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What will it take to bring Spring Creek back to life?

Looking at the past and future of a denigrated waterway on Brooklyn’s outer edge

Out on the shores of Jamaica Bay, one of the city’s most important salt marsh habitats is hidden away behind miles of fences and acres of municipal facilities. Mostly forgotten by the neighborhoods around it, this wetland has become better known as a dumping ground for household waste and dead bodies. But the city is now working to bring it back to life, and to restore some portion of its original waterways.

This is Spring Creek, the last remaining piece of once-expansive watershed along the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Today, the creek is divided in half by the Belt Parkway, its southern section a dredged inlet on Jamaica Bay, bordering Howard Beach and the Fountain Avenue Landfill. In its northern section, above the parkway, Spring Creek creates the convoluted border between East New York and Lindenwood, running through a neglected marshland that has mostly been paved over by human development.

Over the past 100 years, much of Spring Creek’s salt marsh habitat was filled in by construction debris and dredged material, and its tributaries are now covered over by a bus depot, a sanitation incinerator, a post office parking lot, and a series of new streets and residential complexes. An enormous sewage facility, built in the 1970s, also juts out into the middle of the creek’s waters, and dumps millions of gallons of raw sewage into Jamaica Bay during heavy rainstorms.

Tracking down the last remaining aboveground portions of Spring Creek can be a convoluted process. While the creek now flows less than a mile from its current headwaters to the Belt Parkway, circumnavigating its route involves hiking through miles of overgrown landfill, neighborhood dumping grounds, and dead-end streets. Even catching a glimpse of Spring Creek’s waters is rare, since it has been almost completely fenced off to the public.

Despite all of the abuse that has been heaped on Spring Creek over the decades, the last remaining pieces of its wetlands are one of the most significant saltwater marsh habitats left in Jamaica Bay, where “approximately 1,400 acres of tidal salt marsh have been lost from the marsh islands since 1924,” according the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). The north and south sections of Spring Creek Park contain “the largest undeveloped salt marsh in northern Jamaica Bay,” according to the NYC Parks Department, which “plays a vital role in the protection and preservation of Jamaica Bay.”

Government agencies at the city, state, and federal level are now collaborating on several projects that could help improve the health of this denigrated watershed. In the northern section of Spring Creek Park, near Lindenwood, a reforestation project is now underway by the NYC Parks Department’s Natural Resources Group, while in the southern section of the creek, the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation is directing a Storm Resilience and Ecosystem Restoration project. And this September, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) released an initial report for a possible restoration project in 47 acres of Spring Creek’s salt marsh.

This restoration project, if approved, would consist of excavating the older landfill dumped around the marshland, contouring the banks of the creek to facilitate a more natural intertidal landscape, removing invasive plant species like phragmites, and replanting native flora. “The overall project purpose is to improve the environmental quality (water, diversity and wildlife habitat) of Spring Creek and its associated salt marshes as part of the overall Jamaica Bay Ecosystem,” according to the USACE report.

To help address flooding issues which have long plagued Howard Beach, Lindenwood, and East New York, the report also notes that its partner agency, the NYC Parks Department, “has received a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant for $4.85 Million for the construction of adjacent berms, storm water detention, and maritime forest within the Spring Creek North Study Area.”

For residents living near Spring Creek, however, the environmental importance of its marshlands is offset by its polluted state. “I hate that thing, bro, because that thing smells like ass,” says Josh Garcia, who has lived across the street from Spring Creek in Lindenwood for seven years. As the creek flows through his neighborhood, it is almost completely hidden from view, sunken down into the marshlands behind fences, but its presence is unmistakable. “In the nighttime, this whole neighborhood smells. Every single night, it never fails. By 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., it smells like rotten eggs.”

