Becca and I gaze up through the trees and shrubs toward the summit of a great hill. A uniformed tour guide is addressing a small group a few yards ahead of us. “Imagine, this entire hill is made of refuse,” she says. Becca and I giggle.
It’s true. The dusty path that meanders between twigs, among acres of grass, past information kiosks and tent-covered displays -- it all rests on just six inches of soil, which in turn sits on layers of clay, pipeline, charcoal, kevlar, condensed earth.
Under this thick green sheath lies fifty-three years’ worth of New York city’s waste, garbage and detritus. All of our city’s plastic-lined coffee cups, Thank You bags, butane lighters, Wu Tang CD’s, candy wrappers, soda cans… our old Compaq computers and Coby headphones, broken alarm clocks and scraps of drywall and styrofoam takeout containers.
As we walk, we start to muse. This could be such a good destination for a day trip. A date. A picnic. A ball game. A bicyclist glides by and I imagine myself on a sunny afternoon sometime in 2035, whimsically crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, pedaling down Water St and boarding the ferry.
We reach the top of the hill. Faces around us are flush and coated with a glaze of sweat. It’s unseasonably hot for late September, but up ahead, there is a kiosk displaying promotional branded water cartons. We queue up and watch a middle-aged couple take the last sips of their water and toss the empty cartons in a bin. Near the front of the line, a young woman in a baseball cap ties up the full trash bag. She lifts the full bag and carries it off, down the opposite slope, out of sight.
Today, three thousand people have gathered at Freshkills Park for Sneak Peek. Half of them are native Staten Islanders, the other half come in from all four other boroughs and from southern New Jersey, just across the Goethels and Outerbridge Crossing. The park is not yet open, and is decades from completion, but today they're all invited to come to see the progress.
Years of proposals, promises, stylish press releases, news reports have all painted a promising, enlightened, almost Sant’Elia-esque picture. A grand public park, two and a half times the size of Olmsted & Vaux’s Central Park, with all the amenities: tennis courts, golf courses, skating rinks, compostable toilets, bike paths, equestrian centers, solar-powered wi-fi kiosks. Freshkills will comprise the second largest green space in all of New York City, second only to Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.
From our spot at the top of the mound we catch a glimpse of the scope and splendor of the vista. The Verrazano Bridge peeks out from above a line of trees; the unfinished new World Trade Center shimmers in the hazy distance. We swallow the last of our water, toss the empty cartons in the garbage bin, exchange a quick glance and begin to slowly walk back the way we came. As we descend the hill toward the Confluence, we begin to hear the sounds of our friends’ band, Bueno.
+ + +
Before any of us were born, before Giuliani and Bloomberg and Robert Moses, this spot used to be marshland. Freshkills was an ecologically rich watery inlet off of Arthur Kill. Back then, sanitation was a fairly new idea. Turn-of-the century New Yorkers would toss their trash in the streets and then cheer when the White Wings, the medically clad earliest sanitation workers, theatrically swept the filthy pavement. Waste was a visible affair, very different from the Garbage Men who, in 2014, steal quietly through the dead of night, sly bandits who come to make our black and white and blue bags vanish.
Until 1934, garbage mostly went straight into the ocean. A practice that began innocently enough soon became quite a nuisance for New Jersey, when toy airplanes and cans of Lux Soap would wash up on the banks. When the Supreme Court finally halted the practice, many landfills and incinerators were already beginning to pop up in the margins of the city.
These early landfills were small, unbearably stinky, and mostly full of organic waste. In a time before plastic, it was a luxury just to have a place to send the farm animals that occasionally abandoned their mortal coils in the middle of Flatbush Ave. “Away,” was the term. “Throw it away.” Away meant Rikers Island, Marine Park, Corona Park -- sparsely populated areas on the periphery of the lawmakers’ visions.
In 1947, the Sanitation Department proposed the Freshkills marshland as a dumpsite. Nearby Staten Islanders, mostly farmers and descendants of Richmond Town settlers, were voiceless in the decision, and thus it was passed. For three years, Freshkills would receive New York’s refuse.
+ + +
Becca and I make it back down to the Confluence, to watch Bueno play. Our bands have both just come back from tour, and already exchanged stories in the parking lot. They’d told us about their run-in with a dude who tried to walk off with some of their merch at a house show; we’d told them about an asshole we crossed in Detroit.
Now, up on stage, Luke rocks his hips and speak-sings in a sultry monotone, all swagger. Mikey, straight wailing on his guitar, wrenches spacious, harsh but funky dissonances out of the wood. We gather by the front of the stage, along with a few friends who ventured here from Brooklyn, many in Staten Island for the first time. A group of women sit on folding chairs giving sideways glances at their gaggle of small, jumping kids.
