Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tuesday Night in Downtown Brooklyn: Freshkills Park Talks, "Ecological Restoration of Pennsylvania & Fountain Ave. Landfills" at Metropolitan Exchange

This evening we heard a fascinating talk on the ecological restoration of the Pennsylvania and Fountain Avenue landfills by the Belt Parkway that we used to ride or drive by practically every week on our way to and from the exit near our house (Flatbush Avenue) and anyplace east, as close as the Cross Bay Boulevard exit or as far as far as we'd go on Long Island.

We learned to try not to breathe deeply so we could avoid the putrid stench, which we can still smell in our sense memory decades later.

But now these hilly dumps have been transformed into 400 acres of nature preserve, restoring native habitats that disappeared from New York City long ago, and tonight John McLaughlin, who directed the ecological rehabiliation there, discussed how it was done. He spoke at the Metropolitan Exchange (MEx),

a wonderful architecture, urban planning, and research cooperative whose design professionals, developers, and scholars who come together to collaborate on architecture and planning projects, pursue development opportunities, and sponsor lectures, film screenings and exhibitions.

They've got a great space on the sixth floor of 33 Flatbush Avenue, a building we've passed all our lives but never had gone into before.

It was an easy walk from the Fulton Street G train stop, but a less easy walk up the six floors (the elevator was broken) but certainly doable and probably good exercise. In any case, the presentation was well worth it. There was cheese and crackers and wine for members and others attending the talk, and we signed in and checked out the space a little.

This interesting lecture and PowerPoint presentation is part of the Freshkills Park Talks series. Today's New York Times featured an article, "Turning Trash Piles into a Bird-Watcher's Paradise,"

about the gradual transformation of Staten Island's famous (and very large) Fresh Kills landfill into Freshkills Park.

The New York Times gave the basics in an article last September on the Pennsylvania and Fountain landfills' ecological restoration:
In a $200 million project, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection covered the Fountain Avenue Landfill and the neighboring Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill with a layer of plastic, then put down clean soil and planted 33,000 trees and shrubs at the two sites. The result is 400 acres of nature preserve, restoring native habitats that disappeared from New York City long ago… Once the plants take hold, nature will be allowed to take its course, evolving the land into microclimates. In some areas that turned out to be damper than had been foreseen, sassafras and black oak, which prefer dry soil, are not doing as well as expected, but other plants should prosper, Mr. McLaughlin said… Birds including ospreys, egrets and snowy owls are spotted and counted at the former landfills.

Eloise Hirsh, the Freshkills Park administrator, talked about this series of talks, which wil continue throughout the winter,

and introduced John McLaughlin, who has been involved with ecological restoration for 23 years, the last 17 at the Department of Environmental Protection, and before that, with the Sanitation Department.

John McLaughlin used a PowerPoint presentation with lots of charts and photos, to discuss his work on the Brooklyn landfills.

Their combined size, of course, is much smaller than the Staten Island landfill, and the Brooklyn landfills are also, unlike Fresh Kills, class 2 inactive hazardous waste sites.

John gave some of the history of the Brooklyn landfills, which began in 1956, when we were in kindergarten at P.S. 244, with a brief hiatus starting in 1962, when we started J.H.S. 285, and resumed taking on the city's trash in 1968, the year we graduated Midwood H.S. In 1974, the landfills were included in the deal for the Gateway National Recreation Area, so they're unders the jurisidiction not of the city or state but the federal government.

Pennsylvania and Fountain Avenues stopped taking on garbage in the early 1980s, after we left the city. The restoration projected began in 2002, with the landfills being capped in 2005-06 and then seeding and finallly planting began.

You can get a sense of the project from this interview John McLaughlin did with WNYC in February 2007:
Planting a tree requires an act of faith. They take years, sometimes decades to reach their prime. So, John McLaughlin’s faith in the future is something to admire. Because tree by tree, he’s planting a forest.

