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All Photos by Nathan Kensinger

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Development threatens the future of a Far Rockaway waterway

A visit to Bridge Creek, where manmade landscape meets natural world

Out at the end of the Far Rockaways, on the edge of New York City, a forgotten waterway meanders through bungalow backyards and construction sites. Its original course disappeared long ago, truncated and buried as humans carved up the wetlands here for houses and roads. Its banks are now lined by homeless camps, sunken boats, and abandoned marinas, and the bulkheads and street ends along its shoreline are slowly collapsing into brackish water. Like most of the small rivers in New York City, many people living nearby don’t even know its name—Bridge Creek—but they may soon, as it floods their homes with more and more frequency.

"It’s a hidden little thing. Nobody knows it’s there," said Jimmy Quinn, a surfer, swimmer, and fisherman whose family has a home two blocks away from Bridge Creek. Quinn once kept a 21-foot boat docked along the inlet, and has seen it change for the worse over the years, as the marinas have gone out of business and oversized apartment buildings have replaced the small cottages that once dotted its shores. Despite local residents’ long struggle to downzone their neighborhood and curb overdevelopment, several new residential complexes are now being built along the creek, dropping even more multi-story units into this sea-level marshland. "I don’t even go over there anymore," said Quinn, reflecting on the changing landscape of Bridge Creek. "It was cool a while ago—it was a different flavor then. This was a unique little area. But it’s rapidly changing."

Along some sections of Bridge Creek, the city has managed to keep the developers at bay. A 13-story residential tower was once planned for the very heart of its waters, but the city instead acquired the land to create the Seagirt Avenue Wetlands, which is now a protected home for a small collection of egrets, herons, mussels, and oysters, living amidst the human debris. "New York City once contained 224,000 acres of freshwater wetland," according to the NYC Department of Parks description of the preserve. "However, the increasing demands for housing slated most of this land for construction. Only 2,000 acres of freshwater wetland remain today within the city, and many species that used to live here no longer can."

A walk along Bridge Creek today shows how intertwined the manmade landscape and the "natural" world are, when plants and animals are left to claw out an existence in radically altered ecosystems. Sunken speedboats are overgrown with marsh grasses. Tree roots grow over granite blocks. Juvenile night-herons search out fish under busy highways and overpasses. "The importance of all these little creeks is that they are estuaries, and fish nurseries. It’s a whole ecosystem, and it all starts right there," said Quinn. "They see it as a nuisance, in the way of their development. But when I grew up, I was told that you don’t walk on the marsh. When we were kids, they told us not to mess with it."

As sea levels continue their inexorable rise, the health of New York City’s marshes, wetlands, and dune ecosystems will increasingly determine which waterfront communities might survive global warming, as made clear in nearby Broad Channel and Hook Creek. But residents living along Bridge Creek are already facing a dire forecast. "When it’s a full moon, the tide comes up into the street," said Robin Fodiman, whose home looks out over an empty marina. "In Irene, we had all these trees that came down.... During Sandy, the water came up 10 or 12 feet." With water all around her, Fodiman appreciates that the undeveloped land off her back porch has become a wildlife sanctuary. "If they don’t build on it, that’s fine with me."

The mouth of Bridge Creek is located in Nassau County, where it connects with the wider waters of Bannister Creek. Fishermen dive for shellfish in the saltwater here.

Bridge Creek connects to Bannister Creek, Reynolds Channel, and the East Rockaway Inlet from underneath this fenced-off Nassau Expressway overpass. "At low tide, the boats can’t get under that bridge," said Fodiman. The toll plaza of the Atlantic Beach Bridge is nearby.

On the opposite side of the toll plaza and expressway, the creek re-emerges, in an area isolated by bridges and highways. Herons and egrets walk the quiet waters here, hunting fish.

In the crevices of this manmade shoreline, ribbed mussels and wetland grasses have found a foothold. "Its definitely cleaner from years ago," said Quinn, describing the waters around the end of the Rockaway peninsula. "Back in the 70s, everything used to be brown here. When you were surfing, you would cough up these black balls."