Ethan picks bits of roast pork out of a paper container from the food truck off to the side. Julian chats with Felicia, Nina and Stephanie snap photos of Bueno, of the crowd, of the dancing children.
I decide I want to talk to Bueno. I’m having a great time at this Sneak Peek event, this oddly positive but head-scratching spectacle, and I wonder what Luke, Joey, AJ, Mike and Mikey might think. They were all born and raised in Staten Island; four of them still live here. They sing promises of sick pizza and backyard shows, the affable feeling of a small town with a distinctly Old New York character. I’m a Brooklyn kid, and there’s a special urban romanticism that I can't help but want to cling to, whenever I sense it.
Bueno starts up a song called “Little Joe.” In the song, the titular young man hangs out on the block making eyes at girls. Everyone’s smitten by his swag.
+ + +
“Staten Island is known for two things,” Luke says, in between bites of pizza. “The ways to get off it… and the dump.”
It’s two weeks later. We’re sitting at Pier 76, a spot Luke says has among the best pizza in the borough, we’re tearing into a chicken fra diavolo pie, perfectly crispy and extremely spicy.
“We actually used to hang out by the dump a lot,” Mike reflects. “That’s where the movie theater used to be. We hung out there every Friday night in high school. And it always smelled.”
I recall old photos of Staten Islanders, arms linked, banners waving. Even in the 1940’s, when the landfill was first put into operation, it was met with harsh and vocal resistance from locals. As it grew, so did the rest of the city’s perception of the borough as a place for its refuse.
“The dump shaped Staten Island, just how it shaped your nostrils in the summer,” AJ jokes. “I had this naivety growing up. I didn’t really see what the big deal was. All this negative attitude toward Staten Island.”
“It was just always in the background,” he continues. “It became so normal. I didn’t even think twice about it really. Just looming in the distance. Maybe the dump made us who we are." They all chuckle.
As we finish up the pie, Mike’s parents walk into the restaurant. We’re introduced, and I explain that I’m writing about the landfill. His father grins and leans very close, inches from my face, his hand gripping my shoulder. “Don’t ask too many questions about the landfill,” he says. I’m giddy. “They used to pay off the night guards, and dump who-knows-what. Toxic waste. Bodies.”
+ + +
Conspiracy theorists have speculated that the great Power Broker -- that is, Robert Moses -- had a grand plan from the start. Mr. Moses was one of the most influential urban developers of all time. At the height of his powers, he hustled his way into nearly every office of urban development in New York, including the Parks Department, Transit Authority, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, State Power Commission. He helmed the construction of Shea Stadium, the UN Building, McCarren Pool. In 1939 he even successfully proposed that the World’s Fair should be held on the site of the Corona Landfill in Queens. The trash was impacted, graded, and capped with soil, and then up went the towering UFO’s, the grand gleaming globe, and the tree-lined promenade, a symbol of America’s brilliance, a spectacular international success of art, culture, engineering.
In 1951, Freshkills Landfill had been open for three years, and the time came for the next step in the project. Moses drafted a proposal, an elegantly designed two-tone packet in a sans-serif font, complete with maps and photos. The city would acquire the still-modest landfill. Homes would be built on top. The land by the shore would be zoned as industrial. The new Richmond Parkway would run down the western border. Historic Richmond Town would be preserved; some pockets of the landfill would be converted to parks.
Of these ideas, the only one to come to fruition was the highway.
And in 1964, the highway joined up with the brand new Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, another Moses joint, which connected Staten Island to South Brooklyn. Droves of South Brooklynites relocated to Staten as a result. The population of the borough tripled. Moses packed in shit loads of profits in bridge tolls and construction contracts. But the new homes and the parks were never built. The landfill stayed and it grew.
By the 1970’s and 80’s, the national morning-after, a time which the NY Times referred to as the “Era of Disposability,” American consumption was at an absolute apex. McDonalds introduced styrofoam packaging for their burgers. Polyester clothing lined the racks at Woolworth’s. Twenty barges belched their way down the Hudson River every day, each carrying 650 tons of waste. That adds up to the weight of one Empire State Building per month.
The entire operation was orderly. Positions at Freshkills were coveted by sanitation workers, who were proud of the efficiency of their work. They capped the newly lain garbage each night with soil, sprayed it with pesticides, even paved roads on top for the trucks and cranes to traverse. But the neighborhoods surrounding the landfill, whose residents drove through clouds of stench on their daily commutes, fought endlessly to see the landfill closed.
