There are only a handful of undeveloped spaces left along the waterfront of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a community whose coastline has been dominated by heavy industry for over a century. One of the last stretches of open shore is at Bushwick Inlet, a small cove that has been fenced off from the neighborhood for decades. Frequently used as a canoe and kayak stop in the East River, this tiny ribbon of land has become a haven for birds, wildlife, graffiti artists, and squatters, who have scratched out an existence here despite the site's history of pollution and neglect. But this unnatural landscape may soon be radically changed, as local residents push forward in their quest for a long-delayed park.
Galvanized by a 7-alarm fire that swept through the nearby CitiStorage facility on January 31st, community organizers have been feverishly working to bring attention to the incomplete plans for Bushwick Inlet Park. This 28-acre project was promised to the neighborhood 10 years ago, as part of a rezoning process that brought a wave of luxury condominiums to the waterfront. The park was slated to encompass both the inlet and the storage facility, but only one small piece has been completed, and the city has yet to acquire all of the necessary land parcels. "We are at the precipice right now," said Jens Rasmussen, one of the organizers for the Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park, which wants the city to fulfill its pledges by purchasing the CitiStorage site. "The fire changed the time frame, because that site is not going to be left a burnt out shell." At the group's meeting this past Tuesday, a diverse coalition of long-time residents gathered to plan for an upcoming rally at Bushwick Inlet. "We are coming together to stop the city from throwing this community into the trash bin," said Rasmussen. "If this park is not built, there will never be another large park in North Brooklyn. There is no other place to put a large park."
Meanwhile, as Bushwick Inlet quietly awaits its fate, geese and egrets are the only daily visitors. A chainlink fence topped with barbed wire along Franklin Avenue keeps most curiosity seekers from arriving by land, while the hulking Bayside Fuel Oil Depot on its southern shore and an MTA facility to the north also block off public access. Arriving by boat, the only possible moorings are rotted pilings and walls of ragged landfill, which are collapsing into the frigid water. Once safely ashore, visitors must bushwhack through an overgrown glade of trees laced with the debris of old homeless camps. Televisions, barbecues, empty suitcases and an abandoned pedicurist's chair hint at the variety of activities that take place here in warmer weather.
Along the inlet's northwest corner, a link to its fading history has been established by The Greenpoint Monitor Museum, which owns an acre of this land. The organization, which plans to build a museum on the site, has installed a placard marking the spot where the first ironclad ship was built and launched in 1862 from the Continental Iron Works. The shipyard is long gone, as is the Astral Oil Works, an 1800s facility which once stood on the opposite banks of the Bushwick Inlet, and whose earnings helped to found the Pratt Institute. Predating even these historic sites was Bushwick Creek, a vanished waterway that once extended deep into Brooklyn from this now-truncated bay. "The Bushwick Creek was adored by local residents and used regularly for commerce, but was gradually polluted beyond repair, became an eyesore, was detested by the community, and was then filled in, largely out of necessity," according to the 2011 film Bushwick Creek, directed and narrated by Brian Walsh. "Like so many other chapters of New York's history, rather than being cleaned up, the Bushwick Creek was simply eliminated."
Despite its apparent popularity as an illicit gathering space for some locals, the abandoned sections of the Bushwick Inlet have been a serious headache for local business owners. "We've been here for twenty years and it's been empty the whole time," said Steve, the owner of Pop's Popular Clothing, which is located immediately adjacent to the inlet on Franklin Avenue. "The way they leave this is a crying shame, with the weeds. Nothing should be left like this. That's an eyesore right now." After hearing that the city had finally acquired the deed to a large section of the inlet's shoreline for $4.6 million this past December, Steve was ecstatic. "Now I know who to call, to clean this up," he said. "At least in the summertime, you won't have people going in there to use drugs."
In the past few weeks, the NYC Parks Department has mounted official park signs to the rusted barricade that keeps the public away from the Bushwick Inlet. The next step toward turning this cove into a public space could be a lengthy remediation process, removing more than 150 years of pollution from oil refineries, shipyards, landfills, and other remnants of the Industrial Revolution that have permanently marked the land. In the interim, acrid smoke from the CitiStorage fire hangs over the neighborhood, a reminder of the larger, incomplete vision for this park. The demolition of the storage warehouse, one block away from the inlet, is ongoing two months after the blaze. "It's still burning. You can see the smoke coming out," said a security guard at the site, as teams of workers streamed toward the building. "They are shoveling it out, fishing paper out of the river. I heard they want to rebuild on the same site."
As the struggle to complete Bushwick Inlet Park continues, local residents are hoping some semblance of the older, natural Bushwick Creek ecosystem can be returned to the neighborhood. "It would be a huge loss to turn this into a waterfront like what they have in Long Island City, with a riprap shoreline and raised promenades," said Jens Rasmussen, who has lived in Greenpoint for 19 years. "As it was designed, the park will have a huge natural wetlands that will protect this neighborhood from storm surges…There's no reason we can't keep that in the park design, to keep that soft edge."
New signs for Bushwick Inlet Park were recently placed along the Franklin Avenue fence, which blocks access to Bushwick Inlet. "They just put the signs up. I saw that a week ago," said the owner of Pop's Popular Clothing. "I'm excited about it. Who wouldn't be?"
Many holes have been cut in this fence over the years, as local residents have sought access to the inlet. In 2008, the area behind the fence was much more accessible, though still not maintained.
At the head of the inlet, Bushwick Creek once continued inland into a marshy area that stretched all the way to the current location of McCarren Park. The creek is now filled with landfill, and there are no plans to daylight it.
Evidence of homeless camps is scattered throughout the wild woods that have grown along the inlet's shores, including televisions, radios, clothing and luggage.
Barbecues are set up at the water's edge, looking out toward the new condominium towers rising along Williamsburg's waterfront. Several new towers are being built in the immediate vicinity of the inlet.
Geese, ducks, and egrets have made the cove their home. "I always refer to it as an accidental wildlife refuge," said Jens Rasmussen. "It's beautiful back there."
These collapsing bulkheads were once the site of the Continental Iron Works, and look out toward the Bayside Oil depot, across the inlet, where the Astral Oil Works once stood.
Crumbling piers are some of the only reminders from the shipbuilding industry that used this coastline in the 1800s. "It's deserted," said the owner of Pop's. "They really should build the park. It will make the area a lot nicer."
The Greenpoint Monitor Museum maintains one acre of property on the inlet. In July 2014, they released a landscape architecture plan (PDF) outlining plans to create a terraced amphitheater and ecological boardwalk along the shoreline.
For now, the main component of the museum site is a historical placard describing the history of the USS Monitor, which was constructed here during the Civil War.
Looking back into the inlet from the East River, the degradation of the shoreline is evident. Rubble and construction debris are falling into the water.
The city plans to complete its acquisition of the Bayside Oil complex in June 2015 as part of the Bushwick Inlet Park plan. For now, it remains an active facility. "This could be a world class park," said Jens Rasmussen.
Down the East River, the CitiStorage facility continues to burn. The Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park hope to convince the city to buy it for parkland, as originally planned, instead of allowing it to be sold to developers. "We are trying to stop the city from making a huge mistake," said Rasmussen. "The 11 acres that make up the city storage is the last piece."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Bushwick Inlet Park coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]