MCLAUGHLIN: Those are Virginia pine….there are three types of pine in here. Virginia pine, short leaf pine and pitch pine….

REPORTER: And not just any forest. This is going to be a Northeastern coastal woodland, using plants native to our area and selected specifically for this site. McLaughlin’s also planting native drought-resistant grasses...wildflowers.…holly, swamp azalea…even prickly pear cactus.

McLAUGHLIN: Here’s the cactus. When you look at it this time of year, it’s like, eek, It looks all shriveled up…that’s its normal characteristic this time of year.

REPORTER: McLaughlin’s forest will someday cover two Brooklyn landfills, the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills. You can see their big, grassy mounds along the Belt Parkway, near exit 14. Usually, the Department of Sanitation handles landfills. But the Department of Environmental Protection got involved in the early 90s. It took control of Penn, Fountain, and two other landfills, after the feds banned ocean dumping. Ultimately, the DEP found other ways to get rid of its sludge, but it still has these old landfills to deal with. And that’s where John McLaughlin comes in. He’s DEP’s Director of Ecological Services.

McLAUGHLIN: The Department saw this as a great opportunity to take nearly 400 acres of open land near a very sensitive area such as Jamaica Bay and convert it to ecologically valuable habitat.

REPORTER: Once a landfill is capped, and covered with soil…once its dangerous methane gas and toxic ooze are dealt with….it seems logical to try to restore its ecology. But the DEP is not required to do this. And it's relatively new idea.

SAUER: The regulations required that you grow turf, lawn, basically, and mow it for 30 years. The problem is, it certainly has nothing to do with a very useful end use in the area.

REPORTER: That’s Leslie Jones Sauer, the founder of Andropogen Associates, which pioneered the concept of environmentally-sustainable landscape design. In the late 80s, John McLaughlin was part of a team charged with the future of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. At two thousand, two hundred acres, Fresh Kills would make a mighty big lawn…so the team asked Sauer’s firm to come up with something else. First things first, Sauer told them: you’ll need more dirt.

SAUER: the problem we encountered in looking at the regulatory requirements is that they required very little soil on top of that impermeable cap. And the idea of supporting any vegetation for a long haul was really kind of bogus.

REPORTER: If you put at least three feet of soil over a landfill’s plastic or clay cap, she told McLaughlin, you can avoid decades of lawn care. You can restore a native landscape that will take care of itself. And you can even start planting…..trees! The idea was heretical to landfill engineers...

A lot of John's talk was technical, and we suspect urban planners, environmental specialists, landscape developers and horticulturists made up a lot of the sixty or so people in the audience.

We learned a great deal, however, about the problems they encountered, like tree roots (actually, less of a problem than laypeople might think, since with the slightest pressure they grow laterally and shallowly way, way past the tree crown) and voles, which like to chew branches.

Another concern was the proximity of Kennedy Airport, whose administration, for example, didn't want flight interference from avian species like geese who might like hanging out in the new habitat. (As John said, never mind that the airport was thoughtlessly built in the middle of sensitive wetlands.)

They used indigenous plant communities, and John spoke about the care needed in selecting contractors who understood that, environmental rather than engineering laboratories to do testing, and the myriad other choices necessary in doing the job effectively.

We were a little surprised that aesthetic values play very little role in the planning. It's a big plus that things look pretty, but the foremost concern is restoring the natural ecology, and that means considering factors like genetic diversity rather than providing park use for surrounding neighborhoods. (As John pointed out, nearby East New York is historically underserved by parks, and community activists did play a role in the planning, but the main concern is environmental.) Obviously they can't return to the pristine Jamaica Bay wetlands they were centuries ago, but then neither can most of the southern neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn, like our own Mill Basin.)

