As we approach 2017, it is easy to feel discouraged by what’s happened this year or anxious about what the next has in store. But this quarter’s photographs remind us that change, however slow, comes on inexorably, and that new life can emerge from the most toxic environments. The now robust grasslands disguise almost completely the mounds of trash that lie beneath them; proof that any amount of garbage can be overcome.
Photographers board the vehicle that will take them beyond Freshkills Park’s closed gates at the golden hour, that time before sunset when the landscape is highlighted by warmer and more indirect light. This part of the day makes an already unusual place look especially surreal. Sunlight moves across the engineered meadows and casts shadows on the landfill infrastructure, signaling a moment of luminous change.
At Freshkills Park, changes to the landscape have happened slowly and on a large scale. In 1948, the area of tidal creeks and salt marsh became a municipal landfill, and the hills of New York City’s garbage grew for the next 50 years. Since New York State ordered it closed in 1996, the decades-long process of capping the Fresh Kills Landfill has created a new geography. The remaining creeks run through the heart of the area, and the four major landfill hills are sealed off with layers of materials, including soil and a mix of native grasses. The result is an unexpected ecosystem, serving as a resource for birds, turtles, and other species while the phased transition to public parkland is underway.
“I find it beautiful and strange and compelling, a landscape imagined and reimagined over a long time,” artist Andrea Callard said. She has been visiting the site since the 1970s, when people could drive to certain parts of the landfill on Saturdays to drop off unwanted objects. She once stood with her young son in the Staten Island Mall parking lot, where a section of the landfill now known as East Park was just across the street, and recorded video of the countless seagulls flying overhead. Twenty years later, Callard photographs East Park in its most recent phase, with expansive views, billowing grasslands, and wildlife sightings.
The 2,200-acre park is opening gradually in sections. Three perimeter projects are already completed, and construction will soon begin on a landmark project that will connect visitors to views of the creeks and hills. “I am looking at the park now as a wild place in its infancy,” photographer Michael McWeeney said. He grew up on Staten Island and visited the landfill when he worked for local papers in the 1990s. Now the place he once considered an embarrassment gives him a sense of pride, and he regularly shoots black and white images that illustrate the texture and shape of East Park’s urban prairie. “Documenting this transition is important,” McWeeney said. “It shows what can be done to reclaim dead spaces and make them viable again.”
Freshkills Park is in an ongoing golden hour, situated somewhere between what it was and what it will become. These photographs document the in-between spaces that could be overlooked if we spent too much time dwelling on the past and wondering about the future. They remind us that the present can be illuminated, and it can span miles.
Lance J. Reha
Megan Moriarty is a writer and Programming Associate at Freshkills Park.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.