Posts Tagged ‘park

05
Oct
14

Official History

A few weeks ago, shortly after take-off from New York’s JKF,  I looked out of my airplane porthole and saw an unmistakable garbage dump, on a spit of land sticking out like a hitch hiker’s thumb into a wide river. I just managed to snap a picture before it was lost from view. The stylized shape and the unnatural parched grass cover are each a dead giveaway, as are the straight trails following the precise angles of this man-made hill.

croton point focus

Croton Point landfill. Click to see a larger image.

A little scouting on Google Maps and Google Earth showed this to be the centerpiece of Croton Point Park, in Westchester. It lies just north of Ossining, within view of the famed Sing Sing prison. A history of the park explains that the point has served its humble purpose for a long time: it was once a Native American oyster shell midden. Started as early as 7000 years ago, it is apparently the oldest shell mound found on the East Coast. The official history does not mention that the current park is laid out on top of a more modern garbage dump. That silence is also part of the perennial landfill pattern. Native American garbage, less noxious to start with, has been purified by time. Our own garbage is a different matter altogether and is still unmentionable.

I do wonder how it happens. Perhaps someone wrote a history that referred to the dump and was made to erase all reference to it by reviewers who were afraid to scare off the public? Or did the writer not even think to include it? Judging by my own experience of group encounters with the less ideal contours of reality, either of these possibilities is thoroughly plausible.

The New York Times manages this negotiation with the unpleasant just a little bit better in a 1990 article about an exhibition of local folk tales: “MONEY HILL is no longer shown on any Westchester map, and if it once was haunted the witches have fled the old knoll on Croton Point. The Indian trinkets and pirate gold reputed to be buried there – which gave the hill its name – will not be found now. The site is buried under the thousands of tons of waste that cover what is now a landfill.”

Just two years earlier, the news was even more explicit: “THE 600 acres of Croton Point once formed one of the largest tidal marshes on the Hudson River. After 50 years as the site of an active county dump, however, the area is judged by environmentalists to be a health hazard. A Federal judge last month called the landfill, which was closed in 1986, an environmental time bomb.” Again we are grateful to the New York Times in reporting on several lawsuits over toxic waste and possible groundwater pollution from the site. Imagine the poisoned plume that spreads from what must be an unlined dump, old as it is.

That’s why I love garbage, repulsive as it is. No matter how much it is hidden, erased, or denied, it sticks around, stubbornly bearing witness to what we most like to forget.

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28
Sep
09

Garbage Hymns

Randy Ludacer, Singing about Packaging on Fresh Kills

Randy Ludacer, Singing about Packaging on Fresh Kills

Randy Ludacer is a package designer. He is responsible for the public face of such essential items as lemon-scented insoles, table cloths and pillow covers, furry rocker chairs and retro stools, composters, video game controllers, bath salts for jet lag relief, and Bling-it-on peel-and-stick crystals, best described as spangles for underage females. Also Randy is a singer-songwriter. Naturally, some of his songs are also about packaging, including “The Prettiest Package,” “Expiration Date,” “Pop Top Ring,” “Can Of Worms” and the immortal “This Landfill Is Your Landfill.”

Last Saturday, Randy performed his packaging songs to a select audience on top of the 150 million tons of trash contained in the Fresh Kills landfill, which is, naturally, the very best place to do so. Unfortunately, procedures kept the fans down to a modest number. The audience had to be bused in, in accordance with San protocol—after we signed release forms holding the Department of Sanitation harmless for whatever horrors might befall us during or in the wake of the concert. There were. like, 20 seats on the bus.

But there we were, in the great outdoors, with a view of the Arthur Kill and the ruins of New Jersey to the west, the Manhattan skyline to the north, and a wildlife refuge to the east. Randy sang and accompanied himself on his Tropicana box guitar, keeping an admirable balance on the garbage tightrope. It’s not easy being serious about garbage without getting heavy-handed.

Us, the Audience (and a Methane Well in the Background)

Us, the Audience (and a Methane Well in the Background)

The wind was brisk and rustled steadily in the late-season grass. The baby in the audience complained now and again. We clapped very nicely after every song, while the garbage kept very quiet underfoot.

Meanwhile, as Randy pointed out in one of his songs,  “Through the layers of the landfill, through/the garbage and the rubble, every tire slowly/rises to the surface like a bubble. This landfill/is our landfill. It was made for you and me.”

Just in case you want to know more about Fresh Kills? Try love letters and cabbage leaves About the old dump and the new park forming? More interested in the cheap thrills of Fresh Kills? Then you’ll want to take a look at landscape inspirations.

