September 23, 2012

Reconciling Freshkills

I have vivid memories of riding through Staten Island's West Shore as a child. Coming over the small hills on Travis Avenue, approaching the strip malls and convenience stores, fields of cattails grew tall on both sides. I remember feeling uneasy whenever traveling to that part of the island. As children, we had known about the landfill yet knew not what to make of it. I did not know or have a sense then of just how much garbage was transported into the landfill each and every day from 1947 until right after September 11 2001 (the debris from lower Manhattan was transported to Freshkills). 

My grandparents lived not too far from the landfill and I recall summer evenings, sitting in their backyard where the plentiful tomato plants ripened and the smell from Freshkills loomed over us like a thick blanket. I remember one summer's day while I was in high school, a few friends had decided to visit the Staten Island mall. The weather was overcast and humid but we were stubborn and rode the bus across Staten Island to get there. As we came across the fields of Freshkills, you could see the storm clouds growing more ominously. The image in my mind read like nuclear disaster. I was a paranoid child and the Staten Island landfill, or the Dump as it was aptly called, always reminded me of a post-apocalyptic wasteland that sat silently yet poisonously at the western tip of our island.

They closed it down over ten years ago. I avoid that part of the island mostly because there is nothing much to see over there. My father talks about his childhood and the farmlands and creeks. I always wished to see them.  

Several years ago there were talks of a park. Freshkills was to be designated parkland and restoration to the depleted lands would take place over a long stretch of time (thirty years). When I heard about that, I did not understand how anyone would ever go there or why anyone would ever step foot onto those grounds. The history, the carcinogens, the smell were all reasons enough for no one who lived on Staten Island to ever go there.

After hearing about a park-preview event recently through word of mouth, I decided to visit Freshkills this afternoon. I had my reservations; the last few paragraphs weigh heavy on my mind. I have read about those who grew up during the Cold War, who feared the shelter drills and television programming depicting the end of the world. My mother was a child during the 1960's and still talks about how terrified she was to crawl beneath the desk in preparation for nuclear war.

Today's weather was exquisitely autumnal. There was just the right amount of sunshine piercing through the green canopy trees that line the courtyard outside my bedroom window. The breeze was cool and lazy. This was a most perfect fall day. I drove with the windows open, listening to the White Stripes (did I tell mention how awesome their song, Hotel Yorba, is?) Driving through the winding roads near the Greenbelt reminded me of my time up north in Massachusetts. Green rushing through on both sides.

Freshkills Park Sneak Preview featured a variety of family friendly exhibits and events. There were kayaking trips and bike tours; local artisans featuring information about quilting and upcycled jewelry. Also featured were demonstration tables for the abundant local and city-wide organizations promoting sustainable living through means of recycling, composting, and swapping (clothing swaps are a great way to give away things you no longer need/want in exchange for things that can be of use to you now). 

I am so happy to see families taking advantage of the wealth of information these organizations provide. I am a firm believer that if we present this information to our communities, they will use it. People want to take better care of their surroundings. If they realize how dire things actually are, if they are presented not only with facts and statistics but simple solutions (ie, taking your garbage bags and weaving them together to make jump ropes and fashionable reusable bags out of them, as one local artisan does), they will make the effort.


In addition to all of the festivities, there was a dance performance by Kathy Westwater as part of an artistic residency she has maintained since 2010. Her performance piece, PARK, was presented at the bridge which sits just north of the East Mound. The piece ran for about one hour, featuring eight dancers, Westwater, and a lone saxophonist. PARK began with the dancers warming up through communal acts of hugging and partnered somatic work moving into an improvisation. Warming up the body.  The dance begins rather quietly, with the warm up stemming into a circular pattern of walking and running. There are moments of intersection, of dancers making decisions to go one way or the other. The wind was blowing. The sun was pounding onto us.

As the dance progressed, I could not help but see the East Mound in the distance, with a lone birds-nest  standing tall. The dance shape-shifted through moments of a large foil tarp being held down to moments where dancers walk solemnly yet emphatically on stilts made out tree stumps. 

I felt both frustrated by this dance and connected to the ritual of it. It frustrated me because it moved mostly within its own bubbled world. It felt hard to attach it to the landscape at times. The dancers seemed so entranced with their own mythology that I felt almost alienated from it.

There were moments of beauty. In fact, the whole thing was beautiful. The dancers moved fluidly and Westwater danced powerfully. It was a powerful statement to ground art as a means to rehabilitate not only the land, but our memories of the land. The sections with the tarp and tree-stump stilts seem to signify that the most for me. 

Below are pictures from today, mostly from the performance. I also took some footage of the tarp solo and the stilt-walking. The latter section, for me, is the most affecting and quite beautiful to watch. The dancers walking across the bridge, standing on tree stumps made into shoes seemed to carry the weighted history of the location.

The audience, which comprised of many Islanders but also those who made the trek from New Jersey, Manhattan, and the regional New York area, was completely perplexed and entranced by the performance. I want to emphasize how rare it is to see professional modern dance (or post-modern dance, if we must even categorize it) on Staten Island. While I am working to make this less rare, this was an important step for movement based arts appearing on the island.

Overall, this was a positive trip. I left feeling amazed by the massiveness of the Freshkills grounds. While I am not sure I will visit again anytime soon, I would rather see this place a wildlife reserve than a commercial strip; or a housing development; or another landfill.

Photography of PARK by Kathy Westwater:

Overlooking the mound stands a birds-nest.


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  2. Great post and pictures! Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you had a lot of fun. I can only imagine how rare it is to see professional modern dance on Staten Island! How great.

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