Jamaica Bay’s Rebirth:
Despite Years Of Industrial Neglect, Boro National Park Makes Comeback By DOMENICK RAFTER A gentle breeze whisks through the reeds, pushing the waters of Jamaica Bay with it. Gliding along the water, a flock of ducks, lined up like an invading army, eyes the surface and occasionally drops their heads below water, dipping into the bay like feather-clad biscotti in a flood of cappuccino. The quaint sounds of nature are interrupted by a roar and a screech. A Europe-bound Airbus A380, the world’s largest jet airliner, cuts a swath through the sky like a bullet, rising from the main runway of John F. Kennedy Airport; its engines screaming, piercing eardrums. The startled ducks take flight, as if chasing the jetliner in anger for disturbing their afternoon. It is at that moment, you remember: this is New York City. The contrast of a coastal marshy lagoon and the Western Hemisphere’s largest urban area tells the story of a battle between man and nature that man has long been winning. But local residents, businesses, and city and federal officials, tired of watching a natural wonder devolve into a cesspool, aimed to turn that tumultuous coexistence into one of symbiotic cohabitation – and they are succeeding.
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A Victim of Progress Jamaica Bay is one of the city’s largest bodies of water. It makes up 10 percent of the total square acreage of the entire city. It’s geographically not a bay, rather a lagoon, connected to Lower New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean through the Rockaway Inlet. Before man and industry conquered its shores, it was a habitat for shellfish and one of the most profitable oyster farming areas in the world. Pollution changed the scene at the bay at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, around the turn of the century, and by 1921 the city banned the consumption of the bay ’s oysters . The ban stemmed from the belief that Jamaica Bay’s shellfish contributed to a typhoid outbreak a decade earlier. Over the next century, the environmental situation at the bay deteriorated rapidly. Jamaica Bay became living – or perhaps dying – proof that nature was no match for the progress of man. The advent of the automobile meant New Yorkers could travel to Long Island or New Jersey for recreation; construction around the bay, especially of Floyd Bennet Field and JFK Airport, killed thousands of acres of marshland. In Brooklyn, the city used the shores for landfill, and dredgeing destroyed the underwater environment. In the 19th Century, fertilizer factories on Barren Island, currently the site of Floyd Bennet Field, added to pollution in the bay. In 1991, a pipe at a sewage treatment facility in the Rockaways burst spewing 68 million gallons of raw sewage into the bay causing a local ecological disaster. Recently, Hindus from nearby Richmond Hill have used the bay as a place to make offerings, but those often become flotsam junk that wash back ashore and end merely as litter. Park rangers
Revitalization of Jamaica Bay may be the greatest opportunity to attract visitors from surrounding urban areas. have since increased their enforcement to stop rituals along the bay, which mainly take place on Cross Bay Boulevard on the Broad Channel side of the Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge. Jamaica Bay’s geology also hinders its ability to handle pollution. Most of the bay is not much deeper than the average backyard swimming pool. Water in the bay only escapes through the narrow Rockaway Inlet and it often means pollution gets trapped by currents; good for the ocean, not so good for the bay.
Turning Brown Water Blue Acknowledging that nature’s loss to man would be mutually destructive; man turned the tide and focused on repairing the damage done to the bay. In 1972, Congress created the Gateway National Recreation Area, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior, the cabinet agency that also oversees national parks and national monuments. Much of the Jamaica Bay is covered by this area, which also includes parts of coastal Staten Island and Sandy Hook, N.J., closing it to development. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge was also established in 1972, covering nearly all of the western half of the bay and some on the east. The refuge is the only one within the National Park Service and has become home to species of birds and other wildlife not often seen by city-dwellers. But right up to the present day, Jamaica Bay’s notoriety for being polluted has remained, often erroneously because of stereotypes of urban bodies of water or misconceptions of how much has been done over the years to clean it up. During the 1990s, Jamaica Bay’s negative reputation was featured during an episode of The Nanny , when Sylvia, the mother of Fran Fine, played by Flushing-native Fran Drescher, eats shellfish from the bay, only to break out in an ugly rash – a throwback to the Typhoid-diseased oysters of 80 years prior – and later brings her daughter a lobster from the bay, which is the size of a dog.
