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Forecasting the Future on NYC's Climate Change Frontlines

A new film, narrated by Susan Sarandon, brings Jamaica Bay into view

On the southeast coast of New York City, inside a 20-square-mile wildlife refuge, hundreds of snow geese are now flocking to their migratory home, their raucous calls filling the air. Just up the street, in a quaint island village, pet ducks dodge traffic on narrow bungalow-lined streets, while across the water, miles of sandy beaches await the annual invasion of the horseshoe crabs, a 1.2 billion-year-old species which predates the dinosaurs. This is Jamaica Bay, a 25,000-acre expanse of vital wildlife habitat, which hosts a complex series of natural ecosystems from salt marsh to maritime forest, and supports 91 species of fish, 325 bird species, and 214 "species of special concern." Its shoreline is also home to one dominant invasive species, humans, who have scarred the bay with over a century of industry and pollution, reshaping the landscape to create airports, bridges, landfills, sewage treatment plants, parks, and marinas. In the process, they have placed Jamaica Bay at the front line of New York City’s climate change crisis.


All of this and more is explored in Saving Jamaica Bay, a new documentary film having its world premiere tonight at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the Queens World Film Festival. An urgent and timely portrait of local residents’ battles to preserve the bay, the film follows three activists from Jamaica Bay over the course of five years—Don Riepe, the "Jamaica Bay Guardian" of the American Littoral Society, and Dan Mundy Sr. & Jr., a father/son duo who are president and vice-president of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers. Using this trio as guides, the filmmakers move nimbly through the complex history of the bay, detailing its numerous environmental challenges, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, and the initial rebuilding efforts in its communities. As sea levels around the world continue to rise at alarming rates, the film serves as an important wake-up call to all residents of New York City who may have forgotten the water in their backyard.

Despite its impressive size, Jamaica Bay has remained off the radars of many New Yorkers, their only connection to its waters a quick glimpse out the window of an airplane while taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport. "I’ve lived in Manhattan for over 20 years and I didn’t know anything about Jamaica Bay before we started," admitted the film’s director, David Sigal. "I had no idea of the history of Jamaica Bay, or even that it was here." Over the course of filming, however, he became intimately familiar with the bay’s many unique communities and wild areas, and hopes that Saving Jamaica Bay will inspire even more New Yorkers to embrace the area. "I bet if you ask most people right in the heart of New York City if they know they can take the subway out to a national park, they would have no idea," said Sigal. "But you can. You can take the subway out to Broad Channel, walk a little bit, and you are in this beautiful nature. It’s really a surprise. It’s a hidden treasure."

For those unfamiliar with Jamaica Bay, Sigal’s film provides a good overview of its recent history, tracing out its evolution from marshland to industrial dumping ground, before diving into its numerous present challenges, from wastewater pollution and salt marsh erosion to breached landfills and abandoned boats. Although the bay is ringed by numerous waterfront neighborhoods, the film primarily focuses on Broad Channel Island, a community completely surrounded by water, where residents live in closer contact with nature than almost any other New Yorkers. Here, the daily change of tides can bring flooded streets, and flocks of rare birds overhead are as constant as the jets from nearby JFK. It is no surprise that the environmental activists featured in the film all hail from this island.

Nathan Kensinger

Along with the loss of salt marsh habitat, the film makes it clear that one of the biggest threats to the future of Jamaica Bay’s biodiversity continues to be JFK, which was constructed in the 1940s by covering almost 5,000 acres of marshland with hydraulic fill. The airport has been a deadly enemy of the bay’s wildlife ever since, and between 2009 and 2013, Port Authority contractors shot almost 26,000 birds here, including "1,628 birds from 18 different species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," according to DNAinfo. The Port Authority has since gone on to shotgun snowy owls, slaughter hundreds of geese collected in the nature refuge, and chop down over 300 mature trees in nearby parks, all while plotting out how to further extend its runways into the marshland.

In one memorable scene from Saving Jamaica Bay, the chief wildlife biologist of the Port Authority attempts to explain the goals of "wildlife damage management" at JFK. Her words are juxtaposed with footage of screaming airplanes terrorizing flocks of birds. "A lot of what we do helps to protect wildlife," the biologist, Laura Francoeur, tells the filmmakers. "We do a lot of habitat management and do some really nice things to deter wildlife from being here." Included in her list of "nice things" are removing birds’ nests, preventing them from accessing nesting areas, oiling their eggs to stop them from hatching, and using a variety of other techniques "to scare birds and chase them away." The existential disconnect between humans and wildlife in the urban landscape could not be made clearer, while the constant jet traffic overhead also serves as a chilling reminder of the societal excesses that have caused our current climate crisis.

Looming over all of the specific environmental issues facing Jamaica Bay is the ever-increasing danger posed by global warming. With 2016 already breaking "terrifying" heat milestones and sea levels rising "faster than at any point in 28 centuries," it seems likely that the human residents of Broad Channel Island could become the first climate change refugees in New York City. Other neighborhoods throughout the city may follow the same path, as the American coastline becomes increasingly uninhabitable due to constant flooding. Saving Jamaica Bay does not shy away from this disturbing reality. "The clock is ticking. Not only on Broad Channel, but all of New York City," Don Riepe states in the film. "We have so many people living right along the coast now, it is a recipe for disaster."

