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Coney Island's Untamed Creek, Caught Between Past & Future

The Coney Island Creek, a much-loved waterway in Brooklyn, may be transformed by several future projects. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger examines the Coney Island Creek as part of a mini series exploring NYC's lesser-known bodies of water.

At the mouth of the Coney Island Creek, a man with a cross wades out towards the Verrazano Bridge, stepping gingerly through lapping waves. His path is intersected by a barefoot fisherman, stalking his prey with a homemade net. It is mullet season, and soon it will be time for bunker. Brant geese are overhead, arriving from Canada by the thousands for the winter. Their migratory home is overlooked by the fire pits of several homeless camps, which have occupied a city park for over eight years.

These intersections are just one piece of the untamed landscape of the Coney Island Creek, a tidal estuary that hides a staggering array of wildlife and wild activity behind the fences and overgrown lots that line its banks. Perhaps best known for its boat graveyard and sunken yellow submarine, this two-mile long waterway is also a popular destination for birders, fishermen, kitesurfers, drone operators, preachers, explorers and divers.  "Educational, spiritual, environmental, cultural—there's a lot going on there," said Charles Denson, the director of the Coney Island History Project. Yet despite this array of visitors, "a lot of the people who live right here don't even know that the creek is there. They don't know what it is," said Denson. "There is an amazing history that is not generally known."

Coney Island Creek once separated the Coney Island peninsula from Brooklyn's mainland, but it was partially filled with debris in the first half of the 20th century. It now dwindles down from Gravesend Bay before dead-ending mid-peninsula at Shell Road. The broad mouth of the creek is lined with parks, while its shallow head is bracketed by empty lots, warehouses, and an MTA train yard. Over the last half-century, the waterway has been polluted by raw sewage and industrial waste, but in recent years it has seen a remarkable recovery, according to Charles Denson, who has watched it evolve from "an open sewer" known to locals as Stink Creek and Perfume Bay into "one of the most beautiful spots in New York."

"I used to go down there as a little kid and explore everything that washed up there," said Denson, who has been documenting life on the creek since the 1960s. "It was kind of a vast wasteland, but it just had this pull, this mystique that was overwhelming for a kid." More than 40 years later, he is now working on a book and feature film about the history of the creek, and has installed placards along its shoreline tracing out its story. Although some sections of the inlet are still littered with flotsam, "it's been cleaned up in the last 20 years. Actually, since the Clean Water Act, it's really improved so much," said Denson. "I kayak there all the time and it is just amazing how it's been transformed."

Those who live along the creek agree. "I just love it here. We are out here every day," said Gia Concheiro, whose home is situated mid-creek, with the water lapping a few feet from her back door. She and her daughter have built handmade traps for crabs, and catch bait fish by the hundreds, which they feed to their cat. Geese, swans, ducks, spear fishermen, and paddle boaters have all cruised through their backyard. "I've never seen such beautiful things in Brooklyn like that," said Concheiro. "I love to be near the water."  

The banks of the creek also host several elaborate homeless camps, handmade from scrap wood and tarps. Some have been active for years, while others are temporary structures hidden in empty lots. "It's a very good home," said Oleksandr Ivanytsya, a Ukrainian immigrant who lives in a cinderblock hut facing the waterway. He shares the small building with four other men, who have nicknamed their campsite the Russian Reservation. "My friends sleep on the beach," said Ivanytsya, but he prefers the quiet solitude of the creek. "Good villa. No chicken house, this."

Unfortunately, the bucolic landscape of the Coney Island Creek may soon be radically altered by several large construction projects. During Hurricane Sandy, the ocean surged up this inlet and "was the main source of inundation" into surrounding neighborhoods, causing widespread damage. To address this, the city has proposed creating a tidal barrier and wetlands at the mouth of the creek, to reduce damage from future storms. The proposal has its detractors in the community. "Anyone who fishes there thinks it's a terrible idea," said Denson. "The plan right now calls for culverts and flood gates, which is an outdated technology and definitely wouldn't work on the creek." 