Along with the millions of gallons of sewage that are pumped into the creek from the Spring Creek Auxiliary Water Pollution Control Plant (AWPCP) during rain storms, Lindenwood residents also trace their problems with Spring Creek to a bridge that was built across the marshlands many years ago. This concrete structure, which carries a Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) pipeline to the nearby sewage facility, effectively cuts the creek in half, exacerbating the pollution in its northernmost reaches. Standing on this bridge today, the problem is clearly evident. To the south, Spring Creek flows unimpeded through a relatively lively salt marsh habitat, but just north of the bridge, its waters are murky, sluggish, and filled with hundreds of car tires.

“It’s got to be like 25 years since they built that bridge,” says John, a local resident whose home is on the banks of the creek. When he first moved to the area, before the bridge was built, John would paddle his boat from his backyard in Lindenwood down Spring Creek and out to Jamaica Bay. “There used to be a lot of things, like crab and fish, before,” he explains. “There used to be eels and turtles. There used to be pheasants and rabbits, when we first moved here.”

After the bridge was built, access to the southern portion of the creek was cut off, and John abandoned his boathouse. He now takes his skiff out only occasionally, to clean up car tires and garbage from the marshlands; most of the wildlife near his home has slowly disappeared. “That’s the main reason why we moved here, is because of the creek. I like the wildlife,” says John. “Now we’ve got all this stagnant water. I haven’t seen a rabbit in 10 years. It’s horrible. It needs to be cleaned up.”

The USACE report confirms that the entire Spring Creek watershed has been undergoing a long decline, caused by pollution, sewage, and the historic destruction of the salt marsh: “The remaining estuarine wetlands in the Spring Creek area have been degraded to the point where their ability to provide habitat for numerous species of migratory and nesting birds, fish, and invertebrates has been reduced or lost, resulting in a significant disruption to the entire area’s interconnected coastal ecology.”

Although its polluted waters are certainly a major problem, the overdevelopment and misuse of the Spring Creek marshland also poses a more existential threat to nearby residents. During Hurricane Sandy, homes throughout the creek’s historic watershed were badly damaged when the Atlantic Ocean surged through Jamaica Bay and into communities along the coast of Brooklyn and Queens. Buildings in Howard Beach and East New York were flooded. In the low points of Lindenwood, mold-filled houses still sit abandoned, waiting to be demolished.

“It was bad, really bad. Boats rescuing people. People crying for help. It was the sickest shit I’ve ever seen,” says Garcia, whose home in Lindenwood was flooded via Spring Creek. “Within minutes, it came in. It looked like waves. These houses here got six feet of water in each basement. It was coming from the inside of the house. I never want to live through that shit again.”

Two years after Sandy, Lindenwood was flooded again, this time by a malfunction at the Spring Creek AWPCP facility during a heavy rainstorm. Instead of releasing the wastewater that had been pumped to the facility via the CSO pipeline across the creek, the facility kept its overflow gates closed, causing millions of gallons of rainwater and sewage to back up into nearby homes. Geysers of wastewater filled the streets, and neighbors again described the flooding as being like waves of water, although “far worse than what they head to deal with during Sandy.”

Sinking streets, perpetual flooding, storm surges and sewage problems have plagued the neighborhoods around the coast of Jamaica Bay ever since they were built out on top of the old marshlands. These problems will only continue to increase as sea levels rise. The communities around Spring Creek face a similar set of challenges to nearby places like Hamilton Beach, where Hawtree Creek submerges the streets during high tides, and Meadowmere, where Hook Creek has repeatedly flooded homes for decades. Living in these communities will become more and more difficult in the years to come.

Dozens of small creeks once flowed down through the marshlands of Brooklyn and Queens into the waters of Jamaica Bay, but almost all have been buried, dredged, channelized, or completely erased by human development. Understanding the history of these lost waterways is becoming increasingly important. When the next storms come, and the ocean returns to these long-forgotten marshlands, the survival of those living here will depend on the pathways of stream like Spring Creek, and we will no longer be able to ignore the water hidden in our backyards.