25
Jul
08

Love Letters and Cabbage Leaves

Fresh Kills landfill was used in 2001 as the site where debris from the World Trade Center was separated into evidence on the one hand and waste on the other. Some victims, not having been recovered from the debris among the evidence, must have ended up in the waste. That is to say, their ashes now rest somewhere high on the gigantic piles of trash built by New York City out of all the waste it didn’t need for parks, parkways, and real estate improvement of a private sort. Until 2001, people in the know used to say you could see the World Trade Center from the unnatural mountains of Fresh Kills.

Now Fresh Kills is in the process of being redeveloped into a recreational area, and the planners envision a monument to the fallen of September 11 at the highest point.

A view of the Arthur Kill

A view of the Arthur Kill

I feel for everyone who has to let go of the people they love under circumstances such as these, their remains sifting right through the fingers of the investigators and drifting away, indistinguishable from the other ashes coming out of the conflagration. Nevetheless, I was relieved to read that a judge decided against the families suing to have Fresh Kills reopened for another effort to remove any human remains from the waste.

Fresh Kills is maybe a weird but not the worst place to end up. The mounds offer magnificent views, abundant wildlife, and endless peace and quiet. Below a report from a visit I made in 2005.

————————

November 5 and December 31, 2005

Fresh Kills is peaceful and deserted. Grass and weeds have sprung up on the garbage mounds, while a few scraggly trees are struggling in the wetter hollows and around the monitoring stations. The hillsides bristle with equipment—vents and pumps, drains and wells poke up out of the slopes everywhere. There’s a smattering of birds—a heron, an egret, an osprey. Fluids seep out of the sides of East Mound, making filmy puddles in suspicious colors on the road below. Here and there, a whiff of methane underscores the point. The largest and most famous garbage dump in the United States is officially in hiatus. Fill activity has stopped, the World Trade Center debris has long been processed, and the dump lies quiet. If you don’t look too closely, you might think it is a nature park.

Fresh Kills tour

Fresh Kills tour

I’m on the bus with perhaps 30 other visitors, taking a tour of the future. The New York City planners for the borough of Staten Island who have organized the tour are so full of hope, it’s infectious. They look out of the windows of the bus and see a pastoral idyll, a green haven in an urban jungle, an island oasis in the midst of a desert of urban sprawl. One of them proudly notes that this is the most engineered landfill in the world.

Through their eyes, how beautiful it is, how promising. They point out that 55% of Fresh Kills was never used for dumping to begin with. The water in Main and Richmond Creeks is as clean as the water in the Hudson River. (Whether that’s good or bad news I don’t know, but apparently it could be worse. The Arthur Kill, a major shipping lane that separates Fresh Kills from New Jersey, is reportedly more polluted.) And the views! On a clear day, you can see Manhattan from the garbage pinnacles, which form the highest point on Staten Island.

In its various planning documents, the City of New York relies on a profusion of images of what the dump will look like in the future—icons of wholesomeness and gleaming grass, nature groomed into polite submission and peopled with model citizens (not a single one of whom is fat). They are meant to prove its point that Fresh Kills is not a badge of shame, not a showcase of environmental insult and collective wastefulness, but rather a great natural resource that argues the versatility and tenacity of nature.

It came as a shock to me to realize, a few years ago, how hospitable and appealing a garbage dump is to a broad range of species. The raw garbage, of course, is an irresistible food source to birds. Besides the wheeling, screaming flocks of inevitable gulls, I have seen a heron virtually under the treads of a dozer while a pheasant went about its tranquil business less than 100 feet away. Virtually ineradicable, weeds colonize the mounds at the speed of the wind, and trees follow suit shortly after. The hares and rabbits, squirrels and other vegetarians move in probably only months after the weeds arrive. It’s hardly surprising that one of the visitors on our tour discovers deer droppings on South Mound.

Fresh Kills forest

Fresh Kills forest

This swift recuperation notwithstanding, for me it is a little more difficult to ignore what’s underfoot: a seething leachate stew bubbling up new chemical compounds, made up of manual typewriters, half-eaten hot dogs, cabbage leaves, love letters, safety pins, office chairs, paint thinner, tampons, lawn mowers, cigarette butts and yoghurt cups. All sorts of things once loved and then discarded. Barbie dolls and baseball gloves. Things no one ever cared for overmuch that were pitched in a trash can without a thought. Candy wrappers, potato peels, and nail clippings. It’s not so much that it’s wrong to ignore the garbage, it’s just a lot more interesting to think about. Hospital waste. Communion dresses and baptismal gowns. Dead rabbits. Incinerator ash.

The CLUI people describe Fresh Kills as “an undulating, dripping, vented bio-reactor of artificial organic decay, covered by a thin lid of soil.” Which is not to say it doesn’t have a great future as a recreational park.