Anyway, there's a lot more that we learned about the Pennsylvania and Fountain projects, and we're looking forward to seeing it close up in the future. Back in the day, we sort of were fond of the landfills despite their stink as we passed, but then we just adored the majestic, if smelly, Mount Trashmores

across the country, especially in South Florida, where we mostly lived from 1980 to 2005, and the landfills were often the highest peaks around. In our town, Davie (and where we ran for the town council in 1982), the landfill - though without the environmentally sensitive and innovative restoration John McLaughlin described tonight in the Brooklyn sites - became a place we liked even more, Vista View Park.

We're grateful for the fine work the DEP did on the landfills of our younger years in southeastern Brooklyn and can't wait to see Freshkills Park, which will be three times the size of Central Park.

In our time in Staten Island - we got our M.A. at Richmond College (now part of the College of Staten Island) 35 years ago and spent a lot of time there once we were old enough and nonphobic enough to drive over the Verrazano Bridge - we used to hang out at Clove Lake Park and Silver Lake Park, but Freshkills Park should be even more beautiful. As Bette Davis said in Beyond the Forest, "What a dump!"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saturday Morning in Downtown Brooklyn: Scenic G Train Substitute Shuttle Bus Ride to Williamsburg

We came back from our month in Arizona's Valley of the Sun where it hit 70 degrees nearly every day to discover that not only was Brooklyn wintry-cold but the fabulous G train would not be running for three weekends. But the MTA provided a shuttle bus running from the A/F stop at Jay Street/Boro Hall - here a sign at MetroTech by the TKTS booth, tells G train riders where to go - if they're going toward Queens Plaza (or next weekend, the F stop at 21st Street/Queensbridge).

Some people were confused because the bus ride began on Jay Street in front of NYU/Polytechnic - back in the day we had friends going there when it was Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn when we went to Brooklyn College from 1969-73, just before it became Polytechnic Institute of New York when it bought the NYU School of Engineering and now it's been swallowed up by the university that devoured the East Village -

at the regular bus stop for the B57, the Flushing Avenue bus to Maspeth, and the B62, which. . . holy cow, it didn't exist when we left Brooklyn in December! They split the historic Red Hook-to-Long Island City B61 route in two! This is as bad as when they tore down the Myrtle Avenue El that ended right in this spot.

We're glad we spent a couple of hours at the MetroTech Starbucks nursing iced tea (Starbucks sent us a new gold card in Arizona that entitles us to endless refills) and the New York Times. Naturally, we got the G train shuttle bus from Williamsburg, from the corner of Metropolitan and Union, and took it downtown this morning - giving us better than normal service to this location - but we didn't think to take pics then and because of one-way streets, it often rode off the usual G train route, for example on both Lorimer Street and DeKalb Avenue.

Most of the seats were taken, although a few people got on, thinking it was one of the regular bus routes. On our early-morning ride here, the driver asked everyone who got on, "Where do you want to go?" and about one-third of the people who got on were on the wrong bus (or on the right bus but going the wrong way).

We started off up Jay Street, past City Tech (we had the exalted title of Substitute Adjunct Lecturer there exactly thirty years ago, in January 1980, when it was New York City Community College), up to Tillary Street.

The bus turned left on Tillary, passing Concord Village to the north. From September 1969 (just when they freakin' closed down the Myrtle Avenue El) until May 1972, we went to this co-op development to see our beloved psychologist, Dr. Bob Wolk, shown here in a pic we took in his office in 1970.

(After that we went to a rented office on Remsen and Clinton Streets in Brooklyn Heights - where Henry Miller once lived! - to see his psychologist wife Dr. Shelly Wolk, who was driving in from their home in the Catskills, near the hotel our parents owned in South Fallsburg.) Concord Village is currently home to our friend the wonderful writer Janice Eidus.

We turned south from Tillary onto Adams Street (only newbies and hipsters - same thing - call it Broooklyn Bridge Boulevard).

The humongous Brooklyn GPO is under construction. We hope they're renovating the inside too.

