Dead Horse Bay

An Urban Travelogue

by Jamie Hook; Photos by Conrad Tomasaitis

Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn in New York is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.  Dead Horse Bay is the gathered and the scattered; perfume bottles,old cans, dolls heads, comb teeth, broken china, lightbulbs, cutlery, and old tires. Its contents are, as the man once said, “bric-a-brac, gimcracks, gee-gaws, and garbage,” by which he meant everything. Had he looked through a different lens, he might have said, “precious remnants of forgotten lives,” or, “A museum of memory rendered in trash,” and he would have meant the same thing.  (With apologies to John Steinbeck)

This is because Dead Horse Bay is a stubborn repository of things we were meant to forget. Once an oyster-encrusted tidal reef, later a desolate island barnacled with animal rendering plants, still later one of New York’s largest landfills, Dead Horse Bay endures today as a ghost story told in trash, a graveyard of burdensome objects, and a geographic parable about the tragic limits of human endeavor. In short, Dead Horse Bay is that most haunted of places: an abyss that gazes back into you.

One of the subjects of the City Reliquary’s just-closed exhibit, TRASH!, Dead Horse Bay was the object of a members-only field trip, this past Saturday, April 29. A good dozen history buffs and urban enthusiasts (all Reliquary Members, natch) boarded a bus at the City Reiquary’s headquarters in Williamsburg, for the long slog to Brooklyn’s Southern shore.  

There, adjacent to the venerable Floyd Bennett Field, jutting out into Jamaica Bay, anchored by an isthmus of landfill, lie the remains of what was once known as Barren Island.

Longsince connected to Brooklyn by infill, Barren Island is an island no more, but the unique geography and character of Jamaica Bay — low-slung, treeless, dotted with tidal and other islands — endure in the windswept  landscapes all around. First among the invaders are the phragmite reeds extending as far as the eye can see. 

An invasive species, which grows to profusion in the ample swamps of the Hudson estuary, phragmites are just the sort of plant you’d expect to colonize a landfill. Pedestrian, common, yet beautiful, they form a reedy sea through which our path snakes, lulling us into the past.The air grows cool and moist as we continue through this marshy landscape. Otherwise, there is little indication of the wonders to come, a scant half-mile away, zig-zagging towards the water.

And then it opens up, suddenly: a low tidal beach, stretching from Marine Bridge, to the East, up and around towards the heart of Brooklyn, to the North.  On this day, a lost fog wandered across the gritty sand, whipped by cold breezes.  It was low tide, and the less-than-pellucid waters of Jamaica Bay lapped at the muddy edges of the beach.

Looking down revealed some slight garbage, but nothing yet of grandeur.  

A rotten book:

And an old jar filled with seawater and barnacles:

The pilings in the distance hinted at some sordid backstory. After all, Dead Horse Bay is not named just for giggles: Long before it was a landfill, this island was indeed the site of numerous glue factories and other rendering operations, with the offal and horse carcasses often arriving from Manhattan by sea,  via piers, to be summarily rendered and then dumped back into Jamaica Bay.  

A lone bone bore mute testimony to this fact:

Down the beach, however,  the story gets more interesting. As you round the promontory, you realize that there is glass literally everywhere.  Underfoot, in shards and rounded bits, not yet sea glass, but distinctly muted next to glass from the streets (yo!).

There are lovely orphans like this small bottle:

And whole drowned colonies, clustered morbidly together:

It is the sheer amount of glass, however, which leaves the greatest impression. Look down, and everywhere the landscape is filled with bottles. Tens of thousands of bottles. Maybe hundreds of thousands.  Broken bottles, complete bottles, shards and scraps and shadows of bottles, everywhere, as far down the beach as the tide will allow you to venture, and all the way back to the reedy outcropping that hovers above.

Notable for its absence is plastic. While a few inevitable Poland Spring bottles are strewn about, there is otherwise little plastic to speak of: no bags, no bottles, no tupperware.  What few ancestral vinyl containers one finds are notably dense and heavy, and derive mostly from the world of deodorants.

Tour guide (and co-curator of TRASH) Robin Nagle, suggests an explanation for this as she picks up a few specimens. “Think of everything we package in plastic now, and replace that with glass,” she notes. “Glass was ubiquitous back then.”

Nagle’s informed perspective comes naturally. Her day job, as a resident anthropologist for the NYC Department of Sanitation, allows her intimate access to the history and currency of New York City’s waste treatment, and her erudition on the subject of Dead Horse Bay is bracing. Where others beachcombers see naught but trash and the occasional treasure, Nagle sees history, touched by tragedy.

After all, the bottles that we are seeing are not washing in from the bay; rather, they are washing out to the sea from the deteriorating landfill, the ultimate legacy of past shoddy work.

Gazing behind her, Nagle turns historic: “The last layer was put  in 1953,” she notes. “Even then, we had landfill technology that was far more sophisticated than just dumping it, covering it, and walking away…but that’s kinda what happened here,” she continues, pointing out the dense, detritus-strewn, phragmite-crowned cut, where the active end of the landfill is slowly sloughing off onto the beach, just as glaciers at the North pole are calving into the sea.

Nagle points to a small, plastic Santa figurine, vintage 1950 or so. “So, here’s to me the key to this place,” she says. “People  say oh, look at all this trash. But most of what you see here is a result of highway construction and other urban planning projects, that displaced people from the city; people who were told, ‘Okay, you’re evicted from your homes, you have a very short time to evacuate.’ They couldn’t take everything with them. So they took what they could, but everything they left behind…the buildings were razed, they were tossed into trucks, and they were dumped here.”

Nagle is referring, of course, to iconic NY power-broker Robert Moses’ actions in the middle of the century, when he miraculously manifