Mostly a diminutive waterway hidden from view, Mill Creek is easy to overlook, but over 50 acres of this creek has been protected by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to help drain stormwater from more than 1,100 acres of land, as part of the Staten Island Bluebelt. Fed by several tributaries, the Mill Creek Bluebelt twists through the backyards and forests of Pleasant Plains, Richmond Valley, and Tottenville, before straightening out through a remediated wasteland and emptying into a salt marsh on the Arthur Kill. Walking its entire length is nearly impossible, but along the sections that can be visited, a wide variety of flora and fauna reveal themselves, from vibrant blanket flowers to galloping groundhogs. However, a large section of Mill Creek may soon be radically transformed, as plans unfold for a recently-sold 38.8 acre site at its mouth.
In its more natural areas—or in its areas made to appear natural by the DEP—the Mill Creek Bluebelt is a haven for wild animals. "It’s like the Animal Kingdom back there—deer, bunny rabbits, turtles," said Steve Graziano, whose hot rod repair shop, Hollywood Garage, is hemmed in by the Bluebelt near the head of the creek. Two branches of the waterway run along the edges of his buildings, causing flooding during heavy rains and stranding swarms of crawdads inside, and at least once a week, Steve and his father Jack rescue snapping turtles from the busy road in front of their shop, stopping traffic to scoop them up with a trash can. "I’m talking heavy things. Prehistoric. And they bite, too," said Steve Graziano. "The whole street is shut down—traffic backed up for miles." They deliver the turtles to a nearby pond, in a section of Bluebelt their garage has officially adopted. "You can’t buy country like this," said Jack Graziano. "Nowhere."
In its less natural areas, Mill Creek is hemmed in by highways, bridges, train tracks, and the vestiges of its toxic industrial past. Near the creek’s mouth sits the former site of the Nassau Smelting & Refining Company, which once recycled "more than 600 million pounds of scrap a year" for the Bell Telephone Company and Western Electric, and was "the graveyard of a million worn out telephones," according to the funky 1974 documentary Scrap! After the refinery closed down, the site was left behind as a "46-acre eyesore," contaminated with lead, zinc, copper, and other toxic metals which had "festered for decades," according to the Staten Island Advance. Eventually, an enormous cleanup dredged out some of the contaminated sediments in Mill Creek and capped the rest with new fill, while also creating an impermeable concrete shell over the old factory site to contain the toxic contaminants underneath. The severe pollution here has scared off other potential developers, including Walmart, but a large section of the old refinery at 1 Nassau Place was recently sold off to Bridgewater Capital Partners for $30 million. Bridgewater’s development proposals included creating an assisted living facility and residential complex above the capped brownfield. The wisdom of these plans has already been questioned by several local politicians.
The Staten Island Bluebelt was created in response to another era of irresponsible, unregulated development on the island. "There had been a development boom in Staten Island that invaded a lot of the drainage areas of various stream corridors," recalled Albert Appleton, who initiated the Bluebelt project while serving as the commissioner of the DEP from 1990 to 1994, in collaboration with his colleague Dana Gumb, who is now the Bluebelt’s director. "As people built these inappropriate developments, they began to get big flooding problems in these neighborhoods, and big problems with septic failure," said Appleton. "There was a huge outcry from people who had bought their dream home, and were now finding that they were fighting these flooding problems and these septic failure problems, caused by the degradation of the natural areas."
After decades of development, the Bluebelt system now includes 16 different watersheds, which provide stormwater management for almost a third of Staten Island. The Mill Creek Bluebelt, which was begun in 1998, is just one small part of this larger system, and in the decades since its foundation was laid, it has become an almost invisible part of Staten Island’s infrastructure, quietly whisking away millions of gallons of stormwater. "I remember telling people that our goal was to get this to be an accepted fact of life, well running and forgotten… kind of like making the traffic lights work," said Appleton, and along Mill Creek, the infrastructure of the Bluebelt is sometimes indistinguishable from the more natural areas of the waterway. "We’ve saved hundreds of millions of dollars, raised property values, made better communities, and stopped problems from being created by unregulated and un-environmental development," said Appleton. "The best way… is to essentially cherish the environment and work in harmony with it, rather than try to bulldoze your way over it."
The mouth of Mill Creek is bordered by a mature forest, lined with an extensive system of dirt roads, carved into the landscape by trucks pushing along a muddy homemade track.
These muddy roads lead past collapsed shanties and out to the shoreline of the Arthur Kill, where the mouth of Mill Creek opens up to hidden beaches with expansive views of the Outerbridge Crossing.
