Once A Landfill, A State Park Will Soon Bloom

On September 5th, Governor Andrew Cuomo led a group of journalists, city and state officials, and New York residents to the site of a large former landfill on a peninsula in East New York, Brooklyn. With the polluted waters of Jamaica Bay behind him, Cuomo proudly announced the imminent conversion of both the former Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue landfills into a brand new, 407-acre state park.

The new park will be named Shirley Chisholm State Park in honor of the late Brooklyn politician, educator, and child welfare activist who represented New York’s 12th Congressional District from 1969 to 1983 as the first black woman elected to the U.S. congress. Chisholm was also the first African-American major party candidate for president of the United States in 1972. A graduate of Brooklyn College and former director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville, Chisholm is properly regarded as a legendary figure in New York politics.

When it opened in 1956, the Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill became home to thousands of tons of demolition debris. The Fountain Avenue landfill opened six years later in 1962, and quickly became a dumping ground for asbestos-ridden incinerator ash, construction rubble, and standard residential trash. The landfill also acquired a reputation as a mafia dumping ground, with Gambino family associate Roy DeMeo supposedly burying dozens of his dismembered victims in the dump’s expansive landscape of garbage throughout the 1970s.

Soon after, the Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill would close in 1980 with the Fountain Avenue Landfill following suit in 1985 — receiving 8,200 tons of trash a day during its final year. Despite their obsolescence, the former landfills repeatedly caught fire and sent nauseating stenches into the surrounding neighborhoods. On top of this, runoffs from the landfills sent toxic materials like pesticides, PCBs, and heavy metals into Jamaica Bay, further polluting the marshland which is home to four separate sewage treatment plants.

After years of community anxiety about the landfills’ adverse effects on their health, the city agreed to properly restore the sites by “capping” them with plastic, clay, and 1.2 million cubic yards of soil. John McLaughlin, Managing Director of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Infrastructure and Research, then began employing some of strategies he had used several years earlier alongside landscape architect Leslie Sauer at Fresh Kills, the infamous landfill-turned-park in Staten Island. Namely, the DEP began a $250 million ecological improvement/remediation project on the landfills in 2002, planting 35,000 trees and shrubs — over 90% of which survived.

According to Governor Cuomo, the first phase of Shirley Chisholm State Park will arrive by summer 2019, featuring “10 miles of trails for hiking and biking, waterfront access for kayaking, pop-up environmental education, a pier with shade structure, picnic areas, concessions, comfort facilities, welcome and way-finding signage and a park office.” Phase one will cost $20 million, and public meetings regarding the second phase will began in the fall of next year.   

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