A quest to comprehend the immensity of New York City’s waste takes a writer to the heart of the Fresh Kills landfill.
Salty mud, punctuated by plastic bottles and an oily sheen, sucked at our feet as Marie Lorenz and I walked her rowboat down to the Arthur Kill, a tidal straight separating Staten Island from Jersey. In front of us, about fifty feet from shore, sat the wrecked bodies of a dozen boats dropped in this inlet for metal salvaging in the 1950s. Just beyond them, on the western edge of Staten Island, rose the gentle slopes of Freshkills—their roundness built not by glacial rifts or tectonic plates but by man. The site was once home to the largest landfill in the country, which closed in 2001 after receiving New York City’s trash for over fifty years.
I’m a bit of a Freshkills junkie. I’ve read countless articles about “the fill”—probably the world’s most high profile landfill—perused old maps and project proposals, even trudged through Robert Moses’ bid to turn the then-small, by comparison, Fresh Kills dump into a park in 1951. Despite all my research, I felt that somehow I had not gotten to the heart of the matter. After half a decade of writing about art and infrastructure abroad, Freshkills had caught my attention as soon as I moved to New York in 2009. What did half a century of New-York-City-scale consumption look like? And what is Freshkills today: a nature preserve, a social sculpture, a toxic wasteland—perhaps all three?
A week had passed since Hurricane Sandy struck and, through all the never-ending news reports, I had heard nothing of the landfill. On the city’s zoned evacuation map, much of Staten Island’s coastline, Freshkills included, had been coded red. Had the infrastructure held up? Had Sandy peeled back the layers of soil, clay, gravel and plastic the city had laid atop our trash in an effort to hide just how much we had thrown away? Lorenz, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, and I had been planning to boat into the fill for a while, but checking in on it now, after the hundred-year-storm that it had been specifically engineered to withstand, lent our expedition an added air of urgency.
I’d run into Lorenz about six months earlier at the Frieze art fair on Randall’s Island where she was mounting an installation from her ongoing project “Tide and Current Taxi,” which she launched in 2005. A participatory experiment of sorts, the “taxi” is a rowboat Lorenz built almost entirely from discarded packing crates. The boat is light enough for her to carry on her own, fashioned almost entirely from eighth-inch plywood, and covered in slender black lines applied through silk screening. It makes about ten excursions per year, taking self-selecting passengers wherever they want to go as long as the trip fits the boat’s annual theme, which in the past has ranged from ”long journeys” to ”tidal cycles.” She decides on the themes herself and for the most part the excursions are her artwork. However, Lorenz does occasionally make prints that reference where she has been and what her boat has come in contact with. Over the years, the sprightly Lorenz has taken people on circumnavigations of Long Island, and journeyed up the Hutchison River in the Bronx. Initially, I had wanted only to pick her brain about whether the city’s Sanitation Department facilitated New York artists’ increasing appetite for garbage as a material resource. But then I found out Lorenz’s “Tide and Current Taxi” theme for 2012: trash. Finally, I would have the opportunity to venture into the bowels of the fill. Lorenz and I hatched a semi-illegal plan to explore Freshkills together.
* * *
Over the next thirty years, New York’s Sanitation and Parks Departments, along with Field Operations (the landscape architects responsible for the High Line) will convert Freshkills into a recreation area three times the size of Central Park. The transformation, a decade after the fill’s closing, is already underway to convert these heaps of used, and, perhaps most importantly, valueless materials into the second largest park in New York City. (Only Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx is bigger.). A tiny sliver of Freshkills Park opened last year, sporting a playground and soccer fields. Bird sanctuaries, bike paths, boardwalks, composting toilets, trails, bioswales (drainage courses that remove pollution from runoff water), solar panels and native species are all to follow.
Freshkills, which began its life as a salt marsh, has countless water-to-waste-to-wonderment predecessors across the city. Queens’ marshlands, which at the turn of the twentieth century were the repository for the ashes of the city’s thousands of coal burning furnaces, became, as if by magic, the World’s Fair Grounds in 1939; and the coastal runways at LaGuardia were made by carting smoldering heaps of trash from Rikers Island (itself expanded by the city through active dumping on its way to housing the now famous prison complex) to the edge of the land, packing it down and paving it over. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as trade and population grew in New York, many of the marshlands and ponds vital to the city’s initial founding were filled with the detritus of industrialization—coal, brick, dead farm animals, human waste—first turning ugly, then transforming, through human intervention, into something else entirely.
