Exploring Shirley Chisholm State Park, NYC’s nicest park built on a toxic dump

Shirley Chisholm State Park can lay claim to the title of “New
York City’s nicest park built on top of a toxic waste dump”

After 70 years of promises, Brooklyn’s newest waterfront park
is finally open for visitors.

The first section of Shirley Chisholm
State Park
recently made its official debut on a site that was
previously known as the 110-acre Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill.
Situated on the northern coast of Jamaica Bay in East New York,
near Starrett City, this vibrant new green space has opened up the
shoreline here for the first time in generations.

The words “charming” and “fun” don’t often come to
mind when walking around New York City’s polluted landfills. Yet
somehow, a walk through this new park is just that—a surprisingly
enjoyable ramble through a delightfully varied landscape of
wildflower meadows, native grasslands, hidden beaches, and bustling
fishing piers. Butterflies and songbirds fill the air, while
cooling breezes waft in from Jamaica Bay.

Though it has only been open for a week, the park is already a
hit with the neighborhood. During its first weekend, the parking
lot was filled to capacity and every two-wheeler was checked out of
its Bike Library, which is run by Recycle-A-Bicycle. Parents pushed
baby strollers along meandering gravel hiking trails, while
fishermen lined the piers along Jamaica Bay, happily pulling in
dozens of porgies.

The second section of this park, at the adjoining Fountain
Avenue Landfill, won’t be complete until 2021, but for a
community that has been cut off from the waterfront for decades,
any access to the water is no small thing. “I’ve been waiting
for this for 20 or 30 years,” said one fisherman, as he cast out
into the waters of Jamaica Bay. “I moved here in 1986, and they
were working on it then, piece by piece, off and on, over the
years.”

For younger residents, the sudden views of the creeks and bays
hidden in their backyard were a revelation. “Can we go swimming
in the lake?” asked a group of young children, as they
tentatively gazed out onto the rippling waters of Hendrix Creek,
the waterway along the eastern shore of the park.

“Should we take off our shoes and go in?” asked a teenager,
as she and her friend contemplated the sandy beach along Fresh
Creek, on the western shore of the park. Soon enough, they were
wading out into the water.

Though it is only partially complete, Shirley Chisholm State
Park can already lay claim to the title of “New York City’s
nicest park built on top of a toxic waste dump.” That title
previously belonged to Brookfield Park, which
opened in 2017
at the former site of the Brookfield Landfill in
Staten Island. The history of these two pieces of land is
intertwined going back to the 1970s, when they were both horribly
polluted by tons of illegally dumped toxins. During a long
remediation process by the NYC Department of Environmental
Protection (DEP), both landfills
were capped and replanted with a specially designed landscape of
native species handpicked by John McLaughlin, the managing director
at the DEP’s Bureau of Environmental Planning & Analysis.

At Brookfield Park, the engineered wetlands, creeks, and pools
constructed on top of the landfill cap are a marvel to consider,
but the park is largely cut off from the surrounding waters of

Richmond Creek
. At Shirley Chisholm Park, the landscape is much
more open, allowing visitors to move freely from the towering
landfill mound—which offers sweeping views of Manhattan and
nearby Starrett City—and down into the waters of Jamaica Bay.
Though swimming is not allowed, visitors can fish and wade in the
water, and there will soon be a kayaking program launching out of
Fresh Creek.

Although the verdant hills of Shirley Chisholm State Park are a
vast improvement over the mountains of rotting garbage that they
now conceal, it is difficult to visit this landscape without
reflecting on its painful history. The ecology of this site has
been permanently scarred by decades of government-sanctioned
pollution, and the communities nearby have suffered the impacts of
this pollution for generations. Covering up this toxic legacy with
lush greenery and new picnic benches does not fully atone for the
failures of the past.

New York City first planned to construct parks in this area 70
years ago, when it announced an enormous 885-acre project to create
a “park
and wildlife preserve
” along the northern coast of Jamaica
Bay, thus saving its marshlands from being developed into the
largest seaport in the world. The Parks Commissioner behind this
plan was Robert Moses, who told the
New York Times
in 1949, “There is a real need for waterfront
recreation areas for the residents of all sections of Brooklyn and
Queens within easy reach of Jamaica Bay.”

