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In Queens and Staten Island, two competing visions for New York's waterfront

As climate change reshapes NYC’s landscape, is it better to build up or scale back?

If you walk along New York City’s waterfront for long enough, different possible futures begin to wash over you like waves. Will the coastline become a hypergentrified playground for billionaires? A toxic stew left behind by the government? A flooded dystopia lashed together by bridges and docks? A haven for horseshoe crabs and other survivors of the sixth extinction?

New York City’s coast has changed in countless ways since this column, Camera Obscura, first began five years ago. Wetlands and salt marshes have been replanted, creeks rerouted, forests razed. Historic factories and homes have been demolished; bungalow communities restored and raised up; boardwalks replaced; and new parks have opened all along the city’s waterways, replacing brownfields, warehouses, and wild open spaces.

Over the past five years, two waterfront neighborhoods have changed more dramatically than almost any others in New York City. Hundreds of their buildings have been torn down, their coast has been reshaped, and their built landscapes radically altered. These two communities—both constructed in marshlands, both severely flooded during Hurricane Sandy, both located in the first evacuation zone for the next major storm—represent widely conflicting visions for the city’s future.

They are Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, and Long Island City, Queens, where the opposing ideas of managed retreat versus increased population density are now playing out in the face of rising sea levels.

Long Island City, 2017.

A walk through both of these neighborhoods highlights the different trajectories they have taken over the past five years. In Long Island City, the amount of change has been disorienting, with dozens of neighborhood landmarks destroyed, from apartment buildings to factory complexes. For those familiar with its past, a stroll through these streets today is a dispiriting experience, with much of the community’s unique industrial architecture erased and replaced by a forest of soulless glass boxes.

In recent years, Long Island City’s “graffiti mecca” at 5 Pointz was completely bulldozed and is being replaced by two enormous residential towers developed by G&M Realty. The West Chemical complex, a neighborhood time capsule, is now an unrecognizable thicket of skyscrapers being developed by Tishman Speyer. And the unique wilderness of Hunter’s Point South has completely vanished as construction begins on a long-planned waterfront megaproject managed by the NYCEDC.

Tens of thousands of new residents are now moving into Long Island City, despite the fact that much of the neighborhood could be underwater during the next major storm. It is much the same all along the East River, in Brooklyn and Queens, where dozens of soaring residential towers are being constructed in flood zones: Domino Sugar, Greenpoint Landing, Halletts Point.

As temperatures increase and glaciers melt, the ocean will continue its inexorable rise. How many new waterfront residents will need to be evacuated in the coming storms? And how many decades will these towers survive, built out over landfill and marshland, at the water’s edge?

Oakwood Beach, 2017.

Down the East River and out on the Atlantic, a different kind of disorientation settles in while walking along the streets of Oakwood Beach. After being inundated by Hurricane Sandy and many earlier storms, almost all of the buildings in this Staten Island community have now been removed as part of a state-sponsored buyout program. Only a handful of reminders from the past remain: cracked sidewalks and isolated driveways surrounded by phragmites, a few scattered homes in newly opened fields, an old church sign hidden in the overgrowth.

Most of Oakwood Beach has been returned to nature in the past five years as part of a process of managed retreat, with fields of green where homes once stood. Swarms of dragonflies hover over thickets of wildflowers, and families of geese wander through flooded streets. The throbbing hum of insects, songbirds, and salt breezes is a far different environment from the masses of humanity now crowding the streets of Long Island City.

Wandering the back roads and dead ends of both neighborhoods, it is sometimes difficult to conjure up a vision of what was there before. In Oakwood Beach, the number of each demolished home has been spray-painted onto the street, facing an empty void where a home once stood. As part of the buyout program by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, no one will be allowed to build in these marshlands again, leaving the landscape as a buffer for communities further inland. The permanent impact of this decision weighs heavy in the air.

Long Island City, 2017.