We flashed by the Supreme Court building to our east. On lazy summer weekdays forty or so years ago we used to go to watch some trials with the old kibitzing regulars. Our dad was on a jury here in the trial of a guy in Brownsville who killed a man over a TV set on the Bicentennial, July 4, 1976. Dad was the lone holdout for guilty but eventually he couldn't persuade anyone else so he went along with the "not guilty" verdict. In the elevator leaving the building, the ADA (assistant district attorney) told Dad, "I'm surprised you took so long; I had a very weak case."

Borough Hall. Why, we haven't been here since just before we left for Arizona, for our old Brooklyn College friend Marty Markowitz's Chanukah bash.

As Adams Street became Boerum Place, the bus passed Brooklyn Law School, a great school (61st nationally in the last U.S. News rankings). As a former director of a law school academic support program (at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale), we can attest that the Brooklyn Law's academic success program, directed by the great Linda Feldman, is one of the best. (Other terrific programs locally are run by Mark Padin at Pace Law School, David Nadvorney at CUNY Law School, and Kris Franklin at New York Law School.

We turned left (east) on Schermerhorn Street to make our first stop at the Hoyt/Schermerhorn A/G stop. We worked in this building back in 1975-1977, when we were an editorial assistant at the Fiction Collective, run by our Brooklyn College Creative Writing MFA professors Jonathan Baumbach and Peter Spielberg. This Schermerhorn Street building, once the Brooklyn campus of St. John's University until its law school left in 1972, was taken over - along with nearby 210 Livingston Street - as the Downtown Campus of Brooklyn College. We loved our work at the Fiction Collective and learned a lot from the executive director, the utterly wonderful Peggy Humphreys, and after she retired to New Mexico with her husband Dick (J.R. Humphreys), the equally wonderful novelist (Subway to Samarkand), and director of Columbia University School of General Studies creative writing program, from her successor, the funny and smart Gloria Rohmann, now at Bobst Library at NYU.

Down Schermerhorn Street, we got this view of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building, now One Hanson Place, a co-op or condo just like the Schermerhorn Street buidling. Back in September 1965, at 14, we had serious oral surgery here on the front teeth we had broken playing football without a helmet on East 55th Street, and in October 1984, while we were subletting for three months on President Street in Park Slope, we had a wisdowm tooth removed here in an operation that seemed so simple that we walked back home afterwards. We've never entered the building except for oral surgery, but now the dentists have all vamoosed from the tower with the clock that finally works again.

The bus turned down Flatbush for a couple of blocks and then onto Lafayette Avenue, passing the Mark Morris Dance Company on the left and the Brooklyn Academy of Music on the right. Our most vivid memory from back in the day at BAM is seeing a 1974 Royal Shakespeare production of Gorky's Summerfolk here, with Ian Richardson, David Suchet, Norman Rodway and our idol from such TV shows as The Forsyte Saga, The First Churchills, Cousin Bette and I, Claudius, Dame Margaret Tyzack.

We're now shadowing the G's progress east on Lafayatte Avenue, stopping near (but not always at) the stops on Fulton Street (where we get off frequently, to make the three-block walk to "transfer" to the IRT - the numbered lines for you young'uns - or the B/Q Brighton Beach lines (used to be, variously, the Q, QB, QJ, QT, D and M lines) or the trains at what used to be the Pacific Street stop: currently the N, D, R and M (the Sea Beach, West End and Fourth Avenue lines). At the Fulton Street G stop, lots of people think the train is coming when it's really a passing A train riding along Fulton Street going into or out of the Lafayette Avenue stop, which is really close by the G stop but without a connection. Here's a shot taken passing Queen of All Saints Roman Catholic Church:

This is, of course, Fort Greene. We have to admit that growing up in East Flatbush and Flatlands/Old Mill Basin in the 50s, 60s and 70s, we rarely came here or to the other neighborhoods on the rest of the bus trip: Clinton Hill, Bed-Stuy, Williamsburg. Mostly we drove through, as a passenger, or later, as a driver, because these were considered "bad" neighborhoods - although we can recall at about age 14, in 1965, driving to work with our grandfather and being surprised at how beautiful the old houses and churches were. Passing these brownstones today on Lafayette, or amazing structures like the Masonic Temple or the Emmanuel Baptist Church, both on the National Register of Historic Places, make us realize how narrow-minded we in the "good" neighborhoods of southern Brooklyn were.