The plan was to fill in the marshlands at the edge of the bay,
creating access for beaches, fishing, boating, and swimming. By
1974, however,
153 acres of filled-in marshland
was instead being developed
into Starrett City, the massive apartment complex on Pennsylvania
Avenue that was subsidized by the state and federal government as
part of the Mitchell-Lama housing program. That same year, the city
deeded over its land on the coast of Jamaica Bay to the National
Park Service as part of Gateway National Recreation Area.

In 1974, the Department of City Planning also began
experimenting with remediating Pennsylvania Park, a landfilled area
at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue that was created by filling in
the marshlands of Jamaica Bay with construction debris. As part of
this work, the
Times
reported that the city had “imported 30,000 worms,”
sprayed the site with barge loads of sewage sludge, and had teams
of Girl Scouts and high school students volunteering to plant
seedlings along the coast.

But as Starrett City began to rise, so too did the city’s
Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue Landfills, turning the
National Park’s land on Jamaica Bay into a sprawling, noxious
city-run dumping ground. “There is a pungent garbage dump just
across the Belt Parkway from the development,” the
Times
wrote in a 1984 profile of Starrett City. “It has grown
from a ground-level landfill to a mile-long ridge 50 or 60 feet
high.”

The Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue Landfills were
active from 1956 to 1985, and would eventually cover 407 acres of
former marshlands and reach a height of over 130 feet, completely
cutting off local residents from even a view of the nearby water.
“When we first moved here 10 years ago, we were able to see the
planes take off [from JFK],’’ a resident of Starrett City told
the
Times
in 1984. “Then every day we’d see that dump get
higher and higher. It looks like a mountain now.’’

Just a few years after moving in, residents of Starrett City
were also reporting an increase in respiratory illnesses, most
likely caused by the “airborne pollution from the dumps,”
according to a 1983 study referenced in the
Times
. Some of this pollution was legal, and included thousands
of gallons of contaminated waste oil that the city sprayed on dumps
to “keep
down dust
,” as well as toxins that were legal to dump in the
1970s like DDT, asbestos, and acid. Other sources of pollution were
illegal, including deadly chemical waste like cyanide and
dichlorobenzene, which the Hudson Oil Refining Company
admitted to dumping
in Pennsylvania Avenue and Brookfield
landfills in the late 1970s.

By 1984, the city had found “high
levels of dangerous PCB’s
” seeping out of the Pennsylvania
Avenue Landfill and into Jamaica Bay, and swimming and shellfishing
in the area were banned. By 1988, a study by Rutgers University
concluded that the landfill was endangering the entire
Hudson-Raritan estuary, and was “a
xenobiotic cesspool whose baneful effects are not yet fully
fathomed
.’’

The green landscape now found at these landfills has also been
many years in the making. The Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain
Avenue Landfills were capped and closed in the 2000s as part of a
$200 million remediation project by
the DEP
. Transforming their trash mountains back into some
semblance of nature was a challenging process.

“The first seeds were laid down in 2004 on the Pennsylvania
Avenue Landfill, followed a year later by the first plantings of
shrubs and trees, at a density of 800 to 1,000 per acre, about
double what typically grow in a natural setting,” according to a
2009 Times
article. By the completion of the project, “more than 1.2 million
cubic yards of clean soil—or enough to fill nearly 100,000 dump
trucks—was spread up to four feet deep across the site,”
according to the park’s website.
“The site was then planted with more than 35,000 trees and
shrubs, and native grassland species.”

After so many years of neglect, this lengthy remediation process
has restored some aspect of the natural environment that was lost
70 years ago, when the marshlands were first filled in. And the
park, though it is built on a polluted landfill, has provided some
semblance of the waterfront recreation areas first promised by
Robert Moses. Before last week’s opening, there were just a
handful of official public access points to the north side of
Jamaica Bay, but when Shirley Chisholm State Park is eventually
complete, that number will double.

