Discard Politics: How to Hijack a Moment of Hope

Tuesday, March 22, marked the tenth anniversary of the closing of Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island (this piece from the New York Times describes the day the landfill closed). Its transformation into a park is well under way, but the scale of the project — 2200 acres across four massive hills — means that the process will be slow.

A thoughtful ceremony at the site intended to signal progress already made and work yet to come. On a sparklingly beautiful day, a small group of officials and journalists gathered at the former landfill under cloud-studded skies at what was once a garbage unloading pad. The usual program of speeches was made more vivacious by the DSNY Pipe & Drum band.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case when public discourse considers discards, even when those discards have been in stasis for a decade, the event was hijacked by political opportunism.

When Robert Moses ignored the strenuous objections of Staten Islanders and opened Fresh Kills in 1948, it was supposed to stay in operation for three years. Remarkably, and despite protests from every quarter of the borough, that schedule was stretched by half a century. Eventually Fresh Kills became the only disposal option for all of New York City’s 13,000 daily tons of refuse (before private carters were priced out, it received as much as 26,000 tons a day). It grew to be the largest landfill in the world (though others have claimed that status since) and was one of only two human-made structures visible from space. (More details about the history of the landfill are in the essay To Love a Landfill [pdf] from the Wellcome Trust exhibition that opened at the end of March.)

Staten Islanders are understandably impatient to have a park in place of what was the borough’s greatest burden, most lasting injustice, and most deeply resented imposition. There is also a well-founded sense of distrust on the part of local officials, who don’t believe that the city will do right by their constituents. At last month’s ceremony, that impatience and distrust came to the fore when Staten Island Borough President Jimmy Molinaro blasted the Parks Department for not inviting his predecessor, former Borough President Guy Molinari, who Jimmy claims was the person solely responsible for getting the landfill closed. Jimmy was strident and angry, and an occasion meant as a modest but pointed gesture of optimism instead became a platform for his rant. The press, needless to say, gave him much attention, since his was the loudest voice of the day. (And just for the record, Guy Molinari was invited).

Missing from the press coverage was the creativity and resolute dedication of the Freshkills Park team. There are few large-scale development projects in the world that can boast the vision, determination, skill, or drive of the men and women who are devoting themselves to the monumental task of turning land shaped by five decades of household waste into one of the largest, most comprehensively planned urban green spaces in the world.

No one should ever forget what Staten Island had to endure. But at the same time we should not overlook the focus and energy that are being devoted to its transformation. Without them, Fresh Kills would only ever be a closed landfill — and that would merely add insult to the long injury that Staten Island already suffered.