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A Dispatch From the Last Wild Days of Hunter's Point South

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After a final summer, the wild landscape of Hunter's Point South, Queens is now being demolished to make way for apartments and a new park. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, the end of the wilderness in Hunter's Point South, Queens.

As the year draws to a close, the final days have arrived for a unique, unplanned wilderness in Long Island City, Queens. Demolition crews are now clearing the land in Hunter's Point South, where a wild forest grew untended for the past three decades, high above the shores of the East River. Workers began removing the trees and meadows here in September, and an official groundbreaking was held in November, launching the second phase of a megaproject that will bring 5,000 new apartments and a strip of waterfront parkland to the neighborhood. This next phase of development, many years in the works, brings the remarkably long run of this untamed space to an end and closes the door on a final year-long cycle of transgressive action.

As of the first thaw of March, the Hunter's Point South site was still largely dormant and provided few hints of what was to come. "I think for me in the winter, there was an anticipation and an imagination of what it would be like in the future," said Daniel Campo, reflecting on this earlier exploration. Over the next few months, a thick blanket of flowers, grasses, and vines would cover the site, luring in a variety of species, including doves, dragonflies, and bees. "To see how thick it had grown is this incredible, exciting experience," said Campo, whose book The Accidental Playground explored a similar overgrown site on the Williamsburg waterfront. "Trying to walk through that and having that visceral connection to the landscape is something we don't get to experience in city parks."

Alongside this explosion of plant, bird, and insect life, a wide range of human activities also began to reappear at the Hunter's Point South site. As spring progressed into summer, the forests and meadows grew wilder, bringing back more and more neighborhood residents, from sunbathers to picnickers to teenagers climbing the rusting float bridge and adults congregating at sunset on the crumbling docks. This expansive site had been used by the community for many years as a sort of unregulated, informal parkland, and this summer offered an important alternative to the more formal park recently built to the north, where visitors crowded the astroturf ballfields and concrete walkways. Hidden behind fences to the south, much smaller groups of adventurous locals would sometimes find themselves overlapping in the overgrowth, but solitude was easy to find. "Today more than ever, people are looking for that outer, beyond-the-city, beyond-the-rules experience. And this was that place," said Campo. "You are in this sort of anarchic, wild, overgrown space for the summer, but there is the city behind it, which reminds you of the order and structure and progress of New York."

Late in the summer, another series of informal human activities also emerged in the site with Chance Ecologies, a project bringing together a group of over 20 artists to engage this wilderness during its final season. (Chance Ecologies will be on view at the RadiatorArts Gallery in Long Island City from Thursday, December 17th, 2015, to January 22nd, 2016.) Curated by Catherine Grau, Stephen Zacks, and myself, Chance Ecologies provided a framework for artistic interventions and actions in this fertile landscape, and during the month of August, artists hosted a series of unique events onsite, exploring its history and ecology through walks, talks, and archaeological digs. Artists also documented the site for future generations, with photographs, drones, kite mapping, 360-degree immersive videos, and a seed library. It was a last season of creativity. "Artists today are up against a lot of things, and part of it is that there are not these places where you can easily experiment in a big, open, semi-public space. There are very few of them," said Campo, who created and led a walk and discussion as part of Chance Ecologies. "For many people, these spaces spark their imaginations."

"I've done it myself, gone hiking over in that site, walking up and down through the trees. And it's one of those reactions like 'Oh my god, a little piece of rugged nature. Can't we just keep this?'" said Thomas Balsley, the landscape architect whose firm, in association with Weiss/Manfredi and ARUP, designed the park that will soon be built along the southern edge of Hunter's Point. Despite his enthusiasm for the wild landscape, Balsley's design has proposed to reshape much of the existing shoreline, smoothing its steep cliffs down to gentle slopes, establishing a formal trail system, and removing the existing plant life, which would be replaced by native species. "It's going to be translated into a more contemporary form, but we hope the experience is going to be similar," said Balsley, who also designed the nearby park to the north of the site, completed during the first phase of construction. "For people looking for a more passive, pastoral, contemplative kind of experience, that's what Phase Two is going to offer."

In September, one week after the conclusion of the Chance Ecologies events, work crews began preparing Hunter's Point South for construction. Currently, the site is an unrecognizable demolition zone, with heavy machinery sifting through the layers of plant life and landfill, creating enormous mountains of rubble, soil, and cracked asphalt along a once-verdant shoreline. Where lush meadows and mature woods recently lived, a vast rocky plain now stands. It is hard to imagine a green environment taking root here once again, amongst the shattered tree stumps and uprooted flowers, but Balsley paints a cheery portrait for the future. "It's going to be a very rich habitat, very much like the kind of thing we might have seen if we had visited the site 300 years ago," he said, describing his design. "We've created a new marsh, a tidal marsh…marsh grass will come up the slopes and will begin to give way to tufted hair grass and other native grasses, as well as native shrubs and small native trees, on the uplands of the marsh slopes." He estimates that the new park will be completed in two years.

As the next phase in Hunter's Point South's long history as a man-made landform begins to take shape, and as decades of plants, debris, and landfill are stripped away, the peculiar reality of our relationship to the natural world comes into sharper focus. The summer of activities in these forests and fields may have been warm and green, but the space was always unnatural, its polluted layers condensed above the ruins of a long-forgotten sugar refinery. The birds, bees, and wild plants may have been thrillingly alive, but it is clear now that they only existed with our permission, and at the whim of a slow-moving bureaucracy. "Here is a place that we are calling nature, in a way, and it is completely unnatural," said Campo. "You have this sort of elemental experience, but it's this completely multi-layered, palimpsestic, accidental landscape. I believe that our idea of what nature is, particularly in dense urban spaces, has to evolve."

