Let’s start at the end of one story, the story of the dump, with the view from way up on top of it.
Let’s start at the peak of what was once a steaming, stinking, seagull-infested mountain of trash, a peak that is now green, or greenish, or maybe more like a green-hued brown, the tall grasses having been recently mown by the sanitation workers still operating at Fresh Kills, on the western shore of Staten Island. Today the sun dries the once slime-covered slopes, as a few hawks circle in big, slow swoops and a jet makes a lazy approach to Newark, just across the Arthur Kill. The sky, when viewed from atop a twenty-story heap of slowly decomposing garbage—the so-called South Mound, a Tribeca-size drumlin surrounded by other trash mounds, some as long as a mile—is the kind of big blue that you expect to see somewhere else, like the middle of Missouri. It’s a great wide-open bowl, fringed with green hills (some real, some garbage-filled) that are some of the highest points on the Atlantic seaboard south of Maine. Meanwhile, at your feet, hook-shaped white plastic tubes vent methane, the gas that builds up naturally in a landfill, a by-product of refuse being slowly digested by underground bacteria. The hissing of landfill gas is soft and gentle, like the sound of a far-off mountain stream or the stove left on in your apartment.
But as you look a little longer, it’s definitely not a Missouri view, and the unmistakable landmarks come into focus: a tower on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, a span of the Outerbridge Crossing, and, on Coney Island, the very top of the parachute jump. In the foreground, trucks enter the landfill, climbing the mounds and dumping clean soil over not-so-clean soil. It’s all part of a radical plan to turn Fresh Kills landfill into Fresh Kills Park, with mountain bikers and kayakers and ballplayers sharing 2,315 acres of open space with restored maritime forests, with chestnut trees dotting dry prairies, with new or revived sweet-gum swamps, maybe a fox scooting through persimmon copses or a deer through a new birch thicket.
The composer of this massive reclamation project is James Corner, the landscape architect best known in New York as the designer of the High Line. When that abandoned elevated railway turned inner-city park opens its first section this winter, its industrially influenced meadows, interstitial urban prairies, and sundecks will bring Corner’s firm, Field Operations, a new round of international attention. But as celebrated as the High Line will probably be, it is Field Operations’ other New York park—the one that’s bigger than lower Manhattan, and currently about the height of Mexico’s Great Pyramid of Cholula—that may change people’s ideas of what a park is all about.
In the late 1840s, Frederick Law Olmsted had an experimental farm on Staten Island, but by the time he and Calvert Vaux designed Central Park, he was less a farmer than an artist. The environment they created looked like a landscape painting into which New Yorkers would stroll and recreate, like Mary Poppins jumping into the sidewalk sketches by Bert the chimney sweep. The immigrant shantytowns and African-American villages that sat in the swampy land were all cleared away, and Olmsted built hills and streams by dragging in dirt and blasting outcroppings with more gunpowder than had been used at the Battle of Gettysburg. Nature wasn’t natural in today’s locavore, native-plant sense; it was a collection of natures, pastoral and picturesque, local but mostly exotic, with birds from Europe and trees from China. The bushes in the Ramble, designed with the Adirondacks in mind, were chosen for their shade of green, as painterly effects. The medieval castle was placed on a hilltop as a reference to Europe, as well as for fun. Central Park was Platonic in theory and Barnumesque in practice. “It was designed as a natural Disneyland,” says New York City Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe.
This idea of a park—a green, pastoral place to sport and play—hasn’t evolved much since Central Park was finished. Olmsted took his success to Brooklyn (at the more ambitious Prospect Park) and around the nation, working romantic landscape design into parks and greenbelts in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and Montreal. Even Robert Moses, the most powerful Parks commissioner in the history of Parks commissioners, played along the Olmsted lines—a little nature here, a little recreation there, all of it looking very park, and not much like the land that was there before (Jones Beach, for instance, had been a barrier island). But now Corner is among the handful of landscape designers who are taking the idea of an urban park into un-parklike territory.