Denatured Landscapes

By Joey Goldsmith

Taxonomy1

DOGS

Four years ago a coyote was seen frantically wandering the West Side Highway in Manhattan. The coyote stopped traffic and pedestrians called 911. The police showed up with four patrol cars, four unmarked cars, two motorcycles, and an emergency services truck. A helicopter was also dispatched to monitor the scene from above.

The police chased the coyote off the highway, which was temporarily closed, and into a nearby parking lot. The parking lot attendant, Eklas Chowdhury, saw the police before seeing the coyote and told one reporter, “I thought some criminal ran away.”

In the lot, the coyote hid under a red pick-up truck, where the police shot her with a tranquilizer dart. Her body was put into a cage and taken to the Animal Care & Control headquarters in Lower Manhattan. That day, the media referred to her as the “Tribeca Coyote” and “Wile E.”

Since then, it has become clearer to many that coyotes aren’t such an oddity in NYC. The coyotes feed off rodents, and there are no other predators here, except for us, to keep them away. They mostly live in the Bronx, in Pelham Bay, Van Cordtland and Ferry Point parks, but occasionally they venture into other boroughs, where police helicopters and news vans, anxious dog owners and wide-eyed children are ready to congregate for a view.

Researchers have also started surveying the NYC coyotes. A group called the Gotham Coyote Project, for example, founded in 2010, has been placing camouflaged cameras in parks throughout all five boroughs. By recording the coyotes, the group hopes to document their growth and movement patterns throughout the city. The Gotham Coyote Project plans to introduce new surveillance methods in the future, including DNA sampling and radio telemetry, a commonly used tracking technology which remotely collects location data.

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Coyote tracking camera in Pelham Bay Park, NYC. Photo by Richard Perry/NYT

Knowledge of the coyotes’ presence is increasing. The database at the Gotham Coyote Project is growing. More and more videos and photographs, with or without coyotes in them, are collecting every day. In the parks, citizens are being told how to act if coyotes are encountered. A public workshop is being held on March 21st at the Van Cortland Nature Center called “Living with Urban Coyotes.” Additionally, the Parks Department is developing a series of index cards, called “5 Tips for Coyote Coexistence,” to be passed out to the public in the Bronx.

The goal of all these efforts, according to a recent article in the New York Times, is to keep the coyotes “wild.” In order to keep them wild, says one park ranger quoted in the article, it is important to keep the coyotes timid. Do not feed them, do not approach them. If they get close, act big and yell. If we ignore these rules, the ranger tells us, “we could have nuisance behavior, and that we would want to control.”

But if we follow these rules, the coyotes will remain at the city’s edge. We can watch them from a distance, give them internet names and take their picture, debate about whether or not we should kill them or let them live, and continue to record them with hidden cameras as they make homes in all the different parks that we’ve built.

WATER

East of the parks in Manhattan and the Bronx where the coyotes like to be, there is an abandoned 19th century reservoir that has been overtaken by black locust and birch trees, tall grasses, 154 species’ of birds, and moss. It was decommissioned in 1959, after almost a century of heavy use, and drained in 1989, following a number of drownings and illegal swimming arrests.

The reservoir is separated into 3 large basins. They were built between 1856 and 1859, from stone and clay excavated from the farmland around them. Today, basin one and three are forested and the middle basin has turned into a marsh, with a small lake in the middle which reflects the sky.

Since its construction, the reservoir has been known as many different things. In the 19th century, it was known as a source for clean, drinkable water. It was known as an important piece of infrastructure and a technological triumph. It was also known as a gift from God to the people of the City of Brooklyn.

On the day of the reservoir’s groundbreaking, on July 31, 1856, one Reverend gave his blessing to the project on a wooden stage in front of over one thousand people. He said, “May the divine blessing conduct this work to its completion, and may the glory of our city be that purity which comes from the waters of a better world, and may the glory of our common country mingle with the approval of Him who is ‘the fountain of many waters.’”

