Sunday, December 3, 2000
Forget a tree. Soon, a forest will grow in Brooklyn.
In East New York, to be exact.
Atop the former dumps on Pennsylvania and Fountain Aves. now grow mugworts, fragmites, some switch grass here and there and the occasional ailanthus, the tree that grows in Brooklyn.
The greenery doesn’t hide the rusted hulks of tire rims, the orphan gravel piles and stray dogs.
Nor can it eliminate the PCBs, other toxic wastes and pollutants, construction debris and household trash buried up to 130 feet high across the landfills’ 400-acre expanse before the dumps closed in 1985.
But onto this patchy landscape, ringed by Jamaica Bay’s splendor, an unlikely collection of interests has conspired to bring, of all things, a forest.
Starting in June and over the next four years, Brooklyn will host an experiment in landfill restoration, said John McLaughlin, director of ecological services for the city Department of Environmental Protection and the man behind the forest design.
The city will denude this acreage of its poor excuse for vegetation, cover the land with an environmentally approved plastic liner to cap the old landfills, then ship or truck in more than 1.3 million cubic yards of sandy soil.
The new soil – from a foot to 4 feet in depth – will provide the base for the forest.
McLaughlin’s design calls for 20 species of trees – 18,000 in all – 25 species of shrubs – up to 23,000 of ’em – and 30 species of grass and wildflowers across the two landfills.
All will be plants that grew on the coastline before European settlement.
In place of the landfill stench that used to waft over East New York, the aroma of hollies, birch, cedar, hickory, maple, oak and pine trees should fill the air.
There also will be trails for hiking and bicycling, picnic areas and perches for bird watching.
The price is expected to be $221 million.
McLaughlin, 40, was born in Astoria, Queens, and raised in Brooklyn. While other kids wanted to grow up to be Presidents or ballplayers, McLaughlin knew from the time he was about 10 or 11 that he would devote his life to horticulture.
“My aunt had a house on Long Island, and every summer I would go out there and plant a vegetable garden and do the shrubs and the trees,” he said. “I loved it.”
He has lived in Brooklyn since his family moved to Greenpoint when he was 2 years old. Today, he’s married and lives in Bay Ridge.
He said the East New York forest is by far the biggest project of its kind ever tackled in New York City.
“It’s a legacy to leave on to future generations,” McLaughlin said. “I’ll never get to see the final picture of what it’ll look like because it’ll take many, many years for the trees to grow to real appreciable size. But, if I could leave it on to my children or somebody else’s children to see, then that’s a wonderful thing.”
The forest, said Leander Shelley, a community leader who served on the citizens advisory committee that oversaw the restoration of the landfills, is a dream come true.
“I grew up here in East New York in the 1950s,” said Shelley, 57. “I remember the odor and the stench from the landfill, all the garbage being processed out there and dump.
“Now, people will be able to interact with nature here, in a setting like Central Park.”
The parties in this environmental reclamation are the residents who suffered because these landfills were their neighbor, the city DEP, the National Park Service, which owns much of the land as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
DEP will be responsible for monitoring gas emissions and maintaining the closed landfills for up to 30 years.
A century ago, Brooklyn did not reach as far as the spot where the landfill is located, McLaughlin said. The city’s growth led to the filling in of salt marshes in the area, first for human use, then for waste disposal that began in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We’ll just set the table, then have nature do the rest,” McLaughlin said. “We can’t duplicate it 100%. If you put [in] the scaffolding of the primary species, then through nature on its own, dispersal of seeds from wind or migrating birds, other species that go with that community would also come in.”
The hollies and other plants will provide food and nesting places for mammals and other wildlife such as hawks, owls and migratory songbirds.
“If they plant a forest that is available for people to use, it would be a beautiful spot to hike and look over Jamaica Bay,” said Steven Clemants, vice president of science at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “With the height of that landfill and the view, it would be gorgeous. There’d be an amenities value to people.”
Shelley can’t wait.
I’ll be the first one walking up there when it opens up, or try to be, anyway,” he vowed.
GRAPHIC: TARA ENGBERG John McLaughlin (l.), director of ecological services for the Department of Environmental Protection, and Geoffrey Ryan stand on what used to be a trash dump. TARA ENGBERG Bird’s-eye view of 400-acre landfill that was shut in 1985 and is being converted to forest.