And yet, something about Freshkills is different. Once the largest man-made structure in the world at just over 2,200 acres, the landfill’s scale, and the half-century of consternation over the other boroughs’ flagrant offloading of garbage on Staten Island, set Freshkills apart. But more than the size and stature of this particular trash heap, I imagine it is we, the inhabitants of New York, who are the greatest differentiators. Our relationship to trash has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years. The British cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, and many after her, argued that the removal of sewage and trash created the modern city—that the New Yorkers of today are defined by the disappearance of our waste.
So, in the blue light of dawn on a Sunday in early November, six days after Sandy made landfall in New York, Lorenz and I paddled out among the maws and ribs of rusted boats, trees sprouted on their decks, with worn plastic bags decorating their limbs. The boat was sturdy and the morning still. Lorenz, her wavy chestnut hair tucked up under a cap, her wind-blown skin a little like parchment, and her hands safely stashed away in rubber-palmed gardening gloves, had been this far before. She’d explored the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard during a recent summer devoted to inaccessible places. As I looked back at her—chuckling as she recalled getting disastrously stuck in these very same mud flats—I wondered if exploring New York had made her perpetually young. There was something so unabashed about her curiosity. As the sun rose, we angled north toward the fill. As long as we kept to the waterways, our trip would remain perfectly kosher. Just offshore, surrounding the entire West Mound of Freshkills, was a twelve-foot-high barrier fence meant to catch all the trash that somehow migrates from the dump into the sea. But with Hurricane Sandy, a new high-water mark had been set, and this time the trash flowed in instead of out. Orange catchment buoys were stranded atop the fence. Bits of trash clung to the feathered tops of the invasive marsh weeds, all bent inland from the rush of the surge.
* * *
In New York City, trash’s great disappearing act creates a clean stage on which we can perfect the art of perpetual reinvention. We recycle, reuse, compost, and convert in a city relatively free from refuse. Not that New York is sparkling clean, but we have come a long way since sewage flowed in the streets, cholera ran rampant, ash piled up on every street corner, and dead fish floated down the Hudson. The bedside table made from found wood for sale in DUMBO for a mere eight hundred dollars wouldn’t seem so attractive if that found wood were piled up in an adjacent lot alongside rotting kitchen scraps and rats.
Our infatuation with recycled plastic park benches, vintage clothing stores and composting, as well as rusted architecture and our recasting of industrial flotsam as something beautiful, sublime even, is as old as the networked infrastructure that removes our undesirables from plain view. The “age of sanitation” began in the 1850’s as industrialization produced waste and biologists simultaneously began to connect contagious disease to waste. Networked waste removal quickly followed and poets and writers have been reworking and reinvigorating the leftovers of modernity ever since. What are T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Walt Whitman’s This Compost, and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil if not meditations on what modern cities strive to sanitize?
I was in Yangon, Myanmar, in 2011, writing a story about underground performance art when I first understood that waste removal is a key component in making trash desirable again. I will never forget showing some of my Burmese friends photos from New York street artist SWOON’s Miss Rockaway Armada project, in which she and about a dozen others floated down the Mississippi River on boats they built almost entirely from garbage. “Why make art out of something so dirty?” a young Burmese performance artist asked. Just over her left shoulder boys were descending into the sewers and tossing shit-laden clumps of god-knows-what onto the sidewalk. And beyond the teenage sewer-cleaners, three stray dogs rummaged through an empty-lot-turned-improv-garbage-heap. Their trash was everywhere; it was a part of life, so why would they go out of their way to turn it into an art project or a coffee table?
Thanks to the Department of Sanitation, and its networked approach to waste removal, we have the incredible luxury of living in a quasi-continual present, where everything we no longer desire is hastily removed. As Lorenz and I made our way inland among the trash mounds of Freshkills, I returned to a familiar train of thought: how does so much stuff become worthless, and is the process reversible? Artists like Lorenz have been asking themselves this question for a long time. Most who have sought garbage as a material resource work on a personal scale, making trash aesthetically pleasurable when purified by the individual touch. Today, trash turned high art is trendy. Chris Jordan’s soda-can-Seurats sell for tens of thousands of dollars and Vik Muniz’s trash-picker-sourced Caravaggios for hundreds of thousands. The creation of beautiful, aesthetically pleasing objects allows viewers to see trash differently and yet these paintings cannot convey trash as it actually exists—in astonishing quantities. New Yorkers throw away enough material to fill the Empire State Building every single day. By some estimates, Freshkills contains three hundred billion pounds of trash. And now that the dump is closed, our garbage is trucked upstate and beyond, to landfills as far afield as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia.
