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Exploring One of the East River's Disappearing Untamed Spaces

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The informal parkland of Hunter's Point has been used by locals for many years, and is one of the last remaining wild spaces on the East River. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

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

As the snows of a prolonged winter melt away, signs of life are slowly returning to one of the East River's last wild spaces. Along the rocky hills of Hunter's Point—an overgrown promontory at the mouth of the Newtown Creek—a dense forest will soon become verdant, luring in adventurous Long Island City residents. For many years, dog walkers, high school students, graffiti artists, and Urban Explorers have helped transform this unnatural landscape into an informal parkland, a rare patch of unplanned, undeveloped New York waterfront that has been a source of inspiration to artists for decades. "It's evocative, it's very evocative," said Daniel Campo, author of The Accidental Playground, during a recent visit to the site. "The fact that there are so few of these spaces left really brings out all kinds of emotions."

Unfortunately, this may be one of the last seasons to enjoy this man-made wilderness, and to look out over midtown Manhattan from these feral bluffs. Slated for development since 1983, construction has finally crept up to the edge of the Hunter's Point hills. Queens West has already transformed most of Long Island City's shoreline into a series of homogeneous glass boxes, and Phase 1 of the Hunter's Point South development project is well underway. A request for proposals for the final phase of this project was released in May 2014, and this fertile landscape of demapped streets, demolished buildings, forgotten art installations, abandoned campsites, and crumbling industrial relics is now scheduled to become a highly manicured park and 3,000 units of housing. "Appreciate it now, because its not going to be here long," said Campo, an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at Morgan State University. "You are seeing the physical remnants of another New York."

Wild waterfront areas like the Hunter's Point hills are becoming an exceedingly rare resource throughout New York. Many have been reclaimed by the city and turned into formal parks in recent years, or have been built over with luxury towers. Along the shoreline of Brooklyn and Queens, just a handful of significant sites still cling to existence. Coney Island Creek retains several untamed spaces, Pier 5 at Bush Terminal is all that remains of a crumbling industrial wilderness, the fenced off Bushwick Inlet has been earmarked for a public park, the empty lots of Hallets Point are slated for a megaproject, and "The Astoria Mountain" may soon be bulldozed.

For Daniel Campo, the impending destruction of the Hunter's Point hills strikes close to home. His 2013 book The Accidental Playground documented the vibrant life of a similar space in Brooklyn, chronicling how Williamsburg residents reclaimed the abandoned Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal (BEDT) train yards on the East River and turned them into "the Brooklyn Riviera." This informal, unauthorized parkland lasted for many years, serving as a skate park, a private beach, and a marching band rehearsal space, before it was eventually developed into the Edge Condominiums and the East River State Park. "One person's derelict lot is another's oasis," writes Campo in his book. "Vacant sites have great potential." Campo began documenting the BEDT site in 2000, and has seen many similar "accidental playgrounds" disappear in the ensuing years. "It seemed like New York had an infinite capacity to create these kinds of spaces, but we are reaching a critical point," he said, while walking through the forests of Hunter's Point. "They are all being developed."

The Hunter's Point waterfront in Queens (see map below) was once part of the same BEDT system that was documented in "The Accidental Playground," before it was also abandoned and left to be taken over by the public. Its long history as an industrial area began back in 1852, when the waterfront reefs here were filled in with the rubble of a demolished hill, pushing the neighborhood's shoreline far out into the East River, according to a history by the Brooklyn/Queens Waterfront group. This landfill created room for new factories, oil refineries, train yards and the National Sugar Company, once "the largest sugar refinery in the country," according to the book Long Island City, and the home of Jack Frost Sugar. In the first half of the 20th century, the Queens waterfront and the Newtown Creek were some of the most active industrial areas in the nation, and public access to the shoreline was scarce.