Clinton/Washington is always what we think of as the art student stop because it's near Pratt. This was the first G train stop we can remember noticing. One Wednesday evening rush hour in the fall of 1980, we'd finished teaching our last class at John Jay College and our fellow adjunct and friend from the Brooklyn College MFA program Denis Woychuk (the writer and attorney who owns KGB Bar) dropped us off near BAM to get the A train back to our studio apartment in Rockaway. Mistakenly, we got on the G at the Fulton Street stop on Lafayette instead of the A on the Lafayette Avenue stop on Fulton. We noticed something was wrong when the Clinton/Washington stop sign was green and not yellow, got off, and were told to go back to Hoyt/Schermerhorn for the A train. Like many New Yorkers, we'd never gotten on a G train in our lives before.

We're not sure where the dividing line between Fort Greene and Clinton Hill is. In recent years we've had students from this neighborhood who've written disdainfully of the newcomers (i.e., gentrifiers) who are ruining their neighborhood. There's a similar piece in the wonderful New York Writers Coalition book, From Kingsbridge to Canarsie: Reflections by 8 NYC Girls.

We've gotten off and on at Classon Avenue only a few times, like when we've gone to Danny Simmons' Corridor Gallery. Along the Lafayette Avenue stops, regular B38 bus riders weren't sure what the G train bus was and some tried to get on; the B38 goes down Lafayette and then DeKalb toward its destination just over the Queens border in Ridgewood, near where Metropolitan and Flushing Avenue meet (on weekday mornings you'll see kids on their way to Grover Cleveland High School).

Neighborhood borders in Brooklyn are fluid (as are, for us alter kockers, neighborhood names), so we're not sure where Fort Greene ends and Clinton Hill begins and where Clinton Hill ends and Bedford-Stuyvesant begins. But somehow the KFC on the corner of Bedford tells us we're in Do-Or-Die Land.

This amazing art is part of a mural project by the brilliant Chris Stain and Billy Mode titled "In the Dream."

We get off a lot at Bedford/Nostrand.

When we're trying to get down Nostrand Avenue by bus, we always wonder why there's no B44 Limited bus service stop at Lafayette, given that the subway stop is there. So we always end up taking the slow boat (bus) to Eastern Parkway, the Junction or Sheepshead Bay.

Along this stretch of Lafayette Avenue, there are only a few recently constructed buildings among the older ones.

We made our way down Lafayette Avenue through Bed-Stuy.

The bus started speeding up and making all the lights, so we didn't have much of a chance to take pics; one we took of the wonderful Hattie Carthan Garden came out really blurry, as did shots of Von King Park. In recent summers we've seen a lot of great things here: little league games and a gender equality festival, the Continuum Company's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Jessica Care moore's God Is Not an American . . .

By Von King Park, the bus turned left (vaguely north, we'd say) at Marcy Avenue and we kept speeding along. Here's Kosciusko Street, separated from Pulaski Street by DeKalb Avenue. (Shouldn't these two streets be in Greenpoint? Well, they've got the bridges to Queens there, we guess.)

On Marcy Avenue, there's a nice playground

and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Community Pool - AKA the Kosciusko Pool.

This stretch of Marcy Avenue is also named the Rev. Dr. Gardner C. Taylor Bouevard in honor of the dean of American preaching.

One of the typical and always interesting sights you see from Brooklyn buses are storefront churches. A really good photographer should do for storefront churches what James and Karla Murray have done for our local storefront, um, stores.