We paddled up Fresh Kills Creek, from which the original dump took its name, under interstate 440 and into the heart of the fill. Past all of the abandoned equipment that was used when the fill was still operational, past the barges that once brought 29,000 tons of trash from Manhattan to these marshlands daily, past the old unloading cranes, guard towers and inspection houses. Lorenz spotted a pack of deer grazing on the North Mound. The morning was quiet and I noticed how pretty the water looked—deep and blue, the color of the open ocean in autumn. Three of Freshkills’ four mounds rolled into view, defining the horizon with their slow slope. For now, those tawny humps, hundreds of feet high, shielded our little boat from the world beyond. When the wind died down, their reflection wavered on the surface of the water. Suddenly, I understood that Lorenz and I were floating in a man-made valley. As far as the eye could see everything was made of trash.
But you wouldn’t know it just by looking. Yes, the surge had reached this far and many of the banks were cluttered with debris. And yes, there were defensive fences wrapping around each of these grassy knolls. And yes, one of them looked “shaved” as Lorenz put it, the weeds and grasses all mowed down, exposing dozens of zit-like mini-mounds, hints of the infrastructure lying just beneath the surface. Despite knowing that we sat in the midst of a maelstrom of tunnels, leachate collectors, gas burn-off stations, and even a water treatment plant, we were also surrounded by some pretty basic elements. Earth, sky, sea.
* * *
Just before setting out on our excursion, I spoke with Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the first and only artist-in-residence of the New York City Department of Sanitation, a position that she has held for the past thirty-five years. Ukeles has a shock of white-blond hair and a neon smile that radiates her interest in all things waste-related. She has built countless sculptures out of recycled materials, choreographed garbage-truck ballets, and even spent a year and a half shaking the hands of every sanitation worker in New York. During her “TOUCH SANITATION” project, she discovered that most New Yorkers felt that once they brought their trash to the curb it suddenly belonged to the sanitation worker. “But when I spoke with sanitation workers they kept telling me, ‘It’s not my trash, it’s their garbage,’” Ukeles told me. “That’s when I realized that we had concocted this great social collusion where the responsibility for the trash we make is no longer our own.” That was more than thirty years ago, and while our tendency to stigmatize ‘garbage men,’ has subsided, according to Ukeles, our willingness to take ownership of our waste has not risen in equal and opposite proportions.
In 2002, Ukeles released “PENETRATION AND TRANSPARENCY MORPHED,” a six-channel video artwork installation, shown on half a dozen screens, that investigates the inner workings of the fill and attempts to open dialogues about the future of the park. In addition to her work with the Sanitation Department, Ukeles is also the Department of Sanitation Percent for Art Artist at Freshkills, a position awarded to her by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and the Percent For Art Foundation, one of the largest municipally funded art programs in the country.
“PENETRATION AND TRANSPARENCY MORPHED” is equal parts Werner Herzog film, visitor center informational video, and personal wonderment about the work that goes into maintaining the most complicated landfill in the country. “I wanted to turn my research into an artwork,” Ukeles, says of the film. “And I wanted people to know how Freshkills and this great transformation really could work.” The video is carried by an ensemble cast, ranging from Phillip J. Gleason, the Sanitation Department’s assistant commissioner of waste management engineering, to Dr. Niall Kirkwood, the director of the center for technology and the environment at Harvard. Alternating between dirt and rubble moonscapes, rolling bucolic fields, and plans that blend topography into infrastructure, the film gives a comprehensive portrait of Freshkills as a living, breathing, moving mound of junk that requires unprecedented infrastructure to keep environmental disaster at bay.
Having followed the waterway of Freshkills deep inland for three hours, the time had come to turn around. It had been one of those perfect fall mornings when the world is still and cloaked in the glow of a slanting sun. I wasn’t scared or grossed out by the water, although some others may have been; instead, paddling in Lorenz’s little boat had reminded me of canoeing with my father in rural Maine as a child.