This area of Hunter's Point later became home to a Daily News printing plant and a beverage distribution warehouse, but by 1987, much of the site's coastline had been overtaken by nature and covered in "wild-running greenery," according to the Times. Its hills, trees, weeds, and debris inspired the arts organization Creative Time to move their annual Art on the Beach series here that same year, leaving the Battery Park City landfill behind. Over the course of two summers, the group invited the public out to enjoy this undomesticated waterfront for the first time, curating numerous site-specific sculptures and performances in the landscape, including flaming towers, tribal rituals, poetry readings, and a labyrinth filled with dancers. Even at that time, however, Creative Time recognized that the site was a rarity, especially when creating large-scale public art installations. "It is so difficult to find a space that is large enough, in the wilds and inherently interesting," Cee Brown, the executive director of Creative Time, told the Times in 1987. "This is one of the last in the city."

It is remarkable that, 28 years later, the Hunter's Point hills are still in the same untamed condition, and have been used for alternative recreation by locals for years. A stream of visitors were observed at the site recently, over the course of several days, making their way past the fences that surround the southern tip of Hunter's Point. However, little evidence remains of the site's industrial and artistic history. One of the only reminders of its past life is an abandoned float bridge, a hulking relic of the Pidgeon Street train yard. The street itself was demapped long ago, the train yard closed down and the old float bridge is now slowly sinking into the East River. It is scheduled to be removed as part of the final phase of Hunter's Point South, erased from the landscape like much of Long Island City's industrial heritage. "This is an endangered species," said Daniel Campo, gazing out over the float bridge to the Empire State Building. "It's not an accident that people are attracted to this," he said. "It's giving people a real connection to the past that they can't find elsewhere."

Dog walkers at the northern border of Hunter's Point's informal parkland, within view of the latest Hunter's Point South towers. "I've being walking my dog here for four years," said one local. "It used to be a lot harder to get in, so I cut a hole in the fence."

Much of this area's post-industrial landscape is covered in rubble piles and unnatural hills. "This might be the last place like this in New York, this big and empty," said the dog walker. "Pretty great place, huh? Not for long. This will all be developed soon."

From atop a rubble pile, the skyline of midtown Manhattan is visible, past shallow ravines and forested bluffs. "Are there any other places like this left in the city?" asked one visitor, who was out for a Sunday stroll.

The northernmost rocky outcropping of the site is a peninsula situated near a Water Taxi landing. It holds an abandoned flagpole and several rough stone benches and tables. In 2008 this area had a barbecue, chairs, and a homemade swing.

The peninsula looks back onto the cove where the float bridge of the Pidgeon Street Yards still stands. The float bridge was used to unload train cars arriving on barges.

Down at the float bridge cove, graffiti artists and Urban Explorers have left a mark. In 2008, the bridge was in slightly better condition, its platform covered in heavy wooden planks.

Inland from the float bridge, an old trailer has been claimed by squatters and high school students. "It's a secret spot," said one young couple walking nearby. "Our friends told us that people come down here."

Inside the trailer, layers of graffiti and piles of clothing have been left behind. A VHS camcorder, slide projector and zip gun were abandoned nearby.

On the hills near the trailer, a thick grove of trees has sprung up. "These trees are amazing. You can imagine what this would look like in six or eight weeks," said Daniel Campo. "And it's right here in the harshest of places."

The trees are rooted in 40-foot-high mounds of rubble, seeking purchase amongst large concrete boulders, on almost vertical cliffs. In the last seven years, they have grown tremendously.

The hills provide an excellent high vantage point of The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and the United Nations. "Where do you get this perspective, with this hillside?" asked Daniel Campo. "This view is an endangered view."

At the base of the cliffs, the jagged material of the landfill is revealed. Bricks, stones, and construction debris are jumbled into the East River.

A solidly built campsite is located at the southern end of the Hunter's Point hills, made from pallets and a local tree trunk. It did not appear to have been recently occupied.

Down in the campsite, a shovel and wheelbarrow demonstrated the solidity of the structure's construction plans. Bags of concrete mix were left empty nearby.

Along the southern border of Hunter's Point, the Newtown Creek flows out into the East River. This Federal Superfund site is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States, and flooded this area during Hurricane Sandy.

This landscape will soon be dominated by residential towers. On the shore opposite Hunter's Point South, demolition has already begun to build Greenpoint Landing. "The industrial waterfront is slipping away," said Campo. "How do you hold on to that working class fabric when you are surrounded by luxury condos?"

· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Hunters Point coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]