An expansive view of the mouth of Spring Creek can be found on the Belt Parkway, looking south towards Jamaica Bay. The creek flows between Spring Creek Park in Howard Beach and the Fountain Avenue Landfill in East New York, before emptying out into the bay itself. This inlet is also known as the Old Mill Creek basin.

Underneath the Belt Parkway, at the end of Fountain Avenue, the shoreline of the creek has been almost completely fenced off. An entrance to the Fountain Avenue Landfill, which was once a notorious mob burial ground, is located here, and marked by warning signs reading “Danger Hazardous Waste Area.”

A small gate under the Belt Parkway provides access to the rocky shoreline of the creek, which is mainly visited by fishermen and graffiti artists. This is the only public access point to Spring Creek in Brooklyn, in an isolated part of East New York that has been described as “the land of the lost.”

To the north, the Spring Creek Auxiliary Water Pollution Control Plant (AWPCP) was built out into the salt marsh habitat in the 1970s. During heavy rainfall, this facility can store 20 million gallons of sewage overflows from two nearby sewage plants. Anything in excess of that, it then releases out into Jamaica Bay.

Most of the creek along Fountain Avenue has been rendered inaccessible by a half-mile-long fence, perhaps because of the area’s long history as a dumping ground for toxic debris and murder victims.

Although this section of Spring Creek is parkland, it is not open to the public. A Parks Department sign posted in 2001 describes the degradation of its fenced-off marshland. “In the last 200 years, humans have filled over 80 percent of the city’s original salt marshes for construction,” the sign reads. “Despite being protected by Spring Creek Park, scientists fear that the salt marshes of Jamaica Bay could completely vanish with 20 years.”

Old Mill Creek and Betts Creek once flowed northwest into Brooklyn from here, alongside a man-made waterway called Bull Ditch. In the early 1900’s, this community was a summertime waterfront resort, described in 1930 as “one of the boro’s liveliest spots!” A last reminder of this era can be found on Old Mill Lane, where a handful of old homes sit on a dirt road, sunk down below the surrounding streets.

Like much of the marshlands here in East New York, Bull Ditch, Betts Creek, and Old Mill Creek were covered over by landfill to create room for new construction. Besides the sewage facility, the MTA’s Spring Creek bus depot now sits above the old salt marsh, next to a large USPS delivery facility.

An old mill, built in 1763 by Jacob Van Wicklen, once stood along the shores of Jamaica Bay here, at the end of Crescent Street. It was demolished in 1934, and was replaced by an abandoned semi-trailer truck with a shattered windshield and burned-out engine block.

Today, the only access to the Spring Creek marshlands in Brooklyn is via a narrow road that cuts between two large abandoned lots. This road was once used to service the nearby sewage facility.

The road soon becomes entirely overgrown as it cuts through layers of landfill and decades of illegal dumping. Abandoned cars, cans of paint, and chunks of concrete are tangled into the trees here.

More recent dumping is scattered all around in the overgrowth. A collections of mattresses sits alongside the pathway, near dressers and bookshelves.

Further down the path, the waters of Spring Creek come into view from a concrete bridge that conveys sewage overflows to the AWPCP sewage facility. According to neighbors, this bridge has essentially cut the creek’s ecosystem in half, although water is still able to flow underneath it.

To the north, the flow of Spring Creek is severely impeded by this barrier. The water here is sluggish and heavily polluted by tires, plastic, and other debris caught behind the barrier, while its banks are lined by invasive phragmites.

To the south, Spring Creek flows freely through a much more robust ecosystem, passing through the salt marsh habitat as it flows out towards the Belt Parkway and Jamaica Bay.

Although the marshland has been greatly reduced as a habitat, mussels grow in the mud along the banks of the creek here, near native grasses. “There’s muskrats, there’s all kinds of birds—night herons, exotic ducks,” says John, who lives upstream behind the barrier. “That’s the whole reason I moved here.”