Earlier in his speech, this same Reverend likened Mayor George Hall, the first Mayor of Brooklyn, to Moses freeing “gladdened” water from the depths of the earth. And another Reverend, also speaking at the event, said, “This place is the mother’s breast to send the manly milk to all our dwellings.”

The project could, according to these speakers, impart the citizens of Brooklyn with divinity, masculinity and strength with which they could continue the work of civilization.

Through the 20th century, the reservoir was not known to be so glorious. The City of Brooklyn was incorporated into the City of New York in 1898, and so the borough no longer relied on the reservoir to deliver all of its water. Less reliant on the infrastructure than before, people in Brooklyn began to visit the Ridgewood Reservoir in a more casual way. They’d visit it with their families, on their days off, or at night to take a walk, to look at the sky, or to hide from the police, or to swim or row boats. Many people drowned in the reservoir, particularly children, and at least one body was dumped by night in the water, recovered by police, autopsied, and then buried, likely in the cemetery down the road. One woman tried to commit suicide by jumping into the reservoir. Her clothes kept her floating long enough for two pump house workers to get a boat and save her, get her back on shore, ask her why she did it, and turn her over to the paramedics and the police. At the hospital she was charged with attempted suicide.

In 1959 the reservoir was officially decommissioned and in 1989, after many more years of swimming arrests and drownings, the city drained it. It partially dried up and then sat empty for a while. Slowly things started to grow where the water had been. Some people moved in with tents, probably some kids played games and got lost in the newly grown trees of basins one and three.

In 1995, six years after being drained, someone sent in a question to a New York Times public Q&A forum, asking, “What has happened to the Ridgewood Reservoir in Highland Park, Queens? Most of it seems to be badly overgrown with trees and bushes.” In his answer, the columnist writes that the middle basin seems to be turning into “something of an urban Okefenokee.” The Parks Department plans to acquire it, says the columnist, and then they will probably turn basin 1 into a ballpark and landscape basin 3. Quoting someone from the Parks Department, the columnist writes that basin 2 will probably be left alone.”It would be a good opportunity to study how plant life develops in the city.”

LAND

On May 7, 2004 the NYC Department of Environmental Protection officially signed the reservoir over to the Parks Department. In the morning, city workers arrived to prepare for a ceremony and a news conference. At noon, the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, spoke to a small crowd and a number of journalists about development plans.

After the ceremony, Luis Rodriguez, who lived in the reservoir, talked to a reporter. “I guess this means I’m evicted,” he said.

By evening, Luis had packed his backpack, removed the rope which had for three years rappelled him down the stone and clay face of basin one, and abandoned his camp, constructed mostly of corrugated metal, tarps and plastic.

The day he left, the reservoir reached a new stage in its story of habitation. The Parks Department’s acquisition of the land galvanized residents who lived nearby to voice new concerns about the city’s development plans. An opposition emerged between those who wanted to keep the reservoir in its newly discovered “natural” state, and Parks, which wanted to develop the reservoir into a ballpark and running track.

Today, over ten years later, this opposition is still in place. Those who want keep the reservoir natural, and it seems to me that they are the majority, have come to know the reservoir as a sacred space in an otherwise alienating city. The founder of the blog “Save Ridgwood Reservoir” has called the place an “untamed, environmental gem.”

In this most recent phase of local understanding, the reservoir’s history as a piece of infrastructure, as an engineering feat which was supposed to bring the citizens of Brooklyn closer to God, seems to be obscured. Looking down into the woods or the marsh from the walking path, there are still reminders of the old infrastructure, like the 15 foot walls that descend from the walking path, or the red brick pump houses on the northern edge of basins one and two. But the water infrastructure is not known by the people who visit the reservoir today. They no longer value the reservoir for its ability to deliver clean water to the city.