At the end of the creek, where public waterfront access is severely limited, several new construction projects are being planned on large swaths of open land along the shoreline. These include a storage warehouse that is replacing the former headquarters of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, and recently announced plans to sell the development rights for a 17-acre remediated National Grid brownfield. What these proposals will mean for the wilderness of the creek has yet to be determined, but Charles Denson sees a different future for the waterway. "My feeling is that it could be passive, it shouldn't be mechanical," he said. "It's going back to undoing what development did over the years."

At the wide mouth of the Coney Island Creek, looking out onto Gravesend Bay and the Verrazano Bridge, the waters are used for fishing, kitesurfing, boating, and baptisms. 

In Coney Island Creek Park, fishermen wait to cast their nets onto passing schools of mullet. The city has proposed building a dam at this section of the creek, with a bridge connecting both shores. 

The water here is currently home to a wide variety of marine life, including bunker, bass, flounder, and fluke who swim in from the ocean. Fishermen use nets, seines, and poles to catch their prey. 

One of Charles Denson's historical placards, which line a walkway in Kaiser Park. A fishing platform has been built here by the city. 

East of these two parks, a communal dump lines the south shore of the creek. Discarded televisions, luggage, and boats are common along the inlet's coast.

On the opposite shore, Calvert Vaux Park sits at the mouth of the creek, named for the famed landscape architect who drowned nearby. The park is also home to Jerry Bianco's Quester I submarine, which sunk here in 1981.

The park, formerly known as Dreier-Offerman Park, recently underwent a $40 million renovation that built new boat launches, beaches, and trails. "This whole area was completely cordoned off for years," said one local birder. "We were accessing it through a hole in the fence."

New paths now cut through native plantings. "Only in the last week or so has the fence come down," said the birder, although in 2007, a rare sighting of a western reef heron brought visitors here from around the United States.

In the adjacent Six Diamonds Park, a homeless camp with shopping carts and fire pits looks out over the marshy bay. Homeless camps are on the rise in city parks, according to the Times, because "the city's homeless population is at a record high."

Sunken boats, accessible at low tide, line the edges of the creek near Six Diamonds. Homemade piers and wooden planks allow access to the ruins and the water. 

This area also fronts a Public Waterfront designated by the Department of City Planning and maintained by Home Depot. It is a popular destination for photographers. A tarp shelter has been built on the shore nearby.

Gia Concheiro's house is the only home situated directly on Coney Island Creek. Her backyard is open water. "We came right after Sandy, so there was water in the basement," she said. 

Concheiro has caught crabs, bass, and bait fish off her back porch. "I wish it was a little cleaner, but for what it is, it's not bad," she said. "I've never seen so many bugs. It's like country stuff."

Across the creek from Concheiro's house, a homeless camp has been built into an overgrown empty lot. The shed here is made of plywood and logs, and has enough room for several guests.

Further east along the creek, National Grid recently remediated this 17-acre toxic brownfield, which was once home to the Brooklyn Borough Gas Works, a "former coal-tar processing and gasification facility," according to a remediation report.

The cleanup included dredging hazardous waste from the creek, capping the creek bed, and creating "a 50-foot-wide ecological buffer zone" around the property. The lot is now on the market. "I think this screams large-scale retail," one broker told Crain's.

Across the creek from the National Grid site is a fenced off no-mans-land that was once home to the Brooklyn Union Gas Company's headquarters. Recently demolished by Keyspan, the area is now popular with swans and graffiti artists.  

Pilings are being driven into the ground here for a new storage warehouse that will soon rise at the creek's edge, a common use for waterways around the city. 

The end of the creek, overshadowed by a Property For Sale sign. The fate of the creek is in limbo, but Charles Denson plans to continue advocating for its natural areas. "It's really important to show the creek as an asset, instead of a liability," he said. "And there's a lot of love for it, actually, for this waterway."
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