Out on the northwest corner of Staten Island, a small wetland forest awaits its fate.
Situated between the neighborhoods of Old Place and Graniteville, this 42-acre woodlands has been growing in isolation for many decades, inside a triangle of land surrounded by strip malls and chain stores. Thousands of mature trees live here, some soaring 100 feet over the adjoining marshes of the Graniteville Swamp. Soon, more than half of this forest may be bulldozed to make way for a 28-acre development that will include a gas station, 838 parking spaces, and BJ’s Wholesale Club.
For the past two years, a diverse consortium of local residents and community groups has been fighting tooth and nail to save this pocket of green space from destruction. Calling itself the Coalition for Wetlands and Forests, the group’s efforts have brought an impressive amount of attention to the Graniteville Swamp, which is located in a part of the city most New Yorkers have never heard of, let alone visited. Their concerns, besides the loss of wetlands habitat, are that removing the vernal pools in the forest will eliminate a vital natural buffer that is helping to protect homeowners from stormwater flooding and sea level rise. The swamp here is directly connected to the Arthur Kill, via the waters of Old Place Creek.
After a failed attempt to find the endangered eastern mud turtle in the marshland around Old Place Creek, and after a period of public commentary that ended on August 30, the final decision about the future of the proposed BJ’s site rests with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which the coalition hopes will agree to host a final public hearing for local residents, developers, and politicians to debate the merits of paving over this wilderness.
For Gabriella Velardi-Ward, who founded the group in 2017, the best possible outcome would be for New York state to purchase the BJ’s site, leaving it under the permanent protection of the DEC, and for a system of elevated boardwalks to be built over its vernal pools, creating access for nearby residents. “We’ve come to the end of the land. New York City doesn’t have land like this anymore. So they are tearing down historic buildings, they are building on beaches, they are building on wetlands,” says Velardi-Ward, a retired architectural designer for the NYC Parks Department whose home is across the street from the headwaters of Old Place Creek. “Leave it the way it is. You can’t improve on nature, no matter how much you think you can.”
A wide variety of plants and animals currently call the Graniteville wetlands home, from swamp white oak, sweetgum, and red maple, to trout lily, cinnamon fern, and wild sarsparilla. “Redwing blackbirds, American woodcock, and many different species of warbler can be seen soaring through Graniteville Swamp, along with the formerly endangered peregrine falcon. Muskrats race across the ground while spring peepers sing,” according to the NYC Parks Department website for Graniteville Swamp Park, which encompasses nine acres of wetlands southwest of the BJ’s site.
Despite supporting such a diverse array of life, the Graniteville Swamp faces the same challenges of pollution and neglect that threaten all of New York City’s urban wetlands. Thick stands of invasive phragmites crowd the banks of Old Place Creek, choking out its native salt grasses, while illegally dumped construction debris lines Goethals Road, which cuts through the center of the marshland. Garbage and oily runoff flow into the swamp during rainstorms from the parking lots and gas stations that surround it. And in the woods where the BJ’s could rise, dozens of abandoned cars, tires, and pieces of children’s play equipment have been left to slowly rot.
Humans have been leaving their imprint on this part of Staten Island for thousands of years. In 2013, an archaeological dig was conducted less than a mile from the Graniteville Swamp as part of the construction of a natural gas pipeline across Old Place Creek. The dig unearthed more than 24,000 artifacts, which helped trace out a richly detailed portrait of 10,000 years of human activity.
“Around 6,200 years ago, Native Americans stayed at the site long enough to gather edible roots (tubers) from arrowhead plants growing in the developing wetlands,” according to a report on the dig from the Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL). “Native Americans returned to Old Place Neck around 2,400 years ago. These people brought clay cooking pots to the site and collected hickory nuts and walnuts from the woodlands surrounding the site…. Around 1,300 years ago and then again around 1,100 years ago, small groups of people stayed at the site briefly. They left behind two small firepits with small fragments of animal bone, raspberry and blackberry seeds, and acorn nutshells.”
It was not until the arrival of European immigrants 400 years ago that this part of Staten Island began to be developed for large-scale agricultural and industrial purposes, with mills built over the waters of Old Place Creek. “Beginning in the 1600s, European settlers cut down trees, replacing the woodlands with agricultural fields and pastures,” according to the PAL report. “This rural landscape characterized the area around Old Place Neck into the early 20th century.”
By 1907, more than 30 acres of the Graniteville Swamp were owned by the New York Transit & Terminal Co., according to the Atlas of the Borough of Richmond, and a system of streets had been planned for its northern forest. These streets—Garfield, Irving, Franklin, Lincoln—were either never fully completed or have since been reclaimed by the forest, with a few scant remnants left at the dead end of Dwarf Street and Lilac Streets. Several other roads were later planned for the heart of the wetlands, including sections of Amador Street, Morrow Street, Garrick Street, and Albany Avenue, but these so-called “paper streets” were never built, and could be demapped as part of the BJ’s development.
“Today, nearly 80 percent of Staten Island is paved, built, filled, or otherwise altered by urban development,” according to the PAL report. “Houses, commercial buildings, industrial complexes, and artificial landscaping have largely hidden the earlier natural landscape.”
With 27,400 fires currently burning across 7,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, it might seem strange to focus on the potential destruction of 28 acres of forest and wetlands in Staten Island. However, the Graniteville Swamp is an important part of a much larger ecosystem that plays a vital role in the health of New York City, and its fate will directly impact hundreds of acres of protected wetlands nearby.
