While my appreciation of New York’s 24-7 public transit system remains immeasurable, I am pleased, as day two begins, to catch a ride in a Parks Department Jeep to Staten Island. Within an hour, I am standing atop South Mound with Carrie Grassi, Freshkills Park land-use and outreach manager, looking at what will be—following a 30-year build-out based on landscape architect James Corner’s master plan—New York’s next great park.
The view is startlingly arcadian: Three creeks flow through the 2,200-acre park, leading the eye to the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge and the Staten Island Greenbelt just beyond. The South Mound, one of four in the park, is wild, edged with tall beds of phragmites. Only the sight of the nearby East Mound’s cap—a patchwork of geotextile fabric, impermeable membrane, pre-sod, soil, and grass designed to seal off its contents—reminds me that I’m standing atop the world’s largest landfill: roughly 150 million tons of garbage. “Mother Nature is taking over,” says Grassi, a Pre-Raphaelite heroine with a raucous laugh. “But yeah—it’s a completely engineered site.”
In 1948, Robert Moses hatched a plan to fill the Fresh Kills site’s delicate wetlands for three years, then build an industrial zone to the west, with parks and housing to the east. But as landfills elsewhere in New York shut down, the site’s life was extended until it became, by the mid-1980s, the city’s sole dump—four fearful-smelling mini-mountains rising to between 135 and 200 feet, presided over by rats and gulls.
Fresh Kills was finally closed in mid-2001 (and reopened temporarily after September 11, when the World Trade Center material was brought to West Mound for analysis), and a plan was produced to transform what Parks Department literature calls “an emblem of wastefulness, excess, and environmental neglect” into a symbol of renewal and ecological balance. Appropriately, Corner’s scheme balances the designed and natural. Once capped, the mounds cannot be built upon and so will be limited to walking, biking, and horseback riding trails and wildlife habitat. A quarter of the park, including wetlands, is protected and exempt from development, though canoe and kayak put-ins are planned. The remaining areas are due to become ball fields, parking lots, concession stands, and other park amenities, designed for maximum sustainability.
“People say, ‘I’ll never see it, I’ll be dead,’” Grassi remarks as we drive toward North Mound. (I am thinking precisely this.) But the first wave of projects is about to get under way; these include a tree nursery, the yield of which will help regreen the park. “We want to communicate that this is a site that’s working to renew itself,” an educational component Grassi deems essential. “If you lived in New York before 2001, your garbage is here—you helped to build this site,” she says. “We’re really conscious now of our responsibility tothe environment. Developing the park is taking ownership of that and moving it forward.”
The Jeep stops at North Mound’s high point; getting out, I gaze at far-distant Manhattan, floating on the clouds like Valhalla. “Everyone associates Staten Island with the dump,” says Grassi. “It’s quite a psychological scar for people here. We have local people coming expecting to see garbage who have gotten very emotional.” When I ask why, she replies, “Because it smells nice.”
Grassi drops me at the Staten Island Ferry; the burnt-orange vessel pushes off for Manhattan, and I move to the bow, standing with several dozen passengers. As we pass the Statue of Liberty, the slow tolling of a buoy bell brings to mind Septem-ber 11. Nine years after I stood blocks from the catastrophe, ash and debris falling, like the snow in James Joyce’s story, over the living and the dead, I have almost stopped mentally sketching in the towers when I see, as I do now, their former location.