Coney Island’s Untamed Creek, Caught Between Past & Future

At one point in history, Coney Island was an actual island, separated from the rest of Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek.

That changed in the 50s and 60s, when the waterway was filled with debris from the construction of the Verrazano Bridge and stopped up by the Shore Parkway. Today, Coney Island Creek dead-ends mid-peninsula at Shell Road, but the creek is anything but lifeless.

In his November Camera Obscura column over at Curbed, Nathan Kensinger explored this unique waterway, which has evolved over the years from a raw-sewage pit known to locals as Stink Creek and Perfume Bay into “one of the most beautiful spots in New York,” thanks to a range of recovery and restoration efforts.

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Swans in Coney Island Creek. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

Like any body of water in the New York area, Coney Island Creek is decidedly mixed-use: Kensinger describes a waterway that is simultaneously used for recreation, sustenance, religious ceremony, and, increasingly, shelter for the homeless.

“Educational, spiritual, environmental, cultural—there’s a lot going on there,” said Charles Denson, the director of the Coney Island History Project.

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Baptisms in the shadow of the Verrazano. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

But the future of Coney Island Creek is now in limbo. During Hurricane Sandy, the creek was the main source of inundation into surrounding neighborhoods; to reduce damage from future storms, the City has proposed creating a tidal barrier and wetlands at the mouth of the creek.

And, as always, the specter of development looms. Kensinger writes:

At the end of the creek, where public waterfront access is severely limited, several new construction projects are being planned on large swaths of open land along the shoreline. These include a storage warehouse that is replacing the former headquarters of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, and recently announced plans to sell the development rights for a 17-acre remediated National Grid brownfield

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The ship graveyard in Coney Island Creek. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger

Read more at Curbed: Coney Island’s Untamed Creek, Caught Between Past & Future.

Queens’ ‘Forgotten River’ Looks Ahead to Cleanup and Change

Nathan Kensinger’s Camera Obscura column at Curbed is back this week with a look at the Flushing River in Queens, and a hands-on lesson in nature’s persistence, even in the face of decades of human development and destruction.

Kensinger deems it “one of the most tortured waterways in New York City,” and as he follows the river’s altered four-mile path through Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and into Flushing Bay, it’s easy to see why.

Forced along an artificial route, the river emerges from underneath an MTA train yard, transforms into man-made Willow Lake and Meadow Lake, squeezes into narrow canals underneath a maze of highway overpasses, fills the Pool of Industry and the Fountain of the Planets, and passes through an underground pipe into the Pitch ‘N Putt pond. 

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Workers have hand planted 90,000 native marsh grasses along the river’s banks. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

The banks of the waterway are lined with storage facilities, auto repair shops, train tracks and bulkheads; its body is criss-crossed by bridges, highways, and overpasses. Because many of the natural marshlands have been destroyed, the river floods often, even with the slightest rainfall. And as if these indignities weren’t enough,

“the area’s waters receive approximately 10 truckloads of human feces a year from sewer overflows,” according to the Times Ledger.

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An unused cove between a U-Haul truck depot and a concrete plant. Photo credit: “Nathan Kensinger.

But Kensinger catches glimmers of hope beneath the sludge and muck, too. Fish and turtles that survive despite the pollution, Parks Department efforts to restore marsh grasses and wetlands, and

The Willow Lake Preserve, which recently reopened. In 2011, the Parks Department planted over 13,000 trees, 5,000 shrubs, and 66,000 herbaceous plants here, according to a sign posted onsite.

See more at Curbed: Queens’ ‘Forgotten River’ Looks Ahead to Cleanup and Change

Documenting the Harlem River’s Rebirth

We’re really enjoying Nathan Kensinger’s Camera Obscura column over at Curbed exploring New York’s lesser-known  bodies of water. For a city surrounded by water and laced with streams and creeks, it’s incredible to think that waterways could ever be forgotten…but indeed they have been.

For his first entry, Kensinger took a look at the Harlem River:

For many decades, the Harlem River tidal strait between Manhattan and The Bronx was known as “New York’s Forgotten Waterfront,” its nine miles fragmented by a patchwork of industry, freight trains, chop shops, and communal dumps. In recent years, a loose coalition of concerned citizens and neighborhood groups has been working with the city to slowly reclaim the waterway, piece by piece, and today the Harlem River is showing renewed signs of life.

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Wildlife on the Harlem River. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger

Traipsing along the shores of the 9-mile waterway, Kensinger sees ample evidence of nature’s resilience—and a slew of New Yorkers who are dedicated to the river’s wellbeing.

“There’s a lot of life in there,” says Freddy, who has been fishing the Bronx side of these waters with his son for the past year. “Porgie, eels, flounder, blues, catfish, toadfish, striped bass. There’s some nice crabs. I wish I had a net. I jumped in the other day to get a crab and I was up to my waist.” Last year, over 70 different species were catalogued at Inwood’s North Cove by James Cataldi and his volunteers, including 45 types of birds that had stopped off at this remediated marsh, as well as mussels, clams, oysters, possums, raccoons, and muskrats.

See more at Curbed: New York’s Once-Neglected Harlem River Experiences a Rebirth