The swamp, situated at the current headwaters of Old Place Creek, is less than 2,000 feet upstream from the 70-acre Old Place Creek Tidal Wetlands Area, a DEC protected site that recently underwent an extensive rehabilitation as part of the replacement of the Goethals Bridge. Immediately to the south of that site, next to a new 200-acre Amazon and Ikea warehouse complex, are 252 acres of wetlands “that can never be developed”; just south of that is the 68-acre site of the Saw Mill Creek wetlands restoration.
Each of these neighboring wetlands is connected by the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait that has been polluted for decades by oil and chemical spills, but which is also home to several important natural areas. These include Pralls Island, the Isle of Meadows, and the Sharrots Shoreline, as well as the capped landfill at Freshkills Park. Taken as a whole, these sites make up a network of hundreds of acres of important wildlife habitat, which are a stopover for migrating birds and butterflies, and a year-round home to an array of endangered plants and animals.
“We’ve lost about 80 percent of our wetlands on the island,” says Velardi-Ward, considering how the Graniteville Wetlands fit into Staten Island’s larger landscape. “They’ve been chipping away at this for years. Everything was wetland here. It was all about making money. They should not have built here.”
The route of Old Place Creek flows from the Graniteville Swamp underneath the Goethals Bridge and to the Arthur Kill. Along its route, the creek passes through a 70-acre tidal wetland maintained by the DEC.
Upstream from the DEC wetland, Old Place Creek branches out into several tributaries. Its northern branch flows through this forgotten section of the Graniteville Swamp, sandwiched between the Staten Island Expressway and Goethals Road.
Goethals Road cleaves through the center of the old Graniteville Swamp, dividing it into two separate wetlands. Both sides of the road are used as a local dumping ground, and Old Place Creek passes beneath the street here, under a pile of construction debris.
The largest section of the Graniteville Swamp wetlands can be viewed from the parking lot of Charlie Brown’s Fresh Grill, a chain steakhouse built out into the wetlands on Goethals Road.
On the far side of this wetlands is the proposed site of the BJ’s market. The dense forest here contains thousands of trees that tower over the surrounding neighborhood.
The headwaters of Old Place Creek flow out into the tidal wetlands from underneath South Avenue. The creek travels from here to the Arthur Kill, following a three-mile route that has remained much the same for centuries.
The creek disappears underneath South Avenue at the eastern edge of the Graniteville Swamp. The wetlands are reclaiming the road in a residential area that will soon see regular tidal flooding from the Arthur Kill.
Several other businesses have carved their footprints into the Graniteville wetlands, including a gas station, a medical facility, and this new 1.3-acre storage facility, which was built into the forest on Goethals Road.
One of the largest complexes built into the marshland is a six-acre United Artists movie theater complex on Forest Avenue, just west of the proposed BJ’s site. The theater’s sprawling parking lot can hold over 400 cars.
To the south of the movie theater is Graniteville Swamp Park, an official city park that encompasses nine acres of wetlands. “Parks’s control of this small area within Graniteville Swamp protects an important ecosystem from development and destruction,” according to NYC Parks.
The park is largely inaccessible to humans. There are no official trails or access points to its wetlands, and fences surround several sections in an effort to prevent illegal dumping.
The interior of the park is predominantly a marshland, filled with saltmarsh cordgrass and invasive phragmites, although it contains small sections of woodlands and swampy forest, which can be reached on foot during dry seasons.
Just east of the movie theater is the section of the Graniteville Swamp where the BJ’s could be built. There are no pathways, so visitors must scramble down past illegally dumped construction debris to reach its swampy interior. “There are six vernal pools in the area that they are planning to build in,” Velardi-Ward notes.
This section of woodlands, immediately adjacent to the theater’s parking lot, is filled with water in wetter seasons. “Either this will be the gas station, or the road,” says Velardi-Ward, surveying the garbage that has been pushed into the site by rainstorms. “And the gas station runoff will go into the wetlands.”
Deeper into the woods is a collection of abandoned cars that are overgrown with vines and trees. The forest here appears to have been mostly forgotten, although there are no fences around it.
An old campsite, perhaps evidence of people living in the woods, which are also home to deer, possums, skunks, and muskrats. “You have tidal wetland here, and freshwater next to it, so you have a great opportunity for life, because it has so many different ecosystems,“ says Velardi-Ward.
The forest soars high above visitors’ heads, soaking up runoff from rainstorms. “We have had torrential rains twice a week this summer,” says Velardi-Ward. “One rain, we had hail the size of golf balls.”
The trees thin out where the forest meets the tidal wetlands. “Everything here slopes down toward the wetland,” says Velardi-Ward. “When you have torrential rains, all the water flows down into the wetlands.”
The coalition has marked off the areas of the development site that are under the jurisdiction of the DEC and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which include 6.93 acres of the Graniteville wetland. “This wetland saved us during Sandy,” says Velardi-Ward, who lives on the other side of South Street from the swamp.
A road cuts deep into the forest, leading back to Dwarf Street. “By 2020, there will be a risk of high tide flooding in my house.” says Velardi-Ward. “I don’t want to leave, but I’m looking for a storage place to store my important things.”
Several of the oldest trees in the forest have recently been felled. “They were chopping trees down to do the boring samples, to see if they could build here,” says Velardi-Ward.
A giant pile of wood chips is already growing in the forest. If the development here is allowed, thousands more trees will be chopped down and ground into mulch.
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. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.