We live in a strange moment, when on the one hand, the state government is paying millions of dollars to help hundreds of residents move away from the water in an orderly fashion, but on the other hand, the city and private developers are encouraging thousands of new residents to move into rapidly constructed waterfront towers that cost billions of dollars. These diametrically opposed plans for the waterfront are creating very different versions of the future, even as the city has begun to initiate its own managed retreat programs in Edgemere and beyond.

As New York slowly prepares for the decades ahead, when sea levels are expected to rise up to 75 inches, the future of the coastline will increasingly be decided by climate change and Mother Nature. In the interim, the ever-changing landscape of the waterfront is, as always, a fascinating place to contemplate what could come next.

In Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, hundreds of residences have been removed from the landscape since Hurricane Sandy, leaving behind empty lots and encroaching marshlands, like this area along Kissam Avenue.

In Long Island City, Queens, an opposite landscape has been built, with many of the formerly low-rise streets now hemmed in by residential towers. These buildings along Purves Street are located Zone 3 of the city’s Hurricane Evacuation Zones.

Apartments, galleries, small businesses, and warehouses throughout Long Island City have been demolished to make way for taller residences, including this strip of buildings along Jackson Avenue, seen here in 2013.

The same stretch of Jackson Avenue (seen in 2017) is now being replaced by two residential towers, each over 40 stories high, which will cover an entire city block. Situated in Hurricane Evacuation Zone 2, this block was formerly home to 5 Pointz, a neighborhood landmark.

Oakwood Beach is almost completely situated in Evacuation Zones 1 and 2. Most of its low-rise buildings have also been removed, like these homes along Fox Beach Avenue, seen in 2014 before their demolition.

Most of Fox Beach Avenue is lined by empty lots today. Only a few holdouts remain in the buyout area, along with a final few homes slated for demolition.

Oakwood Beach has also lost many of its neighborhood landmarks, including the St. Johns Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, seen here in 2013. The church was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy, which inundated the entire community.

All that remains of the church site today is its overgrown sign, increasingly obscured by phragmites and other wild-growing plants.

The West Chemical complex, another Long Island City landmark, was largely surrounded by warehouses and open lots in 2014. Dating back to the early 1900s, this factory contained a treasure trove of history from Long Island City’s past.

The same view of the West Chemical site, in May 2017, is almost unrecognizable. A wall of glass towers has blocked out the sky. Tishman Speyer is building three residential buildings here in Evacuation Zone 3, with almost 1,800 new apartments.

The Tishman Speyer towers, located at 28-34 Jackson Avenue, 28-10 Jackson Avenue and 30-02 Queens Boulevard, will all rise higher than 40 floors, but already blend in with some of the new residential towers that are being built in the neighborhood.

Back on Fox Beach Avenue in Oakwood Beach, the tallest buildings once included this three-story home, seen in 2014. Built in marshland, at sea level, and only a few dozen yards away from the ocean, this neighborhood has often flooded.

The same section of Fox Beach Avenue, as seen in May 2017. After removing each home, the state planted a special wetlands seed mix to encourage the return of nature. Some lots are mowed, while others grow wild.

The surrounding marshland is slowly encroaching onto the streets of Oakwood Beach, including Fox Lane, which appears to now be permanently submerged. Increasingly, this community is being left to become a unmanaged, wild ecosystem.

Developers have taken the opposite approach in Long Island City, removing existing wild-growing ecosystems and replacing them with controlled landscapes. At Hunter’s Point South, which was once a salt marsh, demolition crews removed meadows and forest glens, which are now being replaced by more residential towers and a park.

The end result for Hunter’s Point South will resemble the development directly north, where generic towers surround a utilitarian section of Gantry Plaza State Park. This section of Long Island City is a flood hazard area located in Hurricane Evacuation Zone 1.

Gantry Plaza State Park is a popular destination for the thousands of new Long Island City residents who have already moved in, and a good place to contemplate the tidal strait of the East River, which is expected to rise dramatically as global warming continues.

Many fewer visitors travel to the isolated waterfront of Oakwood Beach. Although a temporary sand berm has been built along much of this waterfront since Hurricane Sandy, in some cases, all that stands between the Atlantic Ocean and Staten Island is a broken wooden wall.

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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