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James Corner at Fresh Kills.  

It’s conceptual, of course—the park looks cool in the renderings, a little like Mount Desert Island, if it were on the Jersey shore. But it’s not clear to anyone exactly how much it’ll cost, or whether Fresh Kills will ride out the fiscal crises in permanent Moundscape. So far, the city has budgeted $8.8 million for park design, which will go to Field Operations and its subcontractors. The first North Park step is planned to cost $21 million, or nearly $1 million an acre. “It’s much more than a normal park would cost,” says Eloise Hirsh, the park administrator for Fresh Kills. Imported clean soil goes for up to $80 a cubic foot, for instance, and plans will need to be made to keep the landfill infrastructure vandalproof.

But given the financial climate, it may be that the super-long-term trajectory of Corner’s plan shields it from the cyclical strains on city coffers. Flush budgets will come and go, he seems to be saying, and the Lifescape is designed to absorb that.

Some landscape architects complain that the Field Operations plan camouflages the landfill too much, which makes his critics sound, in a way, more Corner than Corner. Why should forests and wildflower fields mask the postindustrial mess we New Yorkers created? Why should we not see the trash, or at least the remediation process, more clearly? The ultimate in contemporary disturbed-site projects is Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, a 500-acre park in the Ruhr Valley of northwestern Germany, where Thyssen produced steel for 100 years. About twenty years ago, the government called for plans for adaptive reuse of the brownfield site, and landscape architect Peter Latz came forward with a design that created a playground, literally, within the industrial wasteland—underwater diving in the old gas tanks, rock climbing in the disused sewage channels.

As much as Corner admired Latz’s achievement, Fresh Kills doesn’t offer him the same opportunities for romantic decrepitude. For starters, most ecologists argue that we can’t just leave a place like Fresh Kills a broken dump. “If you left it alone,” says Handel, “it would change, but it would change in a depauperate way.” And Corner can’t imagine exposing, say, leachate streams for teaching-moment purposes, especially in a city where parents sue if their children’s feet burn on hot playgrounds. “I think landscape should be edifying, but there are joyous and optimistic ways. It doesn’t have to be so apocalyptic.”

When you are walking around Fresh Kills today, the hills look at once magnificent and strange, a little bit solemn and prehistoric, a little eerie—a cross between the Cahokia Mounds in Illinois, which mark the site of an ancient Native American city that thrived between 700 and 1,400 A.D., and the mounds of the Teletubbies. Big, long trucks crawl across the top of the East Mound, bulldozers scratching, laying down loads of clean-fill to close up the top of the dump, a decadelong process. The long drumlin-shaped mound features long lines, parallel to the ground, giving the appearance of fallow farm fields. Phragmites reeds are everywhere, along with ailanthus trees and mugwort—it’s an Eden of the small number of species that thrive in poor soils and beat-up ecologies.

You feel free, as people so often do in old industrial sites, as if the rules are a little bit off. The rules are not off, of course, and the Sanitation Department is still a little nervous seeing people out here, especially if they’re carrying cameras. Not too long ago, a young, hip designer, new to Field Operations, was wandering on the site, and the sanitation worker in charge of security looked at him as if he had wandered in from some nightclub. And if you have any history at the site, if you remember it when it was covered with stinking trash, if you remember the day the very last municipal trash barge came in, as I do (I happened to be there), then it feels like a ghost town, so many workers gone, no more municipal garbage rattling out the backs of trucks, with fences everywhere trying to contain the garbage, booms out on the water holding back the trash as it tries to make a break for it and float away to Jersey.

You can walk the little land bridges crossing creeks that were once fresh and then polluted and now dead and dry. There are patches of what you might call natural landscapes: Near the South Mound, there are little beachheads of spartina, the same indigenous salt-marsh grass that once covered most of the area. You can see groves of trees planted by people like Steven Handel and also Richard Lynch, a longtime Staten Island naturalist who has single-handedly put in mini-forests in the area. But mostly the place feels one-note, beaten-down, and tired.


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