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Following Hook Creek Through Ghost Towns and Wetlands

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The waters of Hook Creek wind their way from the head of Jamaica Bay through maritime villages, ghost towns, and a vital wetlands. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

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

Idlewild, Snake Road, Meyer Harbor, Meadowmere. Over the past century, Hook Creek has wandered through these obscure landmarks on the far eastern border of New York City, passing ghost towns, dumps, and ruins, while replenishing hundreds of acres of wetlands. In recent decades, however, government agencies have been chipping away at this Queens estuary, while neglecting the communities around it. "It's kind of a push and pull between manmade things and nature," said Barbara Brown, chairperson of the Eastern Queens Alliance, but residents here, many of whom live in close harmony with the water, are hopeful for its future. "People are seeing this is an area that we need to preserve."

Hook Creek meets the head of Jamaica Bay after winding past Meadowmere and Warnerville, two of the most isolated neighborhoods in New York City. Surrounded by water and located adjacent to John F. Kennedy International Airport, each home here has at least one boat docked out back, while jets scream overhead every five minutes, their ghostly wake turbulence snapping the air. In 2010, the city finally installed sewer systems in these communities, after more than 60 years of delays. It has not alleviated the danger from rising sea levels and increased storm surges. "This home has been under water at least 15 times," said Larry Seaman, a 71-year-old eel fisherman who was born and raised in Meadowmere, his house facing Hook Creek. "About half of the houses in this area are empty now because of Sandy. That was the worst tide I've ever seen."

Meadowmere and Warnerville have been called "the Land of the Lost," but Meyer Harbor, the community where Larry Seaman used to live, truly has been lost to history. Located just across Rockaway Boulevard, where Hook Creek now flows through a marshy wilderness, this collection of 27 houses was only accessible via a wooden boardwalk built over the water. "I had my chickens back there, my ducks, my geese. I had it made," said Seaman, who bought a home in the community as a teenager. Several families lived there year-round, their houses raised on pilings above the marsh, while others maintained vacation homes in a section called Hungry Harbor. Residents hunted ducks and trapped muskrats, possums, and raccoons, closely attuned to life on the water. "It was like a little fishing town," said Seaman, who met and married his wife in Meyer Harbor. "I loved it back there. It was really unique."

The ruins of Meyer Harbor are still scattered throughout the marsh. In 1963, Robert Moses tried to run the Nassau Expressway through these homes. "They came in and squashed them," said Seaman. "I still have nightmares about that." Houses were seized and razed by the government, using eminent domain. Porches, steps, sinks, and bathtubs were left behind, remaining hidden in the phragmites today. However, the expressway over Hook Creek was never completed and today, street traffic snarls alongside the Five Towns mall, whose spacious parking lots look out over this forgotten ghost town. "They never used my property for nothing," said Seaman, now a widower, as he leafed through his old wedding photos. "I could have been living back there now."

Northwest of Meyer Harbor, Hook Creek courses through the Idlewild Park Preserve, an embattled 346-acre area (PDF map) that includes the 160-acre Idlewild Park and 111-acre Hook Creek Wildlife Sanctuary. "The park is what's left after they built JFK on 5,000 square acres of wetlands," said Barbara Brown, whose group has helped create a boat launch and hiking trails there. Next, the Eastern Queens Alliance will focus on the restoration and preservation of Idlewild Park Preserve, said Brown, and next fall the park will break ground on a $5 million environmental education center, which will be located near "The Mecca Of Cricket In NYC" and a new trail system exploring the salt marshes. "When you are inside the park, except when a plane flies over, you don't have a sense that you are in an urban area. It's a nice place to sit and relax and enjoy the environment."

The improvements at Idlewild Park have been made in spite of the efforts of a long list of government agencies. Sixty-six acres of wetlands were given away to the Port Authority in 1965 for the Nassau Expressway. The park was used as a toxic waste dump in the 1970s by the Sanitation Department. The Economic Development Corporation sold off 25 acres to developers in 2010. Today, the park is still littered with abandoned cars, boats, and a city dumping site, while subject to rules created by the agencies that run JFK. "We've been fighting with the Port Authority and the FAA," said Brown. "They decided there were trees in the park that were in the way of their runways. Three hundred twelve full grown trees were taken out of the park." 

Over the past 150 years, Jamaica Bay has lost an enormous amount of its wetlands habitat, creating an increased risk for storm surges up Hook Creek. During Hurricane Sandy, water pushed all the way into Rosedale, the neighborhood bordering Idlewild Park, damaging numerous homes. "When you see what happened in New Orleans, where 50 percent of the wetlands were destroyed, those are critical lessons that people need to learn," said Brown, but she has seen the city allow projects near Hook Creek that could increase the threat of flooding. Recently, a piece of city land between Idlewild Park and JFK was leased to a bus company. "They took up all the vegetation and put in asphalt," said Brown. "On the one hand you are saying you need communities to be resilient, but then you are taking away the things that make them resilient. You are taking acres of land that could help and you are paving them over."

