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.