The view from the mounds exists precisely because it was once a low-down, muddy, tidal place. Before it was settled in the seventeenth century by French Huguenots, Walloons, and freed slaves, Fresh Kills was host to a large Native American population and was sometimes referred to by native people as Aquehonga Manacknong, or “haunted woods.” Henry David Thoreau, living in Staten Island while trying to get freelance writing work in Manhattan, used to walk onto the marsh island in Fresh Kills to dig arrowheads, “the surest crop.” Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, brickmakers dug out clay deposits, creating holes in the meadows that would later attract sanitation experts looking for places to dump. Meanwhile, Staten Island was serving as a kind of spawning ground for naturalists in New York. William T. Davis, the island’s John Muir, rolled up his suit pants to explore the kills, so named for the old Dutch word for stream. Landscape artists painted bundles of salt-marsh hay. Men in hats rowed in Fresh Kills, while developers thought it was a shame it wasn’t all developed.
Around 1947, Robert Moses showed up with a plan to create new housing and parks on the site. STATEN ISLAND BOG GIVES WAY TO PARK ran a Times headline at the time, and streets were laid out in anticipation. But first the marshes would need to be filled in, a problem Moses solved by proposing first three and then twenty years of dumping. Within a year, a fleet of scows began ferrying trash to the 3,000-acre site. The New York Audubon Society protested that at least some of the clay ponds should remain untouched by garbage. “Once it is destroyed,” they warned, “it can never be restored.” Moses initially consented, but he soon changed his mind: By filling in the ponds, he argued, he was preventing possible drownings. Not that the dumpings succeeded in keeping everyone out of the ponds. As a kid in the fifties, Sanitation Commissioner Doherty used to camp along the kills with friends; they’d swing on a rope out into the murky water. “And we are all still relatively healthy,” he says.
“I said, ‘Look, whatever we do, we’ve got to keep the big and green. These are views most people would have to drive hours to see.’ ”
Fresh Kills was slowly filled in—the idea, of course, being simply to level off the meadows. A mile-and-a-half-long lake was displaced, and the marshes absorbed the junk and jetsam and little lost notes of city history: a million dollars’ worth of cocaine and heroin accidentally lost in a garbage scow (1948); eight capsules of radium accidentally taken from a doctor’s office (1949); a leg, possibly from a gangland-style hit (1974). There were plans for airports, in 1966, and, in 1970, for “a huge city within a city” that Mayor Lindsay never built. Moses’s promised parks never arrived, either, and by the seventies, one could identify the elevated beginnings of what would eventually become four trash mountains. “Mounding,” the city euphemistically called it, and officials imagined no more than 50 to 100 feet. A city report tried to put a good face on mounding, calling it a “superior land resource suitable for park and community development.” But the city knew it had a problem: In 1972, the Sanitation commissioner and the Environmental Protection administrator climbed a 55-foot-tall, 30,000-ton pile of garbage at Fresh Kills, as a teaching moment, to illustrate how much New York trashed every day (at the time reportedly more than London and Tokyo combined).
As expanding environmental regulations increased the expenses attendant on landfill maintenance, the cash-strapped city consolidated, piling more garbage into fewer landfills—one can read the four giant mounds as past fiscal crises written into the landscape. By the eighties, the city was down to four large dumps: one in the Bronx, one in Brooklyn, and two on Staten Island. Regulations changed again, and the city was sued to make safer dumps, the result being the city agreed to close all but Fresh Kills. This required upgrading on a military order. “When you have a place that’s as big as all of below 23rd Street in Manhattan,” says Phil Gleason, the engineer at the Sanitation Department in charge of the landfill for more than two decades, “you don’t just fix the place in a year.”
Fresh Kills excretes two substances: natural gas and leachate. Gas is dangerous—it can seep into utility lines and cause houses and neighborhoods to explode, a phenomenon not unheard of around landfills—but it is also valuable. Today, Fresh Kills is mined for 10,000 square cubic feet of gas a day, and the city receives $10 million annually from a gas company called National Grid. Leachate is more problematic. All dumps perspire leachate, which forms when rainwater combines with trash to make a kind of polluted tea, or garbage juice. New landfills are pre-lined with essentially clay and plastic. An estuary is perhaps the worst possible location for a landfill from the perspective of sustainable ecological practices, but the clay found in the marshes of Fresh Kills might, in fact, be sealing in some leachate (though despite all the engineering assurances in the world, some leachate is surely leaking out the bottom). The leachate captured by the Sanitation Department is mostly composed of ammonia, which is not the worst toxic chemical as far as incredibly toxic chemicals go, but not good, either.