Water and people—the people who built it, the people who depended on it, the groundkeepers who lived there with their families—have been replaced by birds and trees. The long planes of clean water have sunk into the ground and reemerged as something foreign. The dark grids of cast iron fencing have dissolved into a red dust to match the color of the flaking pump house paint. One journalist writes, “A device that once brought a taste of nature to a city now has come back to nature itself.”

The reservoir is valued now as a wilderness, or nature preserve, one of the few places in the city where people are not. This view is expressed well in a New York Times op-ed from 2010, in which the former NYC comptroller, William Thompson, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. extol the “accidental wilderness” growing in the basins of the old reservoir. In the op-ed, they call this wilderness an “oasis” and “a place as close to unspoiled nature as you’re likely to find anywhere within city limits… [It] offers visitors a rare chance to lose themselves in a forest, to hear bird song, to touch wilderness and to sense the divine.”

CARS

I went to see the reservoir recently after reading about it online. I rode my bike there and got confused coming off of Cypress Avenue, and nearly entered the highway. I turned around, then found a curb to follow, full of trash and old airline tickets, and pieces of lined paper from someone’s notebook documenting a sexual assault trial.

When I found the reservoir, I locked my bike to the old iron fence and walked along the track that circles all three basins. On my right was the forest and the marsh. Roads and cemeteries—Highland Boulevard, Jamaica Avenue, the National Cemetery, the Mt. Judah Cemetery, the Salem fields Cemetery, the Mt. Carmel Cemetery, the Machpelah Cemetery, and the Jackie Robinson Expressway—all passed by on my left as I walked.

There were a few other people there. One of them, Marissa, was walking her two dogs slowly on the ice that had accumulated on the track. After we’d both walked around the reservoir, I asked her how long she’s been going there. She told me that she moved to Bushwick, Brooklyn, ten years ago and has been going to the reservoir with her dogs ever since. She is a non-fiction writer and spends a lot of time at home, so she is able to walk her dogs at the reservoir at least three times a week.

I asked her why she goes to the reservoir, and not some other place closer to Bushwick. She thought awhile about it. Then she looked at her dogs, which were ready to keep moving. She told me that she refuses to leash them, because they need to run and explore and smell things. It’s hard, she says, to find a place in the city where her dogs can run free. She often gets yelled at by city workers and other people walking at different parks. But at the reservoir, she tells me, there’s a “live and let live” attitude, and people don’t get upset when her dogs run ahead of her. She says there are “mostly working class people who go to the reservoir,” and that “they probably have bigger things to worry about than dogs.”

Then I asked her what she thinks of all the efforts to keep the Ridgewood Reservoir wild and about plans to develop it into fields and playgrounds. I thought she might have a lot to say about this topic. I figured she might be on some sort of board or involved in preservation work. But her answer was quick and quiet, and she didn’t look up from her dogs while she spoke. “Yeah, every once in a while people get upset,” she said. Then she looked up towards the trees, and the walking path. She said she understands why people get upset. The place is special, and there aren’t many other places like it in New York City, she tells me.

I asked her why she thought it was special. She looked back at her dogs, then back at the trees. “That’s a really good question,” she told me, but she said she didn’t know how to answer it. She said she likes to walk by all the old Victorian homes and think about the people who used to live in them. And she likes to see all the people she’s met at the reservoir over the years.

Her biggest complaint about the city’s slow development plan, which has so far brought in new fences, a new walkway and lights that turn on at night, is that her friends who used to live in the reservoir have been forced out. “They weren’t homeless people. We didn’t think of them like that. They were just people, and we all knew each other, and they lived in the reservoir.” Now, she said, they’re all gone.

It was rush hour and the roadway nearby was busy. There were lots of cars and in all those cars lots of people, and beyond the roadway, lots of graves, lots of cemeteries, lots of names and inscribed headstones, little phrases to remember each death, flowers from all over the world and it was nearly March, the birds would be coming back soon from the south and the trees, inside and outside the reservoir, would bloom again and then turn green.

