Eighteen years from now, when Freshkills Park is fully open to the public, it will be New York City’s second largest park and largest landfill-to-park project in the world. Just as Central Park once carved out an arcadian preserve in an increasingly dense city, so Freshkills, placing landscape atop the accumulation of decades of debris, could represent a park paradigm for our age. But in the meantime, the site is under construction and out of reach, save for the workers capping the mounds of trash and the birds making pit stops on migrations south.
This summer, our inaugural writer in residence, Dani Alexander, had a rare opportunity to roam the future park’s four mounds. By foot and by car, under beating sun and pouring rain (and accompanied by our generous hosts at NYC Parks and the Freshkills Park Alliance) Alexander explored the urban wilds of Staten Island, where highways meet gas wells, herons, and kayakers. As a landscape architect, Alexander brought a knowing eye to the 2,200 acres of park-in-progress. As a former Queens resident, she was attuned to the intersections between the site’s history and her own. Her essay below is both collection and recollection, where natural specimens and personal memory are recombined and revived in a landscape with a life of its own.
Something bites the corner of my right eye – my skin warms and hardens as it rises into a perfect circle. The welt is maddeningly itchy. I am now a part of the ecosystem; someone’s food source. Buzzing and chirping envelop me. I mistake the trickling of sweat down my leg for another hungry intruder and slap it away.
I’m looking out into the distance. Across the river in the foreground, I can see trucks moving up and down, back and forth across a hillside. Laborers too small for my eyes are working over a patch of black plastic, tacking it down, adding more panels. They are spreading the layers that will close and protect decades of trash from disturbance.
Where am I? I ask myself this over and over again at Freshkills Park, continuously under construction for over ten years. The site was once entirely a vast wetland, and the waterways’ names hearken back to the original colonists of Manhattan – “kills,” deriving from the Dutch word for water channel or riverbed. Claimed as a temporary dump site, the concatenation of trash mounds expanded into the world’s largest landfill. For decades, local residents and politicians fought the landfill’s expansion. The odor of years of waste and chemical deodorizers pervaded the west side of Staten Island. I’ve heard it called “the dump borough” to this day. As the New York City Department of Sanitation expanded the site and created new mounds, it closed and capped others, creating a landscape of smooth humps and river valleys.
Now the plants and animals are moving in.
My approach began in the way of many of my childhood journeys to this place, across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. I was born in Queens. Before I could pronounce the word “garbage,” mine was headed here. The first memories I have of Staten Island are from the backseat of my aunt’s station wagon on our way to her house in New Jersey. The “way back” was our name for the seats in the trunk of the car that faced out the back window. Sitting there, legs outstretched over suitcases or grocery bags, my cousins and I were afforded a panoramic view of the road disappearing behind us. Crossing the bridge, we rose above the water, the Manhattan skyline and mouth of the Hudson to our left, and the vast stretch of horizon where Atlantic meets sky to our right.
Once on Staten Island, tips of trees and houses stood on a steep slope. We’d climb up and over the island, cross the Arthur Kill on the Goethals Bridge, and descend into the Meadowlands.
The hump of land forming the island is a band of serpentinite, a family of rock so named for its snakeskin texture. As the Wisconsin Ice Sheet peeled away thirteen thousand years ago, the glacial melt became the Hudson River and Arthur Kill. This joined water flowing off the serpentinite ridge, which formed the Fresh Kills, Main Creek, and Richmond Creek.
Arthur Kill is a tidal strait; Fresh Kills, a river. This is estuary, where salt meets sweet, brackish and brutish, a cocktail that challenges its inhabitants to adapt. The species that make this place home are nimble. Some spend some parts of their development in the banks and shoals, some parts in the mudflats, some parts upland.
It is only now after many cycles and loops that I realize my location: I’m on South Mound. I slip out of the car to wander on foot.
The kills and the roads divide the park in four quadrants: North, South, East, and West. I am zigzagging in my car through patchy rain, into dense woods and then out across open mudflat, past views of the waterways. These roads are old. Most were built for the operation of the landfill. Others aim to get a driver quickly beyond this place. Before I know it, I’m heading back towards auto shops, old ballfields, and the scattershot remains of the dump itself, now home to a waste transfer station. Here, train cars are loaded full of residential trash and sent to South Carolina.
I turn and slip underneath the highway. I loop up around North Mound’s perimeter and then cross a bridge over Main Creek to the East Mound. I skirt its edge and then cross another bridge to South Mound. The sky is a useless tool for discerning direction; bands of storm clouds mask any hint of the sun. On the southern edge of North Mound, I think I’m on East Mound. On the western side of East Mound, I think I’m on South Mound. And so it goes, as I slowly forge a map in my head, a map of a place roughly two-and-a-half times the size of Central Park. The four mounds squeeze asymmetrically together around the waterways and roads. Each is evolving into its own distinct landscape.
The sun is beating down on my back. I quicken my pace to reach each bit of shadow that leans into the path. I find relief on the lee side of the mound; it is cooler, quieter. The thudding of my feet on the asphalt begins to soften as the path dissolves into gravel mingled with grass. The crisp blades have a sweet smell in these places, where the tips are burned by the sun.