The creek’s mouth is located in this salt marsh bay, part of which was included in the recent sale to Bridgewater Capital.
The salt marsh habitat can be accessed from pathways off of Arthur Kill Road, where a wildlife viewing station has been set up.
Across Arthur Kill Road, the bed of Mill Creek appears. At high tide, this section of creek is largely a saltwater inlet. Though it looks somewhat natural, the entire landscape here was dredged and capped as part of the Nassau Smelting & Refining cleanup.
In all, the cleanup placed a cap over 450,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil, according to the Staten Island Advance. Several feet of toxic sediments remain in the creek, underneath a cap of clean fill.
Mill Creek continues on through this unnatural post-industrial landscape, lined by wildflowers. Even the sports complex and roller skating rink across the water "was once a testing facility for the defunct Lucent Technologies," according to The Observer. "They used to blow crap up in here," a rink manager told the paper.
An elaborate stone-lined drainage system cuts through the former refinery site, funneling storm water through the green fields and down into Mill Creek.
The landscaping comes to an abrupt end at the enormous concrete cap, placed above the former refining and smelting factory. Massive amounts of lead are contained under this cap. It is not clear what kind of additional remediation the new owners, Bridgewater Capital, would have to complete before building here.
Exposure to lead and other heavy metals brings a risk of brain damage, according to the Staten Island Advance, but Mill Creek continues on, underneath Page Avenue, through a graffiti-covered underpass.
A deer walking in a small tributary of the creek, adjacent to the Page Avenue overpass. "In the concrete jungle, people don’t even think about deer frolicking around," said Steve Graziano.
Mill Creek continues north from Page Avenue, through a marshy, overgrown landscape adjacent to the Staten Island Railway.
An abandoned set of tracks cuts through the marshland here, an old spur of the railway. Some sections of track have been removed, but large stretches remain in the overgrowth, used by rabbits and groundhogs.
The main segment of Mill Creek travels underneath the active railway here, though other small tributaries also flow into this marshy area.
The main flow of Mill Creek emerges again underneath the Richmond Valley train station, where fish swim below the platform. A small tributary of the creek flows in from nearby Long Pond Park, but the heavier flow comes from three branches to the north and east.
Past the station, Mill Creek flows through a forested area of the Bluebelt between Amboy Road and the railway. Another branch of the creek comes in from the Korean War Veterans Parkway, north of here.
The winding creek bed appears to have been manipulated by man, with small dams and obstructions built in. However, the only other visitors to the forest here are deer.
Abandoned cars deep in the woods, near a fork in the creek. One branch emerges from underneath nearby Amboy Road, while another flows from the woods upstream.
Across Amboy Road, Mill Creek flows out of the North Mount Loretto State Forest, according to the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
This branch of Mill Creek has a small flow, trickling through the woods. "A series of springs, vernal pools, and channels within the property collect and convey water towards Amboy Road," according to the DEC.
The creek flows underneath the remains of an old rail line that once ran through the Mount Loretto Campus. The old train tracks are still visible along an extensive system of hiking trails.
The source of Mill Creek’s south branch is a marshy wetlands area, surrounded by dense overgrowth, in a seemingly natural forested area.
Near the Mount Loretto forest, the cars of Hollywood Garage line Amboy Road. "We are in the middle of the Bluebelt," said Steve Graziano.
A rocky path up the street from the garage leads deeper into the manmade landscape of the Mill Creek Bluebelt, and to the eastern branch of the creek.
The creek here is part of a highly controlled Stormwater Management Facility, a "constructed wetland/pond" with catch basins, dams, and culverts all "controlling and balancing flow rates… to protect downstream wetlands," according to a sign placed on site.
Throughout the island, the construction of the Bluebelt has used local materials and historic designs to create visually appealing structures that are meant to "provide important community open spaces," according to the DEP.
"People were very enthusiastic about the Bluebelt from the very beginning, and not only the environmental community," said Appleton. This man-made pond, known as a Best Management Practice (BMP), is home to a range of wildlife, including groundhogs and baby geese, and can be easily visited by the public.
Along one side of the enormous Bluebelt BMP, a small flow of fresh water cuts through the planted landscape, toward the origin of Mill Creek’s eastern branch. "The Bluebelt idea has been pursued and of course now, it has some progeny in the city’s stormwater management—swales and stream corridors and permeable surfaces," said Appleton.
The source of this branch is hidden by a culvert under the Staten Island Railway, where a constant flow of clear water emerges. "I think the Bluebelt was a very early example of sustainability," said Appleton. "Lots of urban areas are now looking at various stream corridor projects."
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.