By the 90s, Freshkills was the only remaining active landfill in New York. Staten Island had long since developed its reputation as a scorned place, a depository for our abjection. “Away.” But why should Staten Island bear the burden? Why should the maligned fifth borough suffer that scornful mark?
+ + +
Robert Moses was an investor in car culture. In 1956, he claimed that Eisenhower’s freeway system “will constitute the framework in which we must live.” His New York parkways and bridges were to stand as symbols of the aspirations of American wealth and independence. A parkway was meant for a leisurely drive; a bridge was seen as an object of power and beauty.
In his essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Landgon Winner describes a series of Moses parkways connecting the city to Long Island, built with overpasses too low for buses to drive under. Winner speculates that lower-income communities, who relied on public transportation, were thus excluded from the splendor and freedom of Moses’s imagination. “One consequence," he writes, "was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, Moses’s widely acclaimed public park." Urban Planner Lee Koppleman, a contemporary of Moses’, even exclaimed, “The old son-of-a-gun had made sure that buses would never be able to use his goddamned parkways!"
It is unsurprising that alongside his enormous influence over the systems and geographies that make up New York, Moses is just as often discussed for his tyranny, racism, classism.
Something as massive and totemic as the Freshkills landfill must also run deep with its own invisible politics. The implications of our shared need for an invisible place, past the shroud, a repository for our unwanted objects to be hidden away. The fact that the voices of the people who suffered from it could be swept under the rug; the unspoken agreement among everyone else in the city that this was the best way, all the way into the new century.
Until finally, in the spring of 2001, when Mayor Giuliani, Staten Island's golden boy, fulfilled his promise. The very last barge drifted down the river and dumped the very last load. Sanitation workers covered it in one last clump of soil, sprayed it one last time, then shuttered the gates.
Mike recalls that after the landfill closed, “the smell vanished almost immediately.”
“Every now and then I feel like I still smell it,” he says, as he stabs a piece of calamari with his fork.
“It’s in your brain now.”
“Like, it’s the summer and I’m by the mall and I’m like… ‘do I smell it?’ Sometimes I think they secretly reopened it.”
+ + +
Once in a while, during moments of extreme tension, Bueno breaks out a saxophone. On these occasions, Mikey turns tomato red and strangles twisted lines and noises out of his horn, while the rest of the band sits in a hypnotic groove. The sound makes me think of that moment in New York, in the late 1970’s, at the very height of the Era of Disposability, in which James Chance’s saxophone blared like a war horn, when the Real Estate Show seized an abandoned building to protest wasted space. A moment in culture when dirt and grime and imperfection were momentarily celebrated by artists on the fringes, when homelessness and poverty and depravity were just outside your apartment window, when art scraped the throat of what was considered a violent, filthy, dead city.
Dissonance is music’s blight, its refuse. “Just listen to what he writes and how he plays … the man’s all screwed up inside,” Miles Davis once said of Ornette Coleman, one of the first explorers of a free jazz, a type of music meant to celebrate the dance between dissonance and beauty. And many years earlier still, when composers worked for the church, the sound of dissonance was drenched with moral fundamentalism. One especially notorious interval was even dubbed evil, the work of the devil. The only time it was acceptable was in passing, a tool to connect one agreeable sound to another; the type of ugly, functional thing you might willfully blot out of your vision as you walk by it on the street.
In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva’s treatise on repulsion, repugnance, and our deep compulsion to cast off the abject, she describes the paradox of our relationship with waste. “Abjection preserves what existed in the archaism of pre-objectal relationship, in the immemorial violence with which a body becomes separated from another body in order to be—maintaining that night in which the outline of the signified thing vanishes and where only the imponderable affect is carried out.” Like Freud’s anal fascination, Lacan’s emotional relationship with objects as a means of masking a perpetual anguish, she posits that the hatred of waste comes from the necessity of letting go, violently casting it from ourselves, swallowing the mourning of its loss.
Maybe the “ugliness” comes from this relationship we have with the trash. We see it, smell it, drive past it, and are suddenly reminded of our mortality, our fallibility, our nature. We’re reminded of the impermanence of everything we hold and love, knowing that it all eventually slips Away.
So with the closing of the landfill, the dormant mountain suddenly seems to take on a new light. Suddenly, “away” isn’t such a shadowy place. It begins to resemble a kind of museum, a kind of horror show. We once had a use for everything that wound up there: toxic waste, dead bodies and all. It was a part of us. We held it as we would our children or our lovers’ hands.
Mike’s dad radiated an odd joy when he spoke of the landfill. Maybe it was the pride of having experienced it, been close to it. Maybe it was just the aroma of the fra diavolo.
+ + +
The sun passes its zenith and Bueno finishes their performance, to rapt applause. AJ packs up his cymbals, and Luke grins sheepishly as Mariel walks across the stage to shake his hand.
