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Finally, A Park Grows in Brooklyn's Last Industrial Pocket

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Bush Terminal Park, the first public park on the Sunset Park waterfront, opened recently after many years of labor. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger visits Sunset Park's Bush Terminal Park.

The gritty, inaccessible waterfront of Sunset Park is one of Brooklyn's last industrial strongholds, its cobblestone streets lined with active train tracks, its shoreline home to fenced off warehouses and piers. But the neighborhood is currently being transformed by several large-scale redevelopment projects, spurred on by a plan created in 2009 by the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC). New businesses and higher rents have brought a different demographic to Industry City, while the Brooklyn Army Terminal continues to remake its campus and is beginning a new $100 million renovation project this year. Sandwiched between these burgeoning complexes, on a series of formerly abandoned piers behind Bush Terminal, a rare bit of green space recently opened to the public, offering nearby residents access to their waterfront for the very first time.

Over 20 years in the making, Bush Terminal Park quietly opened this past November, with little official fanfare. Though modest in scope and design, this park represents the near-culmination of a long struggle by neighborhood residents, who have persevered to create the community's only waterfront park. "I've heard stories from people who grew up here who weren't even aware that it was a waterfront community, because they never went to the waterfront," said Jeremy Laufer, the District Manager for Sunset Park's community board. "This is a community that is in desperate need of parks," said Laufer. "The community insisted on a waterfront park, because we have this heavy manufacturing area, which isn't necessarily conducive to public health."

For decades, this section of the New York harbor was an abandoned brownfield. The once bustling piers of Bush Terminal were closed down in 1974, filled in with toxic sludge and left to become a wildernessA grove of apple trees took root, matured, and bore fruit, while concrete platforms and wood pilings slowly rotted away and collapsed into the water. It was a unique but largely inaccessible site, unknown to the general public. "This site was found in the late 90s and money for the park was announced in 2005 or 2006," said Laufer. After a lengthy, multi-million dollar remediation process, the new park's design ended up incorporating numerous elements from the landscape that preceded it, including trees, piers, and two large man-made tidal pools. "It is now one of the few forested areas in all of New York City that is on our harbor," said Laufer. "I consider it to be a triumph of nature, because people didn't touch it for 30 years and life came back."

After several delays, the park was opened in late 2014, just in time for the winter season. Covered in ice and snow, it has yet to be discovered by the neighborhood, though local bird watchers have started to frequent its paths, observing for the first time the forest, pools, and bays which serve as a habitat for wintering red-breasted mergansers and Eurasian wigeons. "It's one of the best locations in New York City for seeing waterfowl," said Bart Chezar, a Brooklyn-based environmental steward, who is working to reintroduce ospreys and American chestnut trees to the park. Bald eagles and harbor seals have been spotted along the shore, and in addition to the park's pre-existing natural areas, it now includes a wetlands restoration project, alongside a 20-foot-tall osprey platform installed at water's edge. "There are no osprey in the harbor right now, so one would have to come from outside the harbor to nest there." 

Unfortunately, compared with other waterfront parks recently built by the city, Bush Terminal Park is decidedly lacking in amenities and imaginative design elements. Despite delays, its opening appears to have been premature, and the park is still incomplete. A picnic and concession area remain fenced off and closed to the public, while the stumps of unbuilt lamp posts line its walkways. The only entrance to the park, currently, is a poorly marked gate near a Bush Terminal guard booth, followed by a long walk to the park itself, where the layout mostly consists of a variety of dead-end asphalt paths. "It has been scaled back significantly. It was supposed to be about 22 acres. Right now it is 11 acres," said Laufer. "They took out various elements of the park that they had promised us in the past, such as Pier 5, a children's playground, an environmental center, and secondary access. We are still fighting for all those things."

