How the World’s Largest Garbage Dump Evolved Into a Green OasisBreaking News
tags: environmental history, New York, urban history, garbage, sanitation, Public works, Staten Island
A little less than two decades ago, the last steaming load of garbage arrived at Fresh Kills Landfill. A packed-high barge turned slowly out of the Arthur Kill — that long, dishwater-brown tidal strait that separates Staten Island from New Jersey — and then docked at the Sanitation Department’s pier, an event celebrated less as a matter of ecological stewardship at the time than a triumph of not-in-my-backyard politics.
I remember the last barge because I happened to be there. It was March 22, 2001, and I was embedded with the Department of Sanitation’s film crew, greeting the barge from the rain-soaked deck of what is known to the Sanitation Department navy as a trash skimmer, a little boat that snags flotsam, like a mechanized sea gull. The barge had set off that morning from a transfer station in College Point, Queens, heading south into the East River. Fireboats saluted the trash with water cannons, and as it passed Gracie Mansion, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani saluted it from his front lawn.
About an hour later, Mr. Giuliani was at Fresh Kills himself, standing amid garbage hills 200 feet tall, alongside Staten Island’s borough president, Guy Molinari, and Gov. George E. Pataki. These three Republicans had worked together to close the dump that Mr. Molinari’s father first protested when it opened in 1948, a time when Fresh Kills was a saltwater marsh where kids swam. After 1948, it became an ecological nightmare and a political hot potato. A banner behind the politicians read, “A Promise Made, a Promise Kept.”
“No more garbage for the people of Staten Island,” said Governor Pataki.
Today, Fresh Kills has been rebranded as Freshkills, and the park that is now at the site of the old dump is poised to accept visitors: the North Park will open in spring 2021, the rest by 2036.
Freshkills is possibly the least likely poster child for urban ecological restoration in the world, and it is radical not just for the way it works — by encouraging flora and fauna do as they please — but for its sheer size. It is almost unbelievable that New York City would set aside a parcel of land as big as Lower Manhattan south of 23rd Street — and just let it go to seed.
But as the park nears opening, it’s important to remember the political archaeology of the place. At conception, it was not the cutting-edge expression of sustainability that it is seen as today. The voters of Staten Island, reliably conservative, rallied around Michael R. Bloomberg, who, down in the polls in his first term, promised to trade their dump for a park.
Not that you can blame them for preferring a park to what was in its heyday one of the world’s great eyesores. Imagine Central Park with trash mounds 20 stories high. Now imagine that times three. Imagine a not-delicious mix of household waste excreting noxious methane and millions of gallons of ammonium-rich leachate, the technical term for the juice that flows from trash hills into the waterways. By the late 1970s, an estimated 28,000 tons of trash arrived at Fresh Kills every day.