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Barren Island’s Edge

Looking down beach towards the Rockaways. ©2007 Susan Walsh.
Looking down beach towards the Rockaways. ©2007 Susan Walsh.

Wondering what the Fresh Kills landfill might be like in a century? Head over to Floyd Bennett Field at the far end of Flatbush Avenue. Dedicated in 1930, this thrust into Jamaica Bay was the City’s first municipal airport, but it turned out to be too far from Manhattan to ever really catch on. After the more convenient North Beach (later LaGuardia) opened in 1939, Floyd Bennett was sold to the U.S. Navy. It played an important role in protecting New York Harbor during the Second World War, and the military, always reluctant to give up its territory, ran the place until 1972. 

As befitting a decommissioned airfield, the area is as flat as the bottom of a cast iron skillet. But what’s that underneath the well-seasoned surface? Rust?  

Floyd Bennett was built on and around the remains of what was once called Barren Island. The island, named Beeren for bears by the Dutch, was mated to the rest of Brooklyn and surrounding wetlands during the first quarter of the last century. The soggy fringes were built up, like so much of the city’s littoral, with landfill. An innocuous sounding word, “landfill,” considering that most of it was made up of municipal waste consisting of garbage and construction rubble.

From the 1850s, Barren Island was the rapidly expanding metropolis’s garbage dump.  By the turn of the 20th century it was the “largest, most odorous accumulation of offal, garbage, and alienated labor in the history of the world,” writes Benjamin Miller in his history of the city from the trash up, Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York the Last Two Hundred Years

Mid-century pottery shards. ©2007 Susan Walsh.
Mid-century pottery shards. ©2007 Susan Walsh.

Several hundred people worked on the island, scavenging, separating, gleaning, and processing the waste shipped in on scows. They lived there too, amid hordes of pigs fattening on the slops that weren’t reduced. “Reduction” was the then contemporary mode of disposal. Simply put, it was cooked down. Tons of tallow, other greases, and fertilizer were extracted from animal carcasses and wet garbage, resulting in products worth more than ten million dollars a year.  

With that kind of money, the relationship between corruption and garbage was a tightly rotten knot. As Miller details, more than one Alderman made his fortune on rigged contracts and backroom Tammany deals, for all the efforts of reformers to “clean” up government. Some things, it seems, never change, especially when it comes to garbage.

In Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage, William Rathje and Cullen Murphy tell us that the City had to deal with up to fifteen thousand dead horses every year. So they carted animals to Barren Island and recycled them: the bones were used for fertilizer (“artificial guano”), and for buttons, handles, pigments (“bone white” or “bone black”), and in sugar refining, where charred, ground-up bones filtered raw cane juice. Sugar refiners–the city’s most profitable manufacturing industry from 1870 to the First World War according the Encyclopedia of New York City–also used old blood. (Sweet!) Tallow went into candles and soap and was important in the chemical industry, and, sweeter still, the perfume industry. It was as grease-based a civilization as we are now a petroleum-based one. Flesh, hides, hair: all had their uses. Hooves made gelatin as well as Prussian blue dye. Everything was used but the “neigh.”

Green garden hose seemingly on surface of water. © 2007 Susan Walsh.
Green garden hose seemingly on surface of water. © 2007 Susan Walsh.

“A reduction plant was a truly foul industrial enterprise,” write Rathje and Murphy, “of a kind that most Americans can no longer either remember or imagine, much less tolerate.”  Readers of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, about another nineteenth-century reduction industry that boiled down fat, may have some idea: “It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.” 

Not anymore. Barren Island is gone. The old factories for reducing, for making fertilizer and glue, have vanished. The last residents were evicted by the late 1930s to make way for airport expansion and Robert Moses’ dream of a belt of highways and parkways girding Brooklyn and stapling the boroughs to the rest of Long Island. The community’s houses, bars, and school were demolished along with the factories. There’s barely a sign of that once-thriving, filthy world in what’s become a part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Barely a sign, that is, until you look down.

The best place to start is on the shore of the evocatively named Dead Horse Bay when the tide is out. The wide trail starts right across from the Flatbush Avenue entrance to Floyd Bennett Field, just before the Gil Hodges Bridge. The trail almost immediately divides into three, and the rightward-branching path leads through fields of phragmites and scrubby brush. JFK jets pass overhead, but it’s rare to see other people on this forlorn edge of the borough. When the trail arrives at the beach, you can see a marina filled with summer boaters across the water. 

Glass and bottles along shoreline. © 2007 Susan Walsh.
Glass and bottles along shoreline. © 2007 Susan Walsh.

But it’s the beach that you’ll notice. It’s littered with the usual driftwood, shells, and horseshoe crabs along the wrackline, but also with wooden heels of old shoes and the twisted forms of salt-preserved shoe leather, with mud-filled bottles proclaiming that “Federal Law Prohibits Sale or Reuse of this Bottle” (a post-Prohibition exhortation), with automobile parts, and, yes, with the occasional kitchen sink.

The encroaching bay is carving away at the shoreline to expose the past. You’ll find bones of some of those dead horses, osso buco-style cross-sections, but that’s about the only sign of organic waste. Everything else is human-made: the muddy beach is thickly studded with bottles, pieces of ceramic and globs of rusting metal. Someday archeologists will be crawling all over the place, staking out their diggings over this midden of an ancient civilization. 

What they will note is that before our Age of Plastic, absolutely everything came in bottles: colas, potions, and booze, obviously, but also Neptune, Clorox, Excelsior, Rose-X, Vicks, Milk of Magnesia, and Bovril, to name some of the readily identifiable. From inkwells to gallon jugs, a surprising number of these bottles are in remarkably good condition. Since glass, like ancient pottery, turns out to be quite durable, especially older bottles, the beach is a collector’s dream.  

But, befitting the eerie atmosphere, most everything is chipped, broken, jumbled, and rusting away, making for an oozy shoreline of shards and fragments. It most definitely isn’t a beach for bare feet. Head south towards the tangle of fallen ailanthus trees: the exposed bank shows layers of trash. 

There are passing boats in the channel separating the old island of bears from the island of rabbits (a.k.a. Coney). Gulls and terns float through in the air, and the occasional northern harrier hovers above the dunes. Otherwise it’s a quiet place. But if you listen to the lapping waves, you can hear a faint tinkling. It’s the susurration of a glass beach. Our old garbage is stirring.  


Matthew Wills

Wills is a contributing writer and reporter for the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2007

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