This part of the park is really two mounds: a land bridge links a small knoll to a greater hill. From the peak, North and East Mounds stretch out in front of me, the Manhattan skyline a faded silhouette beyond. Behind me, the hill dips back into the woods, and foreground, middle ground, and background align: The grass paths merge with gravel tracks and onto the asphalt road and bridges beyond.
Below the grassy surface, methane is conveyed across the vast acreage through a matrix of pipes, vacuumed throughout the site, sucked away to be sold as natural gas. Below that sits the waste of generations of New Yorkers. The plastic clamshells of deli-bought cookies, shabby toys, soiled blankets, rags, broken appliances, and paper – all the paper that follows us around every day – paper napkins, torn open envelopes, labels from clothes, notes and letters that should make it into a recycling bin but don’t. The stuff of our lives lies buried and is slowly decaying into simpler components. This landscape is an ouroboros, a machine organized and engineered to digest itself.
The methane wellheads spring up where I least expect them, leaning and hunching along the path, casting shadows into the grass. Their fixed pattern, a calculated and engineered grid, distorts itself on the undulating surfaces of the ground. They peek out and surprise me, leering from above, sneaking up from below. Sometimes, I turn a corner and am face to face with one almost my height. Some teeter sideways, the hose vacuuming up methane bending and returning to the ground.
South Mound was the first to be capped and seeded in 1996. The poplars that have sprung up across the site are well-established and tall. They weren’t intentionally planted here, but have spread from outside. Native sumac and non-native princess tree mingle in the thickets. Some have already lived full lives and died here, their skeletons smooth and leafless. Off mound, the woods creep in, with a mix of native giants: the maples, oaks, and plane trees whose roots are too deep for the soil above the landfill cap.
A thick bushy sash of phragmites, with its stiff stalk and purple tufted head, climbs the slope, and invades the edges of the water, obscuring it from the paths. It clumps in the rip-rap where the water lasts the longest. A few years ago, goats were brought on site to eat it away and restore balance with other native species, but the reed is relentless and thriving. When I was a child, I loved seeing it on the way to the beach, catching the wind. I didn’t think of it as something someone would want to get rid of. Here, I snip off the tops to take with me, leaving headless stalks bursting from lightning bolt cracks through the asphalt.
The park is building itself; other beings are taking over.
Three giants sink beyond the horizon, arching their backs and projecting their talons out to grasp the chain link. As I draw near, the turkey vultures shift ninety degrees on their perches, right eyes on me, left eyes guarding. I approach, they lean forward, raising their shoulders and lifting their wings off their backs. We all pause. They fold their great feathers up again, like origami scales slipping together on their backs. It is quiet but for the varied frequencies and even, atonal drones of a million insects. I step forward again, they lean, we all pause. Once more I step, and it is too much. The largest pitches forward, kicks off the post and beats his wings, swooping wide to my right, stretching his imposing wingspan, a width greater than my height. He catches a breeze, and it lifts him up as he pounds the air and withdraws, the other two trailing.
Around the bend, I am face to face with a fawn and his father, the mother sunning herself on the ground. White spots on the fawn’s haunches quiver and their white tails flicker as they turn, spooked, and lope away.
The smokestack that was at my left is now at my right, its tip just grazing the horizon of the mound between us, thin lines of its catwalks encircling each segment. It is the smokestack of the NRG plant, and it serves as my North Star, orienting me from nearly all corners. I dip with the descending gravel ridge; the horizon rises up to claim the tower. When I arrive around the bend, it reappears, more massive, on the other side. As I sit, it pauses, like a predator waiting. Driving, I see the grass whipping against the sky, and the tip of the smokestack moves slowly behind, lurking.
Sweat drips from under my left eye and onto my chin. The nape of my neck steams. The long grass off the path bends and tangles closer to the ground. Pockets of puddles amidst the rusty mud sink into my shoes, staining my socks auburn. I take a little bit of park home with me each day.
At the apex, I sit in the gravel. Around me, crushed into the rock, are a happenstance constellation of glass chips, their edges buffed with time and tumbling. I pick out enough glass to form an assemblage of colors: emerald, peridot, citrine, smoky quartz, and cloudy diamonds. As a child, I used to sit in the sand not far from here, collecting sea-glass. My sister and I would steal the rarer colors from one another’s piles, jealous of who captured the smoothest, most opaque specimens.
Downhill, off the landfill cap, are the stockpiles of sand that will become a new foundation of soil to sustain the plants, animals, and activities of the park. Beyond that, I see the little finger of Schmul Park, which is already open, reach into the surrounding neighborhood. Children run around on small rubber hills that evoke the neighboring landfill mounds.
Once, kids would look out from Schmul’s baseball diamond and see a tidal wave of plastics and rotting garbage rolling down toward the outfielders as it was deposited and compacted. Now, home-runs will be hit out into the direction of the grasslands. I sit and think about the time before the diamond, when there were no mounds, no trash, only flat muck covered in low spartina carpets.
Dip, swerve, flip. Darting grasshopper sparrows dive and careen in and out of the grass, fledglings hopping up and into the air for the first time. I am amongst the swarm.