While the filmmakers of Saving Jamaica Bay remain upbeat about the future for the bay’s many wildlife species, their predictions for humanity are less hopeful. "When you go out to the bay during the right time of year, you see thousands of horseshoe crabs, and it’s like these prehistoric creatures that are just descending on you," said Sigal. "They are incredible things. They are survivors. It will be harder for us."

Jamaica Bay has long been used by humans for industry and dumping. "For more than a century, it’s where New Yorkers put the things they didn’t want. Garbage, sewage, factories you could smell for miles," according to Saving Jamaica Bay. It is still bordered by the unnatural hills of several decommissioned landfills. (Photo from 2007)

At the decommissioned Edgemere Landfill, which is now a public park, the landfill cap has been breached by the waters of Jamaica Bay, and the detritus of another generation is scattered along the shoreline. "It’s almost like a little time capsule," said Don Riepe, in the film. (Photo from 2010)

The breach is similar to the eroded landfill at Dead Horse Bay, located near the mouth of Jamaica Bay. "This beach is in some ways a testimony to the past use of the shorelines of the bay," said Riepe, during a visit to Dead Horse Bay in the film. "There was no thought about the marshes as having any value." (Photo from 2012)

Alongside its breached landfills, abandoned boats are an ongoing problem in Jamaica Bay. Many of the bay’s inlets have been littered with scuttled wrecks in the past decade, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. (Photo from 2010)

The bay’s shoreline has also long been used as a dumping ground for cars and household waste. "With so many environmental challenges, Jamaica Bay became better known as Garbage Bay," the film explains. (Photo from 2010)

Despite these challenges, fisherman and crabbers still ply the waters, alongside swimmers, boaters, paddle boarders, kayakers, and jet skiers, and the city is currently working on several different remediation projects in the bay, as part of the ongoing Jamaica Bay Watershed Protection Plan. (Photo from 2010)

One of the biggest threats to the biodiversity of Jamaica Bay is JFK Airport, which has chainsawed hundreds of mature trees and killed thousands of animals that strayed too close to its runways."In many ways, JFK is a microcosm of the tensions between growth and environmental preservation that cities around the world are facing," the film states. (Photo from 2014)

"Aviation has been a big part of Jamaica Bay’s history," according to the film. The rotting infrastructure of New York’s first municipal airport can be seen at Floyd Bennett Field, a decommissioned airport which is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. (Photo from 2012)

Floyd Bennett’s decayed powerhouses, empty dorms, rusting hangars and cracked runways are a reminder of the impermanence of our civic structures, and the impact our interventions into the natural landscape continue to have after we abandon them. The National Park Service has restored several empty buildings here, but abandoned structures still dot the landscape. (Photo from 2008)

"The whole capitalistic system is built on constant growth and taming nature, building over it. And now we are kind of seeing the end result of a lot of that stuff," said Don Riepe, in the film. "It’s going to take a long time and a lot of money to clean it all up. So what did we gain?" (Photo from 2008)

At the center of the bay sits the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a haven for hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, and mammals. The refuge is managed by the National Park Service, as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Many features of the refuge’s landscape are actually manmade, including its largest pond, which is bordered by an embankment supporting the MTA’s train tracks.

Bird watching blinds and hiking trails are scattered throughout the refuge, another reminder that humans have actively reshaped the bay’s ecosystems. "We introduced reptiles and amphibians to the park about 25 years ago," said Don Riepe, in the film. "We introduced lots of tadpoles, some spring peepers, gray tree frogs, painted turtles."

On the west side of the refuge, a manmade freshwater pond was breached by Hurricane Sandy, becoming a saltwater habitat. The breach will soon be repaired, according to a National Park representative, and the pond returned to freshwater species.

Nathan Kensinger

Hurricane Sandy also caused widespread damage in many of the residential communities around the edges of Jamaica Bay. The streets and homes on the north side of Arverne were flooded with bay water. (Photo from 2012)

The storm pushed boats and debris from the bay into the homes of Edgemere, flooding all of the neighborhood’s single story bungalows. (Photo from 2012)

In Broad Channel Island, homes were toppled from their pilings and boardwalks ripped apart. The filmmakers of Saving Jamaica Bay were there in the days before and after Sandy, documenting the storm. "We were in the middle of filming and it just suddenly happened," said Sigal. "No one could have predicted it or expected it. And there we were." (Photo from 2012)

The homes of each of the film’s three main characters were badly damaged by the storm. "I didn’t know whether everyone would stay," said Sigal. "But once Sandy happened, we knew we needed to film some of the recovery efforts."

In the years since Sandy, many homes in Broad Channel have been repaired, raised, and renovated, a process documented by the filmmakers. "It was fascinating to see how they rebuilt," said Sigal. "Right as we ended filming, they were starting to raise the streets."

Today, the city is continuing to build new bulkheads and raise the streets on several Broad Channel Island blocks. "I guess the question is how high can you raise it," said Sigal. "The people there are so dedicated to living there. I respect that they are going to try their hardest."

The fragile balance of wildlife, ocean, and human habitat on Broad Channel Island remains in place for now, as the community continues its efforts to preserve the bay’s salt marshes. "We will see how that works out in a few years," said Sigal. "I don’t even know if parts of Manhattan will be here in 50 years, so who knows.

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.

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