Our fear of being caught and kicked out diminished since we had seen only a single person fixing a busted traffic signal along the shore, so we decided to actually explore the fill on our way out. When Lorenz and I reached the line of double-parked rusted blue barges along the banks of the West Mound, we disembarked. We clambered up a giant tire and tied the rowboat off. After three hours in our little boat it took a minute for me to shake my sea legs. In the first barge, a striped plastic net held down heaps of office paper, milk cartons, cardboard boxes, ice cream containers, manila envelopes, and so on and so on. New York’s paper is still transported to Staten Island where it ends up at the Visy Paper Mill at the northern tip of Freshkills. Next to the paper-filled barge sat an empty one. Lorenz and I climbed up twin ladders along the port side and peered down. The sheer volume of the hold was astounding. It must have been twenty or 25 feet deep and hundreds of feet long—close to a football field in size. That’s when it really hit me: transporting all of New York’s garbage here, boat by boat, and then unloading, carting, and burying the stuff, was a phenomenally massive undertaking. The negative space of a single empty barge alongside hills so large they appear as though only the earth could have shaped them brought into sharp focus the scale of our daily ‘throwing away.’
A little over six years ago, Ukeles published a commissioned work titled “PROPOSAL FOR ONE MILLION PEOPLE TO PARTICIPATE IN FRESHKILLS PARK.” She presented the proposal to the City of New York, arguing that we might begin to heal the environmental and material degradation of the landfill and its contents only if we recognize the role we played in creating it.
She recommends that a million New Yorkers donate valuable personal items to be enshrined at the fill. “The project would link people whose garbage is sitting there—you know, whose garbage is making those hills be those hills—to the site,” Ukeles says of her proposal, which is still being negotiated. “It would help us say, ‘Yes I contributed to this’… If we don’t recognize Freshkills as our own, then it disappears just like how our garbage magically vanished from the curb in the first place.” Simply having someone else turn Freshkills into a park isn’t enough, Ukeles argues; we must actively choose to reinvest in the site with material worth.
Ukeles proposes to cast each donated item in a recycled glass block coded with the neighborhood where it originated and a barcode linking the object to the donor. The blocks would then be distributed throughout the park, reminding visitors of their hand in making, marring, and re-valuing the land. “Regardless of how beautiful a landscape Freshkills becomes on the surface,” Ukeles says, “I believe this site cannot be…transformed into something else unless many of us who made it actively and personally attempt to redeem and renew this land.”
When Ukeles presented the proposal to Freshkills Park’s two managing bodies—the Sanitation and Parks Departments—the responses were drastically different. Sanitation loved it. “When I said, ‘Pick up offerings from a million people,’ it didn’t faze them,” Ukeles practically gushes. “They organize trash pickup for eight million people every day. The commissioner even offered every garage as “cultural transfer stations” where people could leave their offering, so that the exchange process between valueless and valuable happens right there in DSNY space. But when I say ‘one million’ to the Parks Department their eyes roll up, as if it were inconceivable.”
The marriage of these two municipal organizations in stewardship of the largest park New York has built in over a century is both uncanny and unprecedented, speaking volumes about the ways in which a growing metropolis becomes increasingly entwined with the ecology it appears to have obliterated. Beyond the logistics of collecting items from a million participants, differences emerge over how this public space ought to be experienced. While the Parks Department aims to connect New Yorkers to the natural world, the Sanitation Department is, by definition, a man-made enterprise. Parks’ mission is to restore a sense of the pristine in the city, and I suspect recognizing the trashiness of Freshkills would ruin the “natural” environment they are taking great care to construct. According to the Parks Department, Freshkills Park “will turn around connotations of waste and excess associated with the landfill site by implementing technologies and land management practices aimed at reducing waste, minimizing gross energy expenditure, and nourishing the health and well-being of local ecology.” Build some bioswales, grass roofs, bird-watching boardwalks, and composting toilets and call it green. Slowing down and pondering how it was that Freshkills came into being—not just our amazing ability to salvage it, but also the depth to which our continual consumption made it so—isn’t in the plans.