The record-breaking heat of November and the balmy days of December remind us that nothing in New York City is truly natural anymore, because no part of the planet has escaped human interference. Climate change and rising sea levels will soon be the dominant forces reshaping the shoreline of the city, overshadowing the impact of manmade landfills, hills, forests, marshes, and parks. "We have killed off nature—that world entirely independent of us which was here before we arrived and which encircled and supported our human society," wrote Bill McKibben, author of the visionary 1989 book The End of Nature. "A child born now will never know a natural summer, a natural autumn, winter, or spring. Summer is going extinct, replaced by something else that will be called 'summer.'" The final "summer" is now over at the vanished wilderness of Hunter's Point South, and it is clear that the seasons there will never be the same.

In the cold March winds, Hunter's Point South had the appearance of a desolate post-industrial wasteland. "One of the special things about these places is that they have this much more pronounced 12-month cycle, that we maybe don't experience in the same way on a city street or even in a city park," said Daniel Campo, observing the site.

An old fence line, most likely constructed during the site's days as a concrete plant and newspaper printing facility, cuts through a thicket of trees that has been growing here for three decades, along landfill cliffs high above the East River. "Why they created all that fill there, I don't really know," said Balsley. "We looked at the original old, old maps and we didn't see any real topography there."

In winter, scant signs of human activity could be seen at the site, other than this swing and a nearby lean-to. "All of that will go, and we will have this structured park," said Campo. "And the things that happened there won't happen, and you will get some different kind of more structured recreation."

A view of the site's long, rugged plain, stubbled with forgotten construction debris and demolished industrial buildings. New York's largest sugar refinery once stood here, and later, a New York Daily News printing plant. The ruined remains of both were still visible onsite throughout the year.

By spring, the site had been transformed into a green oasis, hiding the debris and luring in local visitors. "You go from the near total desolation of winter, to the use of the site in the middle of the summer, like it was an actual park," said Campo.

As dense foliage returned, so did birds, bees, and humans. "Looking at that view, it was just about inevitable that the condition would not stay the way it was," said Campo.

In the woods, informal trails snake through an underbrush filled with mugwort and knotweed. "The horticulturalists would say this is a completely terrible place to try and grow plants, and nothing is going to survive here," said Campo. "Maybe we need to have more respect for those species that survive these harsh conditions."

Several different species of birds, including finches, sparrows, doves, and vireos, flitted through the wide variety trees that called the site home, which included honey locust, mulberry, crabapples, and callery pear.

Sunflowers, foxtail, white heath aster, and wild carrot grew throughout the site, which hosted dozens of different species of plants, insects, and animals.

As spring turned to summer, an old float bridge and dock became a central gathering space for visitors, hidden from view by unnatural hills, reminders from the site's industrial heritage. "It's got its own history. It goes all the way back to when it was a tidal marsh, or a marshy area, before there was any filling or industrialization of that shoreline," said Balsley.

Dog walkers, hikers, and curiosity seekers of all kinds found their way to the site, some independently, some drawn by Chance Ecologies.

A kite mapping workshop on the old docks overlapped with a group of teenage skateboarders, as various groups blended together in the wilds.

The old float bridge of the Pidgeon Street train yard, popular with many visitors. "We are arguing to leave it there," said Balsley, of his plans for the future park. "And we have an interpretive overlook, telling the story again about the transfer of the rail cars over to rail barges."

Sunbathers in the mid-summer heat, on a rocky peninsula high above the river. "It's very steep slopes. It's not stable. So that's all going to be reshaped," said Balsley, who envisions turning this landform into an island. "We're creating New York City's next island. And when it's not at high tide, that's all, again, tidal marsh."

Many of the artists of Chance Ecologies focused on documenting the site as it was, a unique blend of wild plant life and human interventions. An archive of videos, photos, soil samples, seeds from the original site are now being exhibited at a gallery in Long Island City.

During the events of Chance Ecologies, Daniel Campo led a walk and talk through the site. "I have always felt that part of the draw for these spaces is their doomed quality, their elegiac qualities," he said. "We are drawn to them in part because they are wild, and in part because we know that they may not be there tomorrow or next week or next month, and it gives all of our activities some kind of greater imperative."

"To me, what this says is enjoy the moment. It's kind of a simple message, but when you have these places and these moments, savor them, enjoy them, and get the most of them," said Campo. "Because what comes next may be better, or may not be better…but it will be different."

As the shoreline of the East River continues to be transformed by glass towers, the few remaining open spaces on the waterfront will soon be gone. "We see it in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, we see it there in Long Island City," said Campo.

By November, the wilds of Hunter's Point South had been reduced to a vacant field of rubble, as the land was prepared for its next human reshaping.

The layers of the site are now being sorted into various types of debris—soil, rock, metal, concrete, asphalt—revealing a catalog of what had been lost and buried beneath the ground during a century of human activity.

A few of the old trees remain at the edges of the site, though most have already been torn out. "What will come will be more formal, more structured, more designed," said Campo. "Eventually the sleeping city woke up, and it woke up with a vengeance."

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Exploring One of the East River's Disappearing Untamed Spaces [Curbed]
· Hunter's Point South coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]