On the left (west) are the Marcy projects (formally the Marcy Houses),

which have won fame as the place where Jay-Z was raised:
I went from Marcy to Hollywood

& back again & back again

I went from Marcy to Hollywood

& back again & back again

All we've just gone is from Bed-Stuy to Williamsburg. At Flushing Avenue, here's the beloved Pfizer plant, which was home to many workers over 160 years of operation. It closed in October 2008, and we don't know what's going on here now. It's so upsetting we don't know whether to take Xanax, Zoloft or Benadryl, all of which were once manufactured here. We'll probably just take two aspirin and call Vito Lopez in the morning.

After Flushing Avenue, we don't continue on Marcy go to Union, which forks off on the right (east). As we ride through the Hasidic neighborhood in this part of Williamsburg (which we do a lot, on the B43 and B48 buses), we often wonder if the buildings all have the same architect. This is very typical of a Satmar construction. Nearly all the apartments seems to have terraces or balconies, none of which are directly on top of another, we think because sukkahs need to see the sky.

(It must be admitted that our only practical experience in this matter came in October 2005, when we were teaching at the Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School in Phoenix/Scottsdale, where we helped the students build one of these structures under the strict supervision of the wonderful Rabbi Elana Kanter.) Some leaf-peepers may trek to Vermont in early fall, but we like to come here to watch the pimped-out sukkahs.

Here we're close to home as we get to Broadway as a J train passes overhead with the Lindsay Park co-op in the background.

We first came here around our 19th birthday, in June 1970, to canvass the apartments of Lindsay Park for peace candidate for Congress Peter Eikenberry, running against entrenched dinosaur Vietnam hawk, Rep. John Rooney, in the Democratic primary. Here's a pic we took of Pete Eikenberry at an antiwar rally in June 1970 at Hicks and Montague Streets in Brooklyn Heights:

The activists in charge of the campaign sent us to Lindsay Park with a young East Side matron from the Eikenberry HQ on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights, but most people weren't home so we just left leaflets mostly. Peace lost in north Brooklyn in 1970.

It's Shabbos and if you're religious, since it's G-d's day, you must look your best (unlike us with our Levis and T-shirt under an old Nautica top under a sweater we inherited from our beloved Baptist landlord of blessed memory under a Lands' End parka), and this Satmar guy is on his way from shul, we suspect. You can tell he's married because of his shtreimel, the velvet hat with a wide sable trim. Probably a gift from his in-laws, the Satmar Hungarian shtreimel is wide-brimmed circular as opposed to the higher and more cylindrical Polish shtreimels, really known as spodiks, like those the Ger in Boro Park wear. (In Crown Heights, it seems to us that most Lubavitcher men follow the example of Rabbi Schneerson and opt for stylish fedoras.)

As we cross Broadway,

we get towards what we consider the heart of Williamsburg (because Dumbo Books HQ is there), we're getting ready to get off the G train shuttle bus. Union Avenue is filled with older

but especially lots of newer Fischer/Scarano-type multi-story buildings of co-ops or condos or rentals that they can't get C.O.'s for and thus are still vacant. Some are still being constructed despite the real estate collapse.

We don't eat meat, but if we did, we'd go to Dumont and have a burger. But instead, when we get off the bus, we'll go to Sunac and buy some takeout lunch fit for a vegetarian convert raised by parents who've been vegetarians longer than we've been.

And on the left as we exit, there's the inevitable (and, some say, inedible) landmark of Kellogg's Diner, which we have never entered since we first set eyes on the place back in.

Asked, "Just where do you get off?," we currently say across the street from what may or may not be the Gateway to Williamsburg.

Actually, the G stop (as opposed to the G spot) is across Metropolitan Avenue, at the stop of the Q59 bus heading from Rego Park to the Williamsburg Bridge. As we disembark, we notice a bunch of people are waiting to go to Greenpoint and Long Island City and whatever connections they can make at Queens Plaza.

The lack of weekend G train service won't be fun when the spring semester begins and we have to go to Brooklyn College to teach on Saturday mornings, but today taking the shuttle bus to and from downtown Brooklyn was a trip.