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On Staten Island, a centuries-old waterway helps shape new wetlands

New Creek will be a highly engineered waterway, but one that's closer to the creek that existed centuries ago

Camera Obscura New Creek Bluebelt Nathan Kensinger

Flowing under wooden bridges and alongside dirt roads, past empty bungalows and into marshy side streets, with deer and turkeys wandering freely along its reedy banks, New Creek does not feel like a modern urban waterway.

Settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, its three branches still retain their rural, small town roots, with isolated houses dotting a sparse landscape of forested glens and open marshlands. But after decades of landfill and development, the creek now requires a radical rehabilitation, and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has begun an ambitious project to bring this wild Staten Island waterway into the 21st century.

It’s not often that you can watch a river being remade amid the dense fabric of New York City, and a walk along New Creek today is rare opportunity to view both the past and future of the city’s waterfront. After years of preparation, work is now underway on the first phases of the New Creek Bluebelt, an enormous initiative that will create a system of man-made wetlands, drainage basins, and sewer infrastructure to help handle stormwater from 2,200 acres of land around the creek.

"We have spent probably a decade doing property acquisition so we can get to this point, but we haven’t done any physical construction until now," says Robert Brauman, the project manager for the DEP. "There are 19 proposed sites, and we are doing the first four now. We have a 20 year build-out plan for the watershed, so we are going to be there for quite some time."

The history of human habitation on Staten Island dates back several millennia to the native Clovis and Lenape people, but the modern era of development on the island began in the New Creek watershed in 1661, with the establishment of the Dutch village of Oude Dorpe. This was Europe’s first permanent settlement on the island, and in the ensuing centuries, its residents shaped and reshaped the landscape of New Creek.

Eventually they filled in much of its marshland to create roads and homes, while obscuring its history, a fact that was bemoaned even in the 1800s. "As the population of Staten Island increases, the names of its natural features give place more and more to artificial ones; the hills are dug away and avenues laid out across the swamps," wrote William T. Davis in his 1896 publication Staten Island Names - Ye Olde Names and Nicknames. "On the best maps of Staten Island only three or four of the creeks are named, and these often erroneously."

New Creek was given its current name sometime before 1797 as a response to its "very erratic" habit of finding new exit points out to the ocean. At one point, each of its offshoots had their own individual titles, including Perine’s Creek, Old Town Creek (aka Pole Creek), Barton’s Creek (aka Seaver’s Creek), and Barne’s Creek, which flowed out past Poppy Joe’s Island. These place names were already fading out of use in the 1800s, and are now almost completely forgotten, much like the waterways they once referred to.

The many branches of New Creek have now been largely straightened out and made invisible, hidden behind fences and overgrowth or submerged underground, and the name "New Creek" itself is currently used as a catchall for the entire complicated watershed. The DEP has further simplified things by designating its various spurs as the West Branch, the Main Channel and the East Branch.

No matter what they are called, or what has been built along them, the waters of New Creek have remained a defining fact of life for the surrounding communities. Flooding is a constant problem in this part of Staten Island, especially as more and more homes are built out into the marshland. "We have standing water in the street nonstop, 24 hours, 365 days a year," says one homeowner on Grimsby Street, located in Midland Beach. "The water used to go slowly down. Now it doesn’t even go down. It stays high all the time."

Despite complaining to the city for years, the problems have only gotten worse, but residents are hopeful that the New Creek Bluebelt project will eventually lower floodwaters in their front yards. "It’s been like this forever. We call it Lake Grimsby. This past summer, we actually had ducks in our lake," the homeowner explains. "If they don’t do anything about this soon, this is going to be the worst winter we have had."

Work began in the first phases of the New Creek Bluebelt last year, and the West Branch of New Creek is now being rerouted along a path through Midland Beach, down to Graham Beach and out to the ocean. Several sections of its stagnant waters are clogged with debris and silt, and its natural flow has been stymied by aging culverts and other inadequate infrastructure. "If you were to look at an aerial photo from as recent as last year of the West Branch, you will see that it disappears. It was completely filled in with sediment, which was one of the reasons the area was flooding," says Brauman. "So we wanted to make that our priority, to construct a new West Branch."

The waters of the West Branch have been temporarily diverted into cloth-lined channels as its wetlands are cleared of abandoned cars and illegal dumping and a new system of holding basins, weirs and culverts is constructed to manage it. When complete, the updated version of New Creek will be a highly engineered, man-made waterway, but will also be much closer to the one that existed centuries ago. "We’ve gone back to the 1870s records to see what was here and what belongs here," explains Brauman. "We’ll be putting tens of thousands of native plants in this spring. Native wildflowers, native ferns, native wetland plants, native trees. We’re taking it from a monoculture of phragmites to a highly diverse natural community with only Staten Island native plants." Like the 16 other Staten Island Bluebelts, it will be a uniquely modern urban waterway.

The Main Channel of New Creek begins in the neighborhoods of Grant City and Dongan Hills, where the streets are lined with apartment buildings, strip malls, and ballfields that have been built out into the marshlands.

Many of the homes along this section of the New Creek Bluebelt face out onto the wild, overgrown landscape of Last Chance Pond, a NYC park that hides the headwaters of this branch of New Creek.

New Creek’s Main Channel first appears in a shallow marsh here, with a diverse array of plant life that includes "swamp white oak, bittersweet, duckweed, maiden hair and royal ferns, green and striped pipsissewa, yellow spatterdock, plokorolweed [sic], Mad-dog skullcap, swamp loosestrife, and mild water-pepper," according to the Parks Department.

The park will be the next project site for the New Creek Bluebelt, in coming years. "All the water from the storm sewers in that neighborhood empties into Last Chance Pond," says Brauman. "We will take the opportunity up there, in the top of that watershed, to detain it, store it, and let it downstream in a more controlled fashion."