Like many of the waterfront parks built by the city in the past decade, Bush Terminal Park does not include any significant access to the water itself. Instead, visitors are kept away by sturdy metal barricades and mounds of rocky rip rap, with warning signs sloppily spray-painted nearby. A refreshingly different approach is offered up just outside the park's entrance on Pier 5, which was initially supposed to be part of Bush Terminal Park. Here, Scape Landscape Architecture has been working with Bart Chezar to design an intertidal laboratory for marine life titled "Deconstructed Salt Marsh." Their proposed plan for Pier 5 would allow full public access to the harbor's shifting waters, while also facilitating the return of oysters, eel grass, and other beneficial species that could help revitalize this section of the waterfront.

The Pier 5 proposal has already received international attention, winning an award from the New York chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and appearing this February on the PBS series Earth: A New Wild. "This neighborhood has had… overfishing, massive coastal development, and pollution," said series host M. Sanjayan during the episode. "New York's toilet basically overflows into this water." However, if the plans for Pier 5 become a reality, "the rough texture of this broken landscape can be a perfect mimic for a natural shoreline," according to Sanjayan, who is the Executive Vice President of Conservation International. "Suddenly, a wasteland becomes a wild and vibrant neighborhood."

The piers behind Bush Terminal, seen here in October 2007, were abandoned in the 1970s and left to become an overgrown wilderness. "It looked like a meadow with a forest," said Jeremy Laufer. "Some of the underlying conditions weren't so safe, but it looked like a natural area."

The Bush Terminal Piers once extended 1,200 feet into the New York Harbor, before the space between several piers was filled in by polluted landfill. As trees and wildflowers took root, the pier and bulkhead system slowly collapsed into the New York Harbor.

A grove of apple trees grew in this toxic brownfield, which was created by "the unauthorized disposal of construction and demolition debris, as well as liquid wastes, including oils, oil sludges, and wastewater," according to a 2006 city press release.

The wild areas of Bush Terminal, seen here in November 2009, were slowly stripped away during a $36 million remediation process, which included the largest brownfield grant awarded by the state, up to that date. Several trees remained standing, though most plant life was removed.

Two feet of soil were placed over the landfill, along with passive gas vents, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Six inches of soil were placed around the apple orchard. "A lot of the trees actually did die," said Jeremy Laufer.

Bush Terminal Park in November 2014, a few days after opening to the public. The crumbling piers have been covered with asphalt paths and a rocky shoreline.

The trails in Bush Terminal Park mainly lead to dead ends, providing panoramic views of the New York harbor, but no official access to the water.

Where a collapsed pier once extended far out into the bay, the park now has a rocky wall looking over a watery expanse. Warnings to stay away from the shoreline are spray-painted throughout the park.

The once wild fields behind Bush Terminal have been replaced by two synthetic turf ballfields.

Meanwhile, at nearby Pier 5, seen here in July 2014, the untamed landscape of the old Bush Terminal continues to exist.This collapsing pier is home to mussels, oysters and horse shoe crabs, attracted by its tidal beaches and broken pilings.

"If we can create these little oases where we have these intertidal areas," said Bart Chezar, "it's good not only for the animals, but for our living with them, in our urban environment."

Students often visit Pier 5 to participate in hands-on projects, including this day camp, which explored the waterfront after a visit to the BioBus mobile laboratory. Bart Chezar is also working with the New York Harbor School to create oyster and eel grass colonies along the pier.

Back at the decidedly less wild landscape of Bush Terminal Park, the New York Harbor School has also expressed interest in using the park's tidal pools to raise oysters.

Though the park is now covered in snow, it is a popular destination for birders. "The birders love that area because it is such an open view of Gowanus Bay," said Bart Chezar.

"The birds were probably always there," said Chezar, but "until the park opened, there was no good access to the waterfront." Dog walkers are also frequent visitors to this quiet landscape.

Empty benches face the chain link fence of a ball field, along a dead end bike path. One of the first events planned for the park is "Celebrating Mother Earth" by Uprose on April 25th. "I have the feeling this will become a very popular location for community festivals," said Jeremy Laufer.

"I didn't really see it becoming a tremendous success right when it opened, because you are opening up in cold weather, right on the waterfront,"  said Laufer. "But I'm just happy to have it open."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Bush Terminal coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]