* * *
Lorenz and I met in her studio in Bushwick weeks before our trip to discuss the necessary precautions and provisions. Her summer of tracking down trash in her boat had gone well. She’d paddled out to the dredging barges just off the southern tip of Manhattan where floating debris (mostly trees and giant limbs) big enough to be detrimental to boat traffic is temporarily stored; hunted for discarded lighters on Goose Island for the New York City Lighter Log, a yearlong effort to map our continual consumption by tracking down beached lighters on the city’s coastline; and explored “Manhattanhenge,” the twice-yearly alignment of the sun with the east-west street grid. By the middle of the summer, Lorenz was wearing a hat, sunglasses and flip-flops that she had found along the shore, and making prints from discarded bottles, weathered wood, and some small boats.
“The currents act as a giant centrifuge, depositing different types of trash, depending on the weight and shape, in different places throughout the city,” Lorenz told me while explaining the culmination of her summer of trash observation: a map that loosely illustrates the city currents as a garbage conveyor. “There is a traffic cone beach, a beach where lighters wash up, a beach of just plastic bottles,” Lorenz told me. But I am kind of stalled on the visual part of this project; it’s not quite right,” she added, turning away from her work. Lorenz has tried making mockups of what the currents were doing at a particular moment on a particular day; she’s mimicked Polynesian wave charts, and even tried color-coding the shore depending on the size and shape of the detritus she’s found there, but nothing has felt quite right.
After rowing a while, against the wind, back toward the Arthur Kill, we pulled the boat ashore. Lorenz bushwhacked up the bank of the North Mound to try to track down the deer we had seen earlier that morning. The road encircling the base of the mound was blanketed in marsh weeds and bottles. Lorenz surveyed the scene for a moment before explaining: “Yesterday, I was out at Breezy Point and the place looked oddly clean. It wasn’t until I located a familiar outfall that I realized the whole beach had been rearranged and that the trash had simply been carried further inland. I was so dislocated I felt nauseous. The trash I’ve been following and trying to map wasn’t the result of the ongoing tides and currents, like I thought. All summer long I have been looking at a single event: Hurricane Irene.”
Everywhere she went she saw the effects of last year’s storm. We were trudging through heaps of discarded plastic as she spoke, awash in the evidence of the new high water mark Sandy had set. Garbage bags clung to the bare branches of what I imagined was a poplar, and I thought to myself: this is neither an emergency nor a disaster; it’s just the new state of things. The interval between new high-water marks will shrink and our garbage will creep farther and farther in until it adorns everything coastal—cattails, Freshkills, our homes, streetlights, the treetops.
* * *
Our journey wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Mound Four, the largest of the man-made hills of Freshkills and the place where the wreckage of the World Trade Center is buried. After closing in early 2001, Freshkills reopened briefly at the end of that year. No other place was large enough to accommodate the fallen towers.
Lorenz and I tied up alongside a derelict pier lined with industrial water hoses and shimmied under a chain-link fence. The hike up the hill was easy. A gravel road wound through the grassy fields of ragweed and phragmites, the invasive weeds taking over the fill. As far as we could tell, the storm had not caused the cap to slough or shift. The view from the top was spectacular. On every horizon sat another factor contributing to the very ground beneath our feet—the tip-tops of Manhattan’s skyline, the gas tanks of New Jersey, the shipping barges moving in and out of the harbor, the smoke stacks, churches, rows of houses, and a few fingers of fall landscape weaving through the city and the sprawl.
I meant to bring a precious object with me to leave at the fill as Ukeles’ project proposes but had forgotten my jade bracelet at home in the rush of predawn preparation. What could I leave instead? The scarf my godmother had knit? My driver’s license? Certainly not something so easily discarded as my gloves or backpack. Lorenz and I tossed ideas for potential sacrificial items back and forth as we ate our lunch of leftover pasta. The tide rolled out and the tip of the metropolis to the north remained dark. It would be days before power, post-Sandy, was finally restored to most of the city. Three ospreys circled above us. You can tell them apart from other sea birds, Lorenz explained, by their straight-as-board wings, recessed heads, and their graceful turns. The sunlight shone straight through their rosin-colored feathers, illuminating their silhouettes from behind. We lay atop our mound of trash for a while, marveling at the sky and the carrion birds.
* * *
Elizabeth Rush’s work has appeared in Granta, Le Monde Diplomatique, Frieze, and Asian Geographic, among others. Her book, Still Lifes from a Vanishing City, about the re-appropriation of colonial city space in Yangon, Myanmar is forthcoming this winter. She is a founding member of Makoto Photographic, an alternative agency specializing in long-form photo journalism.