Bridge Creek is largely a tidal estuary, and its water appears to be relatively healthy, with no signs of oil spills or raw sewage. At low tide, it would be impossible for a large boat to navigate the creek, but "people kayak through here," said Fodiman.

A lone egret under the Beach 2nd Street bridge. As the first street in the Far Rockaways, this is the dividing line between Nassau County and New York City.

On the Queens side of Beach 2nd Street, the first of many abandoned marinas lines the creek. Several homes here are built at the water’s edge.

Sinking boats and rotting docks block off large parts of Bridge Creek. "About two years ago, the docks started falling apart," said Fodiman. "Whoever owns them is certainly not taking care of them."

Most of the docks here are unused, overgrown, and decaying. "A couple years ago, it was filled with boats," said Quinn. "We had a little boat back there, a 21-footer."

At the end of Beach 3rd Street, the concrete is breaking apart and falling into the creek. During high tides, this area is often underwater.

Another abandoned marina, at the end of Beach 3rd Street. Several boats here are completely overgrown with trees and phragmites, having clearly been abandoned for years.

Collapsing docks and power lines stretch across the creek. Nature is reclaiming this area, although it is not part of the official wetlands.

A sunken boat, a homeless camp, a ruined pier, and an overgrown shoreline. "You build close to that and you sink right down. It’s like a soggy Venice," said Quinn.

From the opposite side of the creek, some of the oversized newer buildings in the neighborhood of Mott Creek can be seen. "It was all little houses," said Quinn. "They could’ve built something nice, but they chose to try and suck the money out of the ground."

Depending on which direction you look, the undeveloped sections of Bridge Creek can appear deceptively wild. This bend in the creek was once slated for a 13-story tower. A new residential complex is now being built along Seagirt Avenue nearby.

A juvenile night-heron stalks the shallow waters of the protected Seagirt Avenue Wetlands area. "It’s a bit of a bird sanctuary," said Fodiman. "That’s a protected wetlands that they can never build on."

The wetlands were assigned to the NYC Parks department in September 1995, according to the park’s history. "The land remains undeveloped in order to keep the vital ecosystem stable and thriving."

The illusion of nature in the wetlands area is shattered by the looming presence of the Roy Reuther Houses, a 1971 behemoth which was renamed and rebranded as "The Sand Castle" in 2007. Like much of the Rockaways, these buildings did not fare well during Hurricane Sandy.

A large section of land to the west of Bridge Creek, adjacent to the protected wetlands, is currently for sale. For many years, this section of the creek’s wilderness has been an overgrown forest, its only human residents hidden in several homeless camps.

The overgrown areas of the creek once housed the 16 tiny bungalows of Coronado Court, which had Bridge Creek as a backyard. Abandoned for decades, they were taken over by a group of Salvadoran squatters in 2009, before being demolished by a developer. "They weren’t supposed to take them down, but they snuck in there at night and all of the sudden they were gone," said Quinn.

Across the wetlands, Seagirt Boulevard cuts Bridge Creek in two. Over 100 years ago, before the boulevard was built, the creek’s route went much deeper into Queens, extending almost to Beach 17th Street. Today, it ends near Beach 9th Street.

On the north side of Seagirt Boulevard is another series of homeless camps. The creek is hidden away here, behind dense overgrowth.

Pushing through poison ivy and phragmites, a quick glimpse of water down a steep embankment. This area is not part of the Parks Department wetlands, though it is a wetland ecosystem.

The creek returns to sight at a new construction site along Jarvis Avenue, where 10 "luxury residential homes" were slated to be completed by summer 2015. A large section of the construction site appears to have been abandoned and flooded.

The new homes here are essentially being built in a wetlands, with the creek just a few feet away, raising questions about their future, and the future of this entire end of the Rockaway Peninsula.

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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