Although this area is also a part of the NYC Parks Department, it is, again, completely fenced off from the neighborhood. Alongside the fence, a high berm of landfill cuts off any view of the creek and its hidden marshland.

New housing developments have been built into many East New York areas constructed on filled-in marshland. These rowhouses near Flatlands Avenue and Eldert Lane were constructed on a plot of former marshland squeezed between the USPS facility and a nearby sanitation depot.

The northern reaches of Spring Creek are cut off by this old Department of Sanitation incinerator facility, which is built on top of the marshland. The facility no longer burns trash, and instead is used to store abandoned vehicles and salt piles.

The sprawling sanitation property, which officially borders the Parks Department’s land, has actually cut deep into Spring Creek Park’s green spaces. Scrap collectors have blazed a trail through the parkland to the far side of the facility in order to access its salvage dumpsters and abandoned vehicles.

Spring Creek once continued over a mile north of this area to Liberty Avenue. Reminders of its buried flow can still be found in the sunken streets off Linden Boulevard, where a chain of undeveloped lots trace out the old path of the creek. This green space borders a constantly flooded stretch of Amber Street near Loring Avenue.

Though long buried, Spring Creek makes its presence known in the perpetually flooded streets of The Hole, another infamous mob burial ground where the creek once marked the crooked border between Brooklyn and Queens. Homes here are all situated down below the surrounding street level.

Another set of older, low-lying houses can be found further south in Lindenwood, Queens. At the western end 155th avenue, several of these homes were badly flooded during Hurricane Sandy, and have since been abandoned.

The interior of this abandoned house is covered in black mold and graffiti. During Hurricane Sandy, “that whole area back there flooded,” says Garcia, who lives just uphill from this the street. “It was like a pool back there. The water was up to the stop signs.”

The current headwaters of Spring Creek are located across the street from these empty houses, in a fenced off backyard. “I used to take the skiff out and clean up tires and garbage from the creek,” says John. “I must have thrown out 10 dumpsters of concrete and burned out cars.”

During the low tide, Spring Creek is mostly a mud flat, with a small flow of freshwater running out towards Jamaica Bay. At high tide, the waters of Jamaica Bay flow into this area, although its flow has been impeded by the concrete bridge further downstream. “It’s all stagnant water,” says John. “There’s no flow.”

This northern section of Spring Creek runs along the border between Lindenwood and East New York, and is heavily polluted. Several branches of the creek that used to flow much further inland from here are buried or cut off by the Sanitation Department’s land. “Sanitation tossed all kinds of stuff in there and filled it in,” said John. “You’ve got tons of toxic waste back there.”

Throughout Lindenwood, the creek is once again almost completely inaccessible to the general public, and is only visible from a few dead-end streets. The view here, at the end of 75th Street, looks back across the creek towards East New York.

A reforestation project by the Parks Department’s Natural Resources Group is now underway next to 75th Street. Invasive species are being removed from the land above the marsh, before a new ecosystem of native trees and shrubs can be planted.

The USACE is planning its own restoration work here on 47 acres of marshland. “It should be clean and natural. Clean it up and let it grow,” says John, whose own property at the head of the creek is not included in the restoration area.

Along banks of the creek on 157th Avenue, the area is not completely fenced off, and the neighborhood has dumped car parts, garbage, and broken glass along the border of the marshland.

Between 157th Avenue and the Belt Parkway, a tributary of Spring Creek historically known as Ralph Hunt Creek branches out towards the east. Today, this waterway is better known as Ralph’s Creek.

The head of Ralph’s Creek is accessible via a narrow, overgrown pathway, which cuts through land that is being considered for the USACE restoration.

Ralph’s Creek terminates abruptly in a concrete wall, near the edge of the Belt Parkway. A culvert in the bottom of this barrier has been sealed by concrete, and the flow of this historic creek is no longer evident.

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