At the northern edge of Jamaica Bay, there once rose a pair of fuming mountains alive with rats, wild dogs, and gulls — the end of the line for much of New York City’s residential and municipal construction waste. Between 1956 and 1985, the Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue landfills received hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage and illegal hazardous refuse each year. Ecologically disastrous for the bay’s salt marshes and wildlife, the two open dumps were also a burden on their neighbors to the north and west. Residents of Starrett City, an enormous housing development just across the Belt Parkway, complained of fetid odors, smoldering fires, and a general bleakness that hung over the area. The shoreline was the final destination not only of household organic matter, industrial waste, and asbestos-riddled building materials, but the unfortunate victims of mobsters and animal research labs. From the methane they belched in the air, to the sludges and spent lacquers and thinners that leached PCBs, metals, and volatile organic compounds into the bay’s water and soil, the soaring mounds also compounded the troubles of nearby East New York. Predatory blockbusting and redlining in the 1960s, and the area’s use as a “dumping ground” for some of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents, decimated the community’s social and economic fabric. As residential buildings, storefronts, and churches emptied, and city services dwindled in the predominantly Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, the ziggurats of trash grew.
The concerted grassroots campaign to close and cap the landfills, and turn them into parks, has proceeded alongside long-term efforts to rebuild East New York. Supported by Starrett City’s tenant association and management, district leaders, and the National Park Service (the sites’ owners), residents held regular meetings and organized marches that converged on the landfills to draw citywide attention to the health and environmental risks they posed. Under the collective pressure, the City closed the Pennsylvania and Fountain Avenue landfills in 1980 and 1985, respectively. But as fences went up and researchers in biohazard suits ventured in, residents remained wary of the dumps’ uncapped hazards. Plans for a proper cleanup did not arrive until, a decade later, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ordered the City’s Department of Environmental Protection to carry out a remedial investigation and program. Remediating and restoring the parkland required not only complex transfers of responsibility, and coordination across city, state, and federal agencies, but also the constant vigilance of a Citizen’s Advisory Committee. An ambitious remedial action plan ultimately took into account residents’ demands for stricter, independent monitoring of contaminants during construction activities, assured greater representation of community voices throughout the process, and committed to the sites’ future use as open recreational space. More than simply closing, capping, and isolating the landfills (the bare minimum to ensure compliance with environmental protection standards), the sites could be recovered as environmental assets for an area without its fair share of parks and open space.
The first major piece of remediation infrastructure was installed in 2004: a 280-acre, plastic membrane topped with a drainage layer and several feet of top soil to cover the regraded garbage mounds and support an extensive landscape of 40,000 trees. While the practice is now encouraged, accommodating trees atop the cap was an innovative step, departing from the industry dogma that roots be avoided at all costs, lest they pierce the plastic below. The shift to a more robust ecological approach continued with experimental planting schemes and species monitoring to recreate the area’s original biodiversity. Restoration efforts introduced clusters of pitch pine, oak, and willow along with meadow grasses and waves of wildflowers, like the nectar-rich butterfly weed. Atlantic white cedars and big cordgrass, both vital to wetland health, help strengthen the saltmarsh shoreline. Ospreys, egrets, and snowy owls have returned.
While the remediation of the former landfills created new habitats and restored the bay’s ecological health, a lack of money still thwarted plans to make them safe and accessible for people. The project’s transfer to the State’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in 2017, in connection with a program of investments in central Brooklyn neighborhoods, brought a swift conclusion to decades of struggle. The site’s new landscape, designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates — a firm more known for downtown park redevelopments — makes possible what people asked for all this time: access to the shoreline, opportunities for environmental education, and open, green space for recreation. Pathways and piers built over almost two decades of remedial work have been repurposed, while the meadowlands conceal a constellation of pipes that lace the entire park, channelling methane emitted from the subterranean garbage to two flare stations, now wrapped in bright colors.
Opened to the public in 2019, the park is named after central Brooklyn congresswoman and educator Shirley Chisholm. Her likeness and words grace an entrance: “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on Earth.” The formidable advocate for social justice also famously quipped, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” There is no need at the new 407-acre park, where log benches and picnic tables line trails, and visitors can borrow bikes or fish for striped bass from the pier. Surveying East New York from the mounds’ peaks, new rowhouses and the Gateway Center shopping complex are easy to spot, revealing hard-fought wins by residents who brought not only a park to the bay but accountability to the City.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.