Fresh Kills served New York City for a little over 50 years, from 1948 to 2001. The garbage, originally meant just to fill up the tidal marsh to pave the way for residential development, reaches some 20 to 40 feet down into the water without benefit of a liner. While the city planners paint a rosy picture of its environmental impact, the authors of Rubbish claim that the dump “pours a million gallons of leachate into New York Harbor every day.” Indeed, of all garbage dumps investigated by the University of Arizona Garbage Project, Fresh Kills was the only one that offered up evidence of advanced biodegradation, presumably because the tides continually wash the garbage, stimulating bacterial action—which in turn creates leachate. And the leachate flows into open water on the outgoing tides.

View of New Jersey

View of New Jersey

At its peak, the dump received 29,000 tons of garbage daily, which amounts to about 10 million tons a year. The barges arrived from the five boroughs around the clock. Just imagine the scene at dead of night in the middle of a winter storm: barges looming up out of the inky blackness, wind howling, cranes straining to transfer fresh garbage out of floodlit holds and into waiting trucks, which would disappear into the blackness themselves, only their headlights showing their progress up the face of the garbage mountains.

The four giant mounds are named for the compass points. North and South Mounds are the oldest and the smallest, at 250 and 345 acres respectively. At its highest point, North Mound is 146 feet above sea level. East Mound and West Mound, both larger and higher, are more recent and still in the process of being capped. West Mound, the tallest of the piles, will rise about 225 feet from the plain and spreads out over 500 acres. A September 11 memorial is planned for West Mound, to commemorate not only the tragedy but the fact that Fresh Kills was temporarily reopened after the attack to process debris and sort through the evidence. Some or all of the ash is buried there, making West Mound the final resting place for some of the victims.

In a photo I took from the summit of South Mound, I see some little ant-like scribbles on top of West Mound and realize with a shock that it must be the earth-moving equipment being used to place the cap. They are like a ruler in a picture of an archaeological find. If the dozers are so tiny that I never even noticed them with the naked eye, then the garbage mountain is 10 times bigger than I already thought it was. In fact, Fresh Kills takes up just about as much space as the lower third of Manhattan.

At the foot of North Mound

At the foot of North Mound

No matter what its spic-and-span future, Fresh Kills will always be a garbage dump. There are plenty of recreational parks in the U.S.—some of them quite large—where a despoiled nature is squeezed and groomed for the maximum convenience of an alienated people. But very few will have the same potential as Fresh Kills to invite us to reflect on who we are.

25
Feb
08

The Highest Point in Drenthe

The Netherlands started out in its career in modern history as a combination of morass and hard-scrabble country. Pliny reports that the morass dwellers looked like shipwrecked sailors: “They try to warm their frozen bowels by burning mud, dug with their hands out of the earth and dried to some extent in the wind more than the sun, which one hardly ever sees.” The more stable uplands in the back country could only with the greatest effort be made to yield a meagre subsistence to small huddles of peasants. Not exactly the land of milk and honey.

The soggy lowlands were eventually improved, but the hard-scrabble uplands pretty much stayed that way into the 20th century, when the Dutch government hatched a scheme to transport garbage from the western cities, which had become overwhelmed by their own trash, to poor Drenthe, for use as soil amendments. A nice instance of what I like to think of as social metabolism, the exchange of food and ordure between urban and agricultural areas to keep the whole thing in more or less in balance.

I was born in one such trash-embarrassed city, Hilversum, which started exporting its leftovers to Drenthe in the early 1960s and lived for a while in Amersfoort, which started participating some time in the 1950s I believe. I hereby publicly take responsibility for having done my best for Drenthe.

Garbage Boil

Anyhow, what started out as a large-scale composting venture eventually got derailed by cheap chemical fertilizers. And all of that is why Drenthe has a gigantic garbage dump, repository of noncompostable trash from its early days and from trash not suitable for incineration more recently, all of it cemented together by the ashes produced by the ovens next door. More than 20 million cubic meters of unpleasantness quietly simmers below the surface of the neatly landscaped hills, like a boil in the skin of the earth.

A View of Drenthe, from Atop the Trash

In fact, the thing is still growing, as the waste stream from the west has diminished but not dried up. At more than 40 meters above sea level, it is the highest point in the entire province of Drenthe. Ironically, it is the best vantage point from which to admire the local landscape.

The dump is now also a park, very lovely if you don’t pay too much attention to the plastic bags that escape from the active face and blow about here and there before being snagged by the orange-vested workers patrolling the trails. A little visitor center at the summit maintains a guest book, in which I found the following roughly-translated entry, probably written by a high school student on a field trip: “I think it is incredibly beautiful here, but it’s a pity there’s so much trash lying around. If you guys just pick it up, it would be really nice.”

Oude Diep

At the foot of the slopes runs the peaceful little river Oude Diep, recently restored, where a father and his son are angling for fish. Putting the catch on the dinner table might would require quite a bit of optimism, it seems to me. More than I think I could muster.




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