The Main Channel currently flows through the parkland and into an old culvert underneath Hylan Boulevard, where an antiquated "trash rack" keeps debris from clogging its flow. A new culvert will eventually be constructed here.

Few drivers or pedestrians seem to notice the creek now, but another of the DEP’s future projects will be to create a viewing platform off of Hylan Boulevard, called "The Gateway to the Bluebelt."

The gateway will be built along this overgrown area of the creek. "It’s going to include a large public viewing area, where one would stand and look down the New Creek system towards the ocean," says Brauman. "It would have interpretive signs, a nice walkway."

For now, the Main Channel continues through dense, inaccessible thickets and local backyards in Midland Beach, which have recently become a haven for deer. "You see them come right out to the street here, with high horns, like two feet," says one local resident.

Over at the West Branch, the first appearance of New Creek above ground is at Boundary Avenue Park, a fenced off site that takes up several city blocks. The "park" and creek here are not publicly accessible.

This branch of the New Creek flows through the forested area and behind Midland Field park, while also traveling underneath Midland Avenue and Bedford Avenue. A large wetland is proposed here, as part of the bluebelt improvements.

After traveling underground, the creek emerges in a stagnant street-level stretch along Mason Avenue, where several homes are built at its edge. "This area does have sanitary sewers, but not adequate storm sewers, so flooding is the issue in the New Creek watershed," says Brauman.

Midland Beach was badly flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and several homes along the creek are now being raised up above flood levels. "It was a very low, natural, spongy salt marsh, and it was filled to create homes, and that was where the problems started," says Brauman.

The creek is now channeled through backyards and between homes. "It was a natural wetland, and a great deal of fill was brought into these areas to build them up," said Brauman. "Building rubble and all sorts of stuff."

At Hunter Avenue, the creek flows underneath one of the only single-lane wooden bridges in New York City. A second wooden bridge is located nearby, at Idlease Place, crossing a second spur of the West Branch.

Under the bridge, a buoy holds back shopping carts and plastic bottles. Debris and litter are a major problem along the creek, and throughout the bluebelt system.

Sections of the creek here look more like rural New England, with small footbridges and walking paths lacing the forests, near dirt roads and isolated houses.

Nearby, along Grimsby Street, community members have dubbed the standing water in front of their homes "Lake Grimsby," and playfully cast for fish in the street. But the creek and nearby ocean can cause serious problems. "During Sandy, we had eight feet of water in my house," says one local resident.

Street flooding has been getting steadily worse, according to locals. "We had water in the street for 188 days in a row one year. This street is considered to be an emerging wetland," says one homeowner. "I look forward to seeing the bluebelt come, but I would like it to be sooner."

At the end of Grimsby, construction is now underway on one of the first major projects of the New Creek Bluebelt, which will construct a new route for the West Branch of the creek.

A new weir chamber and culvert is being constructed along Freeborn Street, to regulate the stormwater flow. "What existed in the area before were really undersized, old, dilapidated pipes that couldn’t handle the water," explains Brauman. "So at three locations, we are replacing those old pipes with nice new culverts."

"With the bluebelt, one of our objectives is to detain the water for about 24 hours, and release it slowly, rather than send a giant pulse downstream. So each culvert has a weir that is engineered to regulate the flow behind it," says Brauman.

Before construction could begin here, this section of the bluebelt wetlands had to be cleared of illegally dumped debris, as seen here in March. "Historically, it’s been where you go to dump," says Brauman. "That was the first part of the project, just clearing all that out. We did many, many dump trucks full of tires, concrete rubble, bricks, old cars, you name it."

The West Branch of the creek is currently being routed through a narrow aboveground pathway. "That little channel is a temporary diversion that takes the water around the construction sites and brings it downstream, while they do the work," says Brauman. "When they are done, that will be filled in and the new stream will become active."

At a second construction site on Olympia Avenue, a structural headwall is being built for a culvert that will route New Creek under the roadway. When completed, these weirs, walls and culverts will be lined with field stone, designed to look like old walls from Staten Island’s historic farms.

Another temporary channel, routing the creek through a large open field. When complete, the wetlands here will be planted with 31,500 wildflowers and plants, 1,570 native shrubs, and 195 trees, including 900 common milkweed plants and more than 10,000 goldenrods, asters and other wildflowers, which will support a wide variety of birds, bees, and other wildlife.

A headwall and culvert are also being built at a third construction site along Graham Boulevard, where timber piles are being driven into the soft, marshy soil, to create a solid foundation. "The groundwater is maybe only two feet below the surface, so there is a great deal of pumping going, to dig a 20 foot hole and keep it dry while they build the structures," says Brauman.

The fourth construction project underway on the West Branch involves rerouting the creek through a large wetlands northeast of Graham Blvd, where deer, geese and ducks have already found a home. The West Branch and the Main Channel of New Creek meet near here.

The houses of Graham Beach look out over the wetlands. "Those homes are basically in a bowl. They are below sea level. So historically, that’s a nightmare down there," says Brauman. "Restoring the West Branch takes the water away from that neighborhood."

A collection of concrete manholes sits at creekside, and will soon be installed in a new storm sewer, but many of the homes here are scheduled to be demolished as part of a "managed retreat" organized by the state government, and returned to nature."Certainly, all of our open space that we bought up will be coterminous with it, and will just make a bigger natural area," says Brauman.

After passing through Graham Beach, New Creek continues into Ocean Breeze, another neighborhood decimated by Hurricane Sandy that the state government is currently returning to nature. From here, the creek flows out to the Atlantic Ocean.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City's abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. "Industrial Twilight," an exhibit of Kensinger’s photographs of Brooklyn’s changing waterfront, is currently being exhibited at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn.

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