended to highlight the idea of transformation, indicating that the best is yet to come.
This is understandable, given the difficulty of keeping a park-hungry public waiting two decades and now, thanks to pandemic-related budget cuts, waiting more. “Though some still associate ‘fresh kills’ with the former landfill,” went a Freshkills Park Alliance blog post this past January, “many have begun to recognize its significance as a symbol of renewal, rebirth, and rejuvenation.”
Rejuvenation is not restricted to the decay and new growth of plant matter. The post highlighted CrossFit Fresh Kills, a new gym down the road; a high-end Brooklyn furniture store called Fresh Kills; and Fresh Kills IPA, a beer brewed by Staten Island’s Flagship Brewing Company.
For me, the park is less a transformation than a palimpsest, a place with so many layers that when you start to go back through them, things get confused, or misplaced, or worse. The Native history has been erased, of course; the 1670 deed that Dutch land purchasers used to end Munsee claims on the island is complicated, to put it mildly. (At the New-York Historical Society, you can see where the Dutch forced Munsee children to sign.)
There were no parks as we think of them today in 1843, when Henry David Thoreau lived on Staten Island, but in his spare time he walked the south shore, climbed the hills, and might have, I’m guessing, boated in the area of Fresh Kills, in the wide open streams. Thoreau would have understood the tidal creeks and salt marshes to be the lifeblood of the giant Hudson-Raritan estuary, which includes the lower Passaic and Hackensack watershed referred to as the Meadowlands. These marshes define our region, from an ecological standpoint, despite how hard we continue to transform them into dumps or luxury waterfront developments. What’s astounding is how long they lasted: it was mostly marshes along the Arthur Kill, well into the early 1900s, when, following the example of John D. Rockefeller, oil companies began to set up huge petroleum farms.
The trick, when Freshkills finally opens, is to think of it not just in terms of sustainability. We have to see it too as a reminder of what the city consumes — those mountains are made of our trash. And we have to remember what it means that the hills’ growth stopped.
What Freshkills park initially represented back in 2001 was the Bloomberg administration’s plan to transfer garbage to way stations out of Staten Island and into neighborhoods where people of color lived. From there, New York’s trash was sent out of the city’s boundaries, as it still is today — by train to Ohio, to Virginia, to upstate New York and to several landfills in Pennsylvania among other places. Some of what would have gone to Fresh Kills is today incinerated in Newark, N.J., Niagara Falls and Chester, Pa., on the Philadelphia border, where 70 percent of residents are African-American.
Next year, when I look out from the top of the North Mound, I’ll be thinking about what the all-new grasslands and the restored marshes mean not just for the lucky-at-last Staten Island communities nearby but for the Mid-Atlantic coast. I’ll think of the migrating birds who see Freshkills and all of Staten Island’s parks as a life-sustaining stop on the way through the region, up through the Meadowlands and into Long Island Sound and beyond.
I’ll also think of the new Amazon fulfillment center nearby that’s standing on what could have been restored wetlands, another sad trade-off. A four-mile walk up the shore from Freshkills, the big flat building (neighbor to other multimillion-square-foot warehouses) is adjacent to Old Place Creek Tidal Wetlands Area, just beneath the new Goethals Bridge. Old Place Creek is, incidentally, about as close as you can get to seeing what Fresh Kills looked like before Freshkills Park and before Fresh Kills dump, when Thoreau might have paddled through.