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In Long Island City, a Community Seeks to Reclaim an Urban Wilderness

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The Montauk Cutoff, a recently decommissioned elevated train line in Long Island City, Queens, may soon be redeveloped as a public space. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, a look at the possibilities for the Montauk Cutoff in Long Island City, Queens.

Up on the old Montauk Cutoff, the last freight train has passed and nature is now having its way. Pokeweed, mugwort, and white snakeroot have sprung up between the railroad ties, mimosa trees and oak saplings are growing from abandoned sidings, and feral cats sun themselves along the line's six bridges, which connect the Newtown Creek with the Sunnyside Yards. Constructed in the early 1900s, the cutoff runs just one-third of a mile, traveling above some of the last industrial streets in Long Island City, Queens. After a slow decline of many years, it has now been deemed inefficient and unnecessary, and most of its length is being decommissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has put forth a call for ideas, hoping to find someone to reimagine its future. "It's pretty rare to have a segment of track like this one," said Aaron Donovan, a spokesperson for the MTA. "We'd love to see a broad, creative range of ideas come forward."

On a recent winter night, a diverse crowd of locals gathered in a bike shop near the north end of the tracks, to discuss their vision for the future of the cutoff. "As a community, we are going to put together a stronger proposal than if we are competing with each other," announced Paula Segal, one of the meeting's organizers, before leading a read through of the MTA's Request For Expressions of Interest (RFEI), with responses due in February. Many attendees had already been up on the tracks for a tour hosted by the MTA, and a brainstorming session soon followed, with suggestions for the viaduct ranging from a dog run to a food court to a film shoot location. By meeting's end, the group of assorted professors, architects, construction workers, and train fans had decided to organize themselves into the Cutoff Coalition, and to work together on a larger proposal for the MTA. "It's a pretty exciting opportunity to shape the built environment," said Segal, the director of 596 Acres, an organization which has helped reclaim and revitalize many vacant publicly-owned spaces throughout the city. "Whatever happens in this little 4.2 acre strip is really going to impact the rest of the neighborhood."

The Montauk Cutoff's glory days as a uniquely isolated urban oasis, ripe for illicit activity, may soon be a thing of the past. Over the last decade, as freight traffic decreased, several sections of the line, hidden from view behind trees and fences, became home to a wide variety of unsanctioned uses, including guerrilla gardens, cat shelters, hillside shanties, and an artist's campsite complete with a bonfire pit. A walk along the viaduct in 2008 revealed an overgrown haven, surrounded by industry and lined with unused tracks, rusted bridges, graffiti covered warehouses and other slowly crumbling infrastructure. "There used to be homeless camps all over the wooded sections. There were six or seven different well-embedded encampments," said Mitch Waxman, the historian of the Newtown Creek Alliance.

Today, the cutoff is a somewhat less wild space, at least for humans. The guerrilla garden has taken a lease from the MTA, becoming the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, and the homeless camps were all left empty after Hurricane Sandy flooded the area in 2012. Several well-established footpaths still lead up to the cutoff, but few people appear to access them on a regular basis, other than adventurous teenagers and one brave commuter, who was recently spotted riding a fat-tire mountain bike down the line. "I got the bike a year ago. Sometimes it can be a real challenge," said the biker, who pedals to work every day along the tracks. "Biking in the snow is kind of a hard slog. You really have to push down hard." Other than these rare visitors, the viaduct has mostly been surrendered to nature. "I gotta say, I personally don't see many people crossing up there," said Mitch Waxman. "Most of the people I see accessing the tracks are young Urban Explorer types, or railroad fans who know that there is an inactive section of tracks."

The recent decommissioning of the Montauk Cutoff has also put it on the map of secret event organizers, and just a few nights after the Cutoff Coalition was formed, a much different crowd gathered at an anonymous street corner near the Sunnyside Yards, awaiting instructions on how to access the train line. The clandestine meetup was organized in part by Sextantworks, a group known for hosting parties in water towers and dinners in sewers. Following a purposefully convoluted path, invitees slowly progressed down empty streets to the edge of the train line, before scaling up the side of a bridge onto its embankment and walking down the tracks single file, in pitch darkness. Few of the guests seemed to know where they were. "This is part of the Newtown Creek?" asked one, when told of the nearby Federal superfund site. "I've never been here before." A hidden prohibition-style speakeasy was the destination, where bespoke rye cocktails were poured and an accordion player in a red bowler hat serenaded the disoriented audience. It was a much different vision for the future of the neighborhood. 

Abandoned or little used train lines across the city have become increasingly popular in recent years, from the cavernous Freedom Tunnel to the wild Rockaway Beach Branch, which some Queens community members hope will become a High Line-style park called the Queensway. However, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is quick to dispel any similarities between the Montauk Cutoff and the city's best-known elevated tracks. "Before anyone jumps in and says this is going to be another High Line… it's not quite that same scenario," said Donovan. "The land around it is completely industrial, whereas the High Line is in the middle of a residential area." However, the MTA is open to all proposals, and has several suggestions for how the tracks could be used in the future, including an urban farm, museum, or sculpture garden. "We are hoping that folks will come to us to share ideas of what could potentially be done to reuse this area," said Donovan. "We would like to have some group come in that can act as a caretaker of the space." 

One major consideration for anyone interested in making a proposal is the MTA's expectation that groups using the tracks will be responsible for a significant portion of their upkeep, from landscaping and security to snow removal and maintenance. "There's no electricity, there's no sewer hookup, no water, no gas, so that would need to be taken into consideration," said Donovan. "Whoever would seek to reactivate the space would need to maintain the bridges over the streets, so they would have to repair any corrosion or spalling of the concrete, and any vandalism that could occur." After a hundred years of rumbling freight trains, floods, rain, and snow, this might prove to be a very expensive caveat. The Montauk Cutoff is currently in rugged condition, and several of its bridges, which date back to 1908, have significant cracks visible in their concrete walls, eroded by the elements. 