“I’m old enough to remember coming down that Belt Parkway
and all you saw was a mountain. A mountain of seagulls. And you
closed the windows,” said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during the
opening ceremony
for the park. “Nobody had an idea what was
on the other side of that mountain. Nobody knew you had this
beautiful waterfront right here in Brooklyn. And how desperately it
was needed.”

The main entrance to Shirley Chisholm State Park is currently
located at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue, past Starrett City on
the south side of the Belt Parkway.

Visitors to the park are immediately greeted by a large portrait
of Chisholm, who was born in Brooklyn and went on to become the
first black woman elected to Congress. The mural was painted by
artist Danielle Mastrion, who was also born in Brooklyn.

Near the park entrance, a bike library has been set up, which
loans out recycled bicycles to park visitors free of charge. On
opening weekend, all of the bikes were checked out.

Bikers and fishermen head down Hendrix Creek Road, which leads
to the Penn Pier on Jamaica Bay.

Adjacent to the road, a drainage system channels excess
rainwater off of the capped landfill and out into Hendrix Creek,
which flows between the two landfills.

Hendrix Creek was also part of a
DEP cleanup
, which dredged 20,000 cubic yards of raw sewage
that had settled in the bottom of the creek before covering it with
a layer of sand.

The DEP conducted a
wetland restoration
project along the creek that “restored
30,000 square feet of salt marsh habitat and 23,000 square feet of
a coastal grassland and shrubland habitat.”

At the mouth of Hendrix Creek, a narrow metal pier extends out
into Jamaica Bay and toward the yet-to-be-completed park at the
Fountain Avenue Landfill site.

Looking back from this walkway, towards Penn Pier. Dozens of
fishermen have already found their way to this new fishing spot,
which is located on the northern shores of Jamaica Bay.

The pier provides a vista back down Hendrix Creek and out to
Starrett City. Also known as Spring Creek Towers, this federally
subsidized apartment complex was
sold for $905 million
in 2018.

Bikers, hikers, and fishermen all share the piers’s walkways.
There are currently just a handful of other official public access
points along the entire northern shore of Jamaica Bay, including
Spring Creek Park, Canarsie Pier, and Floyd Bennett Field.

Further inland, a gravel road loops around the landfill’s
edge, providing a relatively flat route for bicyclists and
hikers.

The view from this loop road looks out over fields of
wildflowers, which stretch out towards Jamaica Bay. Butterflies,
bees, and birds have all returned to this newly created
habitat.

As the road loops around to the other side of the park, Fresh
Creek comes into view. This narrow inlet borders the western side
of the park.

A beach and boat launch can be found along Fresh Creek, where
the state has allowed surprisingly open access to the water. There
are no barriers stopping visitors from wading in to the creek
here.

Though immediately adjacent to the Belt Parkway, the beach is a
quiet refuge. To the north of the parkway is the
Fresh Creek Nature Preserve
, a NYC park that protects 56 acres
of the creek and its marshlands.

The DEP is currently working on a
multi-year sewer project
nearby that will directly impact the
health of Fresh Creek. When complete, it will help divert 189
million gallons of raw sewage overflows from dumping out into the
creek during rain storms.

The park’s trail system loops up from Fresh Creek and Jamaica
Bay, leading visitors through wooded areas into the hilly interior
of the park.

A steep switchback leads up towards the highest point of the
landfill. On this far side of the park, the views of the city are
almost completely cut off, and the landfill almost looks like a
natural landscape.

A colorful array of umbrellas beckon from the top of the
landfill. Shirley Chisholm State Park’s highest hill is 130 feet,
making it one of the highest points in Brooklyn.

At the top of the park, the view takes in all of Jamaica Bay.
For the community in nearby Starrett City, this view is still
blocked off by the landfill’s hills, as it has been since the
1980s.

Looking back on Starrett City, with Manhattan in the distance.
The community here now has a green park that they can visit, but
the capped landfill will also always be here, a permanent
impediment to accessing the water.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and
curator
who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned
edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for
more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo
essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have
been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens
Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside
the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

Source: FS – All – Real Estate News 1
Exploring Shirley Chisholm State Park, NYC’s nicest park built on a toxic dump