East Mound is stretched, rippling. Gentle channels along its mile-long surface direct water around the site. Utility poles connected by sagging electric lines crisscross the surface, casting scalloped shadows into the ever-moving grasses. The switchgrass is in bloom. The erect spindles of their fluffy tops are a frozen violet and orange firework of miniscule flowers, no bigger than sesame seeds. I grab a handful and stuff them into my backpack.
Ponds and an old berm shield the view into the eastern edge of the park, historically providing the Staten Island Mall with a small bit of protection from the odor and runaway trash. At its northern and southern ends, a patchwork of spartina flats float just apart where dendritic creeks collect into Richmond and Main Creeks, which converge into Fresh Kills, the waterway that gives the park its name.
There are fewer trees on this mound. I feel exposed. It is younger — East Mound was fully capped in 2011, and the poplars and willows that dot the surface of North and South Mound are still saplings here. They sit in the swales where mowers can’t hack them down, their silver leaves flapping in the wind, each tree turning into a gleaming disco ball in the sun. Invasive lespedeza hedges the gravel road, forming an alien boulevard.
Outside the thickly wooded eastern edge of the park, a new bike path runs between the former landfill and the Mall. Smashed into the asphalt is a snake no longer than my palm. I pull a matted clump of grass clippings off a chain link fence, the dry top revealing a wet webbed underworld of pillbugs and breeding gnats.
On East Mound, the methane wellheads are hidden under little pimples on the surface. Large cast utility holes mark their locations. As capping technology has changed over the life of the project, so has the resulting surface condition of each mound. Together, the mounds will represent over three decades of capping technology.
During a fall storm, the buzz of insects is replaced with the sound of rushing of water. The grasshopper sparrows have fledged, no longer requiring the safety of the grass, and a mower is running the length of its surface. I watch as the grass crumples and disappears under its blades. It takes days to complete a full haircut. The mower circumnavigates the utility holes, so across the ground are eruptions of unmown grass, revealing the grid of pipes, deformed across the surface.
Wire basket structures containing rip-rap stone line the roads. They hold back the slope to create a waterway. As the rain rushes down the stepped channels, iron seeps out from the soil and stains the surface red. In my knee-high galoshes, I move freely across the space, tracing the overland flow to inlets. I stand ankle deep in a rocky swale. The water passing by is clean. A separate system conveys leachate from within the landfill offsite. Before the cap and the containment trenches were built along the perimeter of each mound, rain would pass into the trash, collecting particulates as it traveled, spilling out into the kills. Now clean rainwater flushes out into habitat for mummichogs, silversides, and striped killifish, some of which I have seen in the talons of the ospreys that have taken up residence here, building their nests on abandoned utility poles.
I stand at the water’s edge, after fighting through a thicket of baccharus, a shrub that explodes in a cottony puff of seeds along waterways. Rain shimmers across the surface of the creek, birds huddling to the sides. Water drips through my umbrella, seeps into the seams of my jacket, and rushes into a crack in my boot.
Construction and sanitation workers are the only people on West Mound. It is the park’s frontier. It is the shape of a shield, leaning on the West Shore Expressway and bending it on its way south. Trucks glide slowly up and down and across its surface, distributing sand, erosion-control fabric, and returning again, a conveyor belt of materials to layer and seal away the jumble of urban waste below. The landfill gas collection system is already in place, and it collects much of the methane at Freshkills.
Back in my car, I speed by on the access road to the highway. I can’t help but think that things take longer to fix than to break. What is broken cannot be fixed, but it can be reclaimed into something new. Humans can develop the land, build roads, monitor the methane production, mow the grass. The park exists in this give and take, where we work to repair our mistakes and let new life exist in their places.
My great aunt was a poet. When I was too young to know how to treasure things, she wrote a poem for me on a small piece of paper. The title, underlined at the top, read, A Seed. I lost the paper, but I remember a few lines of the poem. “A seed is a book, a story within.” “A seed is a traveler.” “A seed is a secret.” “A seed is a gift.” They have stuck with me through time, reminding me that one thing can be many things. One seed can become many plants.
A seed lies quiet underground, then emerges as something else, something that can spread new seeds, and give gifts to new worlds. Trash also lies under this ground. Maybe one day we’ll dig it up and try to make something with it.
I fill a tub of water in my kitchen. I pull the bags of plants, glass chips, butterfly wings, and snail shells out of my backpack. I rip up my unused notebook pages and stuff them in a blender full of water, and add a few pieces of cotton. The paper melts in the water. A few taps of a button later, it is a soft mush. I pull out the top of some phragmites. Some kind of bug tumbles out of the seed pods. The poor creature is now many miles from home, just as I was at Freshkills. I put it outside. I tear the seeds off the top of the stalk, toss them into the blender, and blitz. I pour the concoction into a mold, and flatten the soft swamp of pulp into what will be a lovely piece of paper when dry. I perform this alchemy with the other items I brought home from the park, and create something new each time.
Papers were handmade by the author, using phragmites, panicum, site maps, and unknown plant species collected at Freshkills Park.