For Larry Seaman, who has watched New York City become disconnected from its waterfront over the course of his lifetime, Hook Creek's losses are part of a larger decline in maritime traditions. "I've been working on this bay since I was a small child," said Seaman. "There's not too many people working on the water anymore. It's like the covered wagon. Its days are over."

Meadowmere, at the eastern edge of New York City, is a community with strong waterfront ties. "You're in Hook Creek right now," said George Moschatos, the owner of Argo Boats. "When I was growing up, Hook Creek was this whole area."

Boats are moored behind nearly every house in the neighborhood. The dock behind Larry Seaman's home holds his son's duck hunting boat and decoys. "I used to walk out of this house with my shotgun and cross Rockaway Boulevard to go duck hunting," said Seaman. "If I did that today, I'd be in handcuffs."

Seaman is currently catching Dungeness crabs, but he and his son are well-known eel fishermen. "I'm a commercial fisherman. I've been a commercial fisherman my whole life. I used to catch eel, crab before Gateway National Park came along." 

Across Rockaway Boulevard from Meadowmere, a mall parking lot looks out over the marshlands of the Hook Creek area to Meyer Harbor, where Larry Seaman lived in the 1960s.

The ruins of Meyer Harbor are still hidden in the overgrown marshlands. "The boardwalks went through the whole settlement," said Seaman. "It was nice back there. You never had to lock your door. Before anyone came across the marsh you could see them."

The front steps of an old home in the Meyer Harbor ghost town. "I loved that house. I put my heart and soul into that house. I didn't want to move out of there." Recently, politicians called for the Nassau Expressway to be completed

The old canals of Meyer Harbor, which once were lined with homes. "They didn't have a choice. They were told they had to get out," said Seaman. "I said to my wife, 'I'm going to chain myself to the house.' But the way the law is…"

On Snake Road, which cuts through the Idlewild Park Preserve, the twisty road often leads to car crashes. "I used to pedal my bike up Snake Road and trap muskrats in the salt ponds," said Seaman.

The wetlands of the Idlewild Park Preserve stretch out toward Rosedale, a community along the northern stretch of Hook Creek. "I used to go water skiing in there," said George Moschatos. "The Wetlands Act protects all this."

The homes of Rosedale are directly under the landing path of JFK, and face the waters of the Hook Creek Wildlife Sanctuary. Residents there were "caught off guard" by a "flash flood" during Hurricane Sandy, according to the Times Ledger, although the area floods frequently. 

Rosedale's streets dead end in marshland, and several tributaries and streams lace the neighborhood. "There's a whole bunch of creeks," said George Moschatos. "Hook Creek is a term that is used for the whole area."

This cricket field in Idlewild Park is located near the future location of the Idlewild Park Preserve Environmental Science Learning Center. "That's our major project that is coming up," said Barbara Brown. 

"We've been putting in a trail system so people can get down to the salt marsh," said Brown. "You have quite a vantage point there."

The wide salt marsh of Idlewild Park, with the ubiquitous plane flying low overhead. "In the shallow water, the bottom is covered with oyster shells," said Brown. "So you realize the marsh is healthy."

Some areas of the park and marshland are still home to abandoned cars, boats, and illegal dumping sites. Still, though, "we believe that it's a valuable ecological resource to the neighborhood," said Brown.

A fire pit looks out over the runways of JFK and a city dumping ground in the park. "It's a mix of Parks Department and DOT," said a team of scrappers perusing the mountains of debris. "We looking for that heavy metal."

Planes flying low over Idlewild Park are guided into JFK by a peninsula of lights built out into the wetlands. "They want to extend a runway further out towards the marsh," said Barbara Brown. "Initially, they said they wanted to remove 800 trees from the park."

Further east, the Eastern Queens Alliance collaborated with the Parks Department to create this canoe launch onto Hook Creek. "It's our goal to have a community paddling group," said Brown. 

Many of the homes in Rosedale are situated on the water, but few have backyard docks. These houses face a long section of Hook Creek that divides New York City and Long Island. 

This Rosedale dock is one of the few in the area that access the creek. "People are not going to go out and buy a canoe or kayak unless they have that experience," said Brown. 

Further north, the creek travels underground along Hook Creek Boulevard, tracing the border of Queens, before briefly reemerging in a trash-filled ditch behind a housing complex. "How far it goes, who knows," said Larry Seaman.

The headwaters of Hook Creek emerge here, flowing from a pipe into a shallow canal behind a Walmart. "It was the name of something 100 years ago," a security guard behind the store said of Hook Creek. "This is the very end. There's no more after this." 
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