But the truth is, Jamaica Bay didn’t have mutant lobsters or disease-ridden clams. In fact by the end of the 20th Century, it barely had any shellfish or mollusks at all. Increased nitrogen levels, a byproduct of sewage treatment, nearly wiped the bay clean out of its marshes and its wildlife. In the last decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers underwent an ambitious marsh restoration project. In 2006 and 2007, 48 acres of marshland were restored in Elders Point West and Elders Point East – just south of Spring Creek and Howard Beach – and Yellow Bar, west of Broad Channel. In 2009, oysters were reintroduced to the bay to help clean the water and reduce nitrogen levels that have long suffocated life there. Further, the Environmental Protection Agency announced last month Jamaica Bay would now be a “no discharge zone,” a designation that would prevent boats from dumping sewage into the bay. The city has invested millions into water treatment plants in Brooklyn aimed at decreasing the dangerous levels of nitrogen that have severely damaged the bay’s ecology. But the return of Jamaica Bay’s natural wonders has not been entirely without its problems for man. As Diamondback Turtles return to lay their eggs in the bay, they have surfaced in some inconvenient places. At least twice, groups of turtles rising out of the waters to lay their eggs have forced the closure of JFK’s bay runway. But their return has been seen as a sure sign cleanup efforts have succeeded in leaps and bounds.
New York National Park “What we need now is a vision for the bay,” said Dan Mundy Jr., Vice President of Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers. That is just
what they might be getting. Eyeing a future of being the city’s main destination for recreation, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar met in Brooklyn Oct. 27 to sign an agreement outlining federal and city obligations in the bay. Secretary Salazar said the bay, and the larger Gateway National Recreation Area, was a “priority” of the Obama Administration because they are focusing on bringing people in urban areas, home to a majority of the country’s population, to the outdoors in cost-effective ways. Part of that would be to utilize natural resources within cities themselves. “We are asking ‘how do we connect urban populations to the outdoors?” Salazar said. “New York may be the greatest opportunity we have.” In the future, the Bloomberg administration said it would revisit transit options connecting the city to the bay, including buses and ferries to places like Floyd Bennet Field and Jacob Riis Park. In 2010, with the help of parkland advocacy group Trust for Public Land, a portion of the waterfront near the Cross Bay Bridge at Beach 88th Street was transformed into a bayside park, one of only a few along the oft-forgotten bay shore of the Rockaway Peninsula. This is welcome news for many living around the bay. “I encourage more visitors, I encourage more people coming out to Rockaway,” said Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway), who represents most of the Queens portion of the bay. “People don’t realize the hidden treasures [here]. I think we need to take advantage of that.” Mundy, who is also president of the Broad Channel Civic Association, noted that was already happening. “I’ve never seen so many people use [Jamaica Bay],” he said. The basins that dot the shoreline in Brooklyn and Queens are filled with pleasure boats headed for the bay on a typical summer day. The rise in usage has led to traffic jams, usually reserved for the bridges over the bay, now common in the maritime channels in Howard Beach and Mill Basin. Frank Charles Park in Howard Beach is home to a sandy beach on the bay’s shores that was often avoided by park goers and is now crowded on a typical warm afternoon. This, Goldfeder said, is good not only for the bay, but also for the economies of the communities surrounding it, proof that man and nature, once at war in the waters of Jamaica Bay, can not only live in peace, but have a productive relationship. “It’s more than being about people coming to our neighborhood, it’s about people coming into our neighborhood and visiting our stores, eating in our restaurants, and shopping in our boutiques,” he said. Reach Reporter Domenick Rafter at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125.
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