Marissa’s dogs were eager to go and so she followed them down the old steps to the road. She told me to come back, “I’m here at least three times a week, usually in the afternoon,” she’d be happy to talk more when it’s warmer outside.

SPACE

Ridgewood, Queens gets its name from the Ridgewood Reservoir. It takes fifteen minutes to walk there from the northeast corner of basin one.

The buildings in Ridgewood are mostly red and yellow brick, three floors, six-family homes. The elevated M line runs through the middle of the neighborhood and from the subway platform the streets look like deep canals and the rooftops look like islands, bound only by electrical wires and internet cables.

From the platform, street noises sound unfamiliar. Beyond the buildings, in the seemingly endless space of the horizon, I look south, to Brooklyn, and then west, to the New York Harbor. There are dinosaur cranes there, lifting steel crates full of aluminum cars off of ships and onto trucks. Next to the cranes there is a golf course, with rolling green hills built out of waste land taken from other parts of the city. There are golfers there and they can’t see the ships or trucks, because the land has been sculpted so that every view points only to Manhattan and the green-grey water of the harbor.

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Looking West from the Staten Island Ferry. Dinosaur cranes and Newark in the distance.

Past the golf course and the dinosaur cranes, further west, is the Meadowlands. Today when most people hear about the Meadowlands, they probably think of the racing track or the football stadium, where the New York Giants win and lose games. But the Meadowlands is also a large wetland. Parts of the wetland used to be covered in cedar forests, and other parts used to collect dead bodies and many parts still collect waste from New York City and New Jersey. The old Penn Station was left there in pieces after Madison Square Garden was built in the 1960s.

Now there are lots of birds and feral dogs in the Meadowlands. There are also coyotes there and hunters from New Jersey often try to find them and shoot them and when they do they often post their photos online.

 

Back in Ridgewood, when the subway arrives, lots of people get off the train and walk West, towards East Williamsburg and Bushwick, where there are many new cafes and bars, and lots of new murals of Native American women and Federico Garcia Lorca quotes translated to English—Life is no Dream. Watch out! Watch out! Watch out!—and there are murals of blue birds and young deer and a tiger and a chameleon and a forest and sometimes coyotes show up on these painted walls, facing the street, facing the people who walk by.

Other people get off the train and walk north on Palmetto, underneath the elevated train line, past carless parking lots that have turned into private, fenced in trash heaps, boxes of weeds and shelters for stray cats, past a school park with swings and a slide, where adults without children are prohibited, and past a new bookstore called Topos, which is Greek for place. 

There is a sign outside the bookstore with a blue mountain range painted on the front, a blue frontier wilderness with a stream running through it, probably trout in the water. The blackboard backdrop on which this wilderness is painted is a vast, dark and empty space. The wilderness, with bright, familiar colors, makes this dark space look habitable.

Looking past the dark board framed in wood, the street goes on a while before colliding with another neighborhood’s grid. The street names change but eventually, going east from here, you’ll end up near the Knollwood Park Cemetery.

If you stay on the road and don’t enter the cemetery, you’ll find yourself outside of an auto body shop, with a big yard in the back full of weeds. This building used to be owned by the Wolff Alport Chemical Corporation, which sold minerals derived from thorium to the U.S., British and Canadian governments during World War II when they were developing the first atomic bombs. The neighborhood is radioactive now, because Wolff Alport regularly dumped thorium byproducts into the gutters and the sewer, spreading it below the surface of the street, where it could permeate the foundations of all the other buildings nearby.

You can also choose to enter the cemetery, which is across the street from the auto body shop, and walk east through the phrase-inscribed fields until you reach basin one of the Ridgewood Reservoir. You can walk around the path and listen to many kinds of birds. You can look at the many types of trees and smell the air. And you can also cut a hole in the fence, climb down the clay walls, and go see the old pipes that used to carry water to people in the city.

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