Across the street from Floyd Bennett Field are the remnants of an earlier piece of history, a bit of beach called Dead Horse Bay. Before there was an airport here, this piece of land was a separate island called Barren Island.
From the middle of the nineteenth century through the early twentieth, this was the remote area of town where New York City shipped its garbage, to be transformed through a process known as waste reduction. Factories on the island basically boiled animal carcasses and other organic materials down into grease, oils, and fertilizer, substances that could be reused. Dead Horse Bay refers to the dead animals brought here on barges to Jamaica Bay to be boiled down into new industrial products. An entire community lived out here, isolated from the rest of Brooklyn, working in the factories that dealt with the inevitable by-products of city living.
After the waste reduction factories were closed to appease communities living upwind, there was still a landfill on the island, a landfill which closed in the thirties when Robert Moses evicted the remaining inhabitants and bulldozed their homes. The topsoil cap on this landfill burst in the 1950’s, and decades of trash started leaking into the sea.
Today scavengers flock to the beach to collect things; they find a small beach covered in old bottles, stockings, leather shoe soles, an engine or two, the occasional boat. You can hear the tinkling of glass as the water laps the shoreline.
There’s a debate online about whether these people are removing history, taking archaeological items of interest from a National Park, or helping to clean a beach. Though it seems abandoned and neglected, this bit of land is technically under the auspices of the National Park Service, and it is technically illegal to take things from a National Park.
Not that anyone seems to be paying attention. And there are streams of people taking old glass bottles and carts of random finds.
Would you like to know more? Luckily, new pamphlets are here, just in time to answer all your lingering waste reduction questions. Many have gone in the mail already, and more are about to go out soon enough. I hope you enjoy them, I think they turned out quite nice. The first pamphlet of the year covers Floyd Bennett and Dead Horse Bay, and I hope will be a decent introduction to Jamaica Bay in general.
And more importantly, would you like to see these places for yourself? Next Sunday, May 21st I’m going to do a walking tour of Dead Horse Bay and Floyd Bennett Field. We’ll look at some old airplanes and listen to the glass tinkle. Email me at sarah at sarah nicholls dot com to RSVP so I know that you’re coming. We’ll meet at the 2 train station on Flatbush to take the bus down Flatbush together at 11am. I hope you can make it.