Mariel Villere works for the Parks Department. Among her many programming responsibilities, she has organized today’s Sneak Peek. She invited Bueno, and my band, to perform here in the Confluence.
She speaks excitedly about the park-to-be. “North Park will be the first area open to the public that’s built within former landfill grounds,” she explains. She’s referring to the area around the hill that Becca and I climbed. “We’ll have a seed farm, comfort stations that have solar panels and composting toilets, and also a structure for bird watching.”
The Parks Department has organized an annual Sneak Peek for a few years to engage with the public, to share information about the progress, to get people excited. “I’m interested in programming the park with art to bring the public onto the site, and using it as a testing ground for different types of art that aren’t possible elsewhere in NY,” says Villere. “Outdoor art of that scale, in that environment, drawing on unique themes that are site-specific. And this idea of thinking about the site as a utopia, or a heterotopia, as an in-between space. It’s not a landfill anymore.”
It’s true. The sheer amount of green space, with the right approval from the community, the right team of movers and shakers, could really be an opportunity to experiment with new technologies and concepts. The project employs landscapers, architects, geologists, urban planners, scientists, green technology researchers, designers, programmers. James Corner, the designer of the High Line, drafted the grand design. They’ve already been harvesting the methane gas that the landfill naturally emits, converting it to energy and selling it to National Grid. This energy source alone currently heats over 20 thousand homes in Staten Island.
Mariel beams. “We could make a great park out of this, make a public space out of something that was blighted and really hated for so long, especially by Staten Islanders,” she says. “It was a community-driven initiative to close the landfill to begin with. The community finally sort of had their voices heard.”
+ + +
Freshkills Park does not smell. Apart from the information tents and the occasional bits of machinery poking out of the ground, all I see around me are green fields. If nobody had told me, I would never have guessed what was just underneath. No surprise I suppose-- there’s no such thing as solid ground in New York. If it’s not a subway beneath your feet, it’s a sewer, or a conduit, or a pipe, or a lost tunnel, or a secret alcove. Now that the blight has become a destination, its hidden contents take on a new function, and with it a new meaning.
The landfill was reopened twice, actually, after it closed. It opened after 9/11, and after Hurricane Sandy. During both of these moments, for a lack of a better option, New York decided to send the devastated remains of these tragedies to Freshkills. A new addition to generations of plastic army tanks and fighter planes, toy police badges and muddy American flags.
After 9/11, some families actually sued the city for neglecting to give a proper burial to the remains that might have been relocated with the rubble. “From what we know, I’m sure there are still some people that… that’s their final resting place,” AJ explains.
When I ask about the rebranding of the final resting place? “I think it’s better,” AJ says. “Now that it’ll be a park, instead of a dump.”
Luke agrees. “It’s better than being a dump.” He pauses. “It’s obviously not optimal.”
The story is just underfoot. Mariel describes to me one park proposal dreamed up by a sanitation worker: a tunnel with glass walls that the public could explore. What would such a thing be? A museum, memorial, monument, mausoleum?
Imagine a staircase that descends into the Earth. Never mind the rubble, the remnants of tragic devastation, the toxic waste, the bodies, the fear of carcinogens, the horrible smell, the decay of the abject. Imagine instead old laptops a few feet down. A few feet lower, old CD’s, cathode tube televisions. Below those, old cassettes, 8-tracks, beta-max tapes. A few feet lower and you might find trashed 12” vinyl records, transistor radios, rotary telephones. Descend lower still and you’d reach a world before plastics, a world that marveled at the birth of car culture, of rock & roll. A world of operatic tenors and musical theater, of optimism, the very beginning of America's ascent.
And then, the bottom. You’d finally reach the Earth. The number one song on the Billboard charts the day Staten Island received its first shipment of trash was “Chi-Baba Chi-Baba” by Perry Como.
+ + +
Now that Bueno is done, it's time for us to set up. Becca and I carry our guitars up onto the stage, while they unplug their equipment. I pat Joey and AJ on the shoulders. “Sick show,” I say.
“It’s funny. We used to joke about this,” Luke muses. “We’d say, ‘let’s play a show at the dump.’”
The five of them all saunter off the stage, over past the food trucks, then out to the parking lot. They’ve got a case of beer waiting in the trunk of the car.
I bend down to plug in my amp. From up on stage I’m able to get a better look at the people here to see the park. Come, come, lay down a picnic blanket, rest your ass on the fresh new Earth. Freshkills Park does not smell. The world is better now than it was. We’ll spend an afternoon Away, in Staten Island, in the sun, no dissonance in sight.