Another challenge facing any plan to create a public space along the cutoff lies at both of its ends, which are home to two of New York City's largest and most complicated Superfund sites, the Sunnyside Yards and the Newtown Creek, highly toxic areas still used for freight traffic and heavy industry. For Mitch Waxman, who has explored these sites extensively for The Newtown Pentacle, returning some semblance of nature to this blighted area would be an appropriate outcome. "I've been talking about an LIC greenway…more of an elevated garden," said Waxman. "To me, it is an area that is inextricably linked to Superfunds, and the idea of putting a big green sponge up there for storm water, and to alleviate the heat island effect in that part of Long Island City, is a massive opportunity." With the MTA's call for ideas open until February, it remains to be seen what the fate of the cutoff could be. 

The Smiling Hogshead Ranch, a 1.5-acre community garden at the north end of the Montauk Cutoff, started as a guerrilla gardening project more than four years ago, built on top of an unused spur of tracks. 

The ranch now leases its property from the MTA. It is the only section of the Montauk Cutoff at street level, and its boundaries are included within the MTA's request for ideas. Any proposals for reactivating the cutoff will determine the future of the ranch.

The ranch is built on top of long-abandoned tracks, which have been paved over at street level. Within the garden, they are used for composting and vegetable crops, including garlic, fava beans, and ground cherries.

Before becoming a garden, the spur was an overgrown wilderness, as seen here during a 2007 visit.  "Pre-Hogshead, the triangle of land that they are on used to be homeless camps and an illegal dumping ground," said Mitch Waxman.

Farther into the ranch, an outhouse with a composting sawdust toilet looks out over a larger gathering space, as the tracks continue their rise above street level. "For the ranch, we did not have to treat it like an architectural project at all," said Segal. "It's a pretty simple intervention, in terms of raised beds and trees."

This hidden area of the ranch is a popular place for teenage visitors, who also enjoy strolls along the cutoff. "The tracks go down for a ways. It's really far," said this pair. "It's really beautiful, though. It's safe to walk on them, and it's a nice walk."

Feral cats are a common sight along the tracks. There are several large collections of handmade cat shelters hidden in the overgrowth along the length of the cutoff, including one with at least 10 cat homes. 

The old spur is completely overgrown as it approaches the higher track level. In the fall, it is home to a variety of birds, plants and trees—a rare spot of wilderness in this highly controlled industrial environment.

North of the Smiling Hogshead Ranch, the tracks cross Skillman Avenue and descend into the Sunnyside Yards. "This section of track had been used by freight rail only. It was not used by passenger trains," said Donovan.

Trains traveled across the Sunnyside Yards to the Arch Street Yard, which was also recently closed down by the MTA. "The last freight train rolled over the tracks in March and after that, we decommissioned the old yard," said Donovan.

The tracks continue south toward the Dutch Kills and the Newtown Creek, passing underneath the Long Island Expressway, where a wide footpath leads down the embankment to the street, underneath the constant flow of traffic.

Railroad spikes and broken sections of track are littered across the embankment, which also shows signs of frequent visits by graffiti artists.  

The cutoff continues above several busy streets, before turning into an isolated, quiet area surrounded by industry, including a lumber yard, scrap yard, and concrete plant. 

Dust from the concrete plant covers a long-abandoned siding at the edge of the Dutch Kills, a tributary of the Newtown Creek. Industry still lines the banks of the creek, which has very few public access points. It is unclear if the MTA will accept a proposal that grants access to the waterway.

On the Cabin M Bridge, the last bridge along the cutoff, the Dutch Kills is in full view. The MTA's boundary for the current RFEI ends here. "That whole area was just one big, giant swamp in 1900. There was literally nothing there," said Waxman. "The earliest reference I have found to it being called the Montauk Cutoff is 1906."

South of the Cabin M Bridge lies the still-active DB Cabin Bridge. A wooden pier once linked the two, and was still partially accessible in 2007, a peaceful oasis above the polluted waters. It is now inaccessible and collapsing into the creek. "I don't know if it was Sandy or just 100 year old lumber," said Waxman, of the pier's demise.

A homeless campsite once existed near this shoreline path, which now connects the two bridges. "He was an artist. He used to hang canvasses so that they would touch the water at high tide and all the poison would soak up into his canvasses," said Waxman. "It was weird stuff, like red devils and burning middle eastern cities."

The DB Cabin Bridge at sunset, a quiet haven in the center of an industrial landscape. Hurricane Sandy's storm surge pushed up the Newtown Creek and into the Dutch Kills here, before flooding the Midtown Tunnel. "I haven't seen a sign of any homeless camps along Dutch Kills since Hurricane Sandy," said Waxman. "I imagine they either flew the coop or got washed away."

In the evening light, the old tracks take on a different tone. "You know, once you get rid of a section of track it's very difficult if not impossible to ever get it back," said Donovan. "We hate to completely abandon any segment of track, in the off chance that deep in the future, we may potentially need it again." 

As darkness falls, geese and fish congregate on the Dutch Kills, one of the liveliest places along the Newtown Creek for wildlife, which will hopefully continue to have a home along the Montauk Cutoff. "You can certainly characterize this as a unique piece of property," said Donovan.

At night, the dark tracks have few visitors, outside of crowds brought for curated events. "It's a unique property, but it's one that has challenges, and so that's why we wanted to go out and tap into the creativity of the whole community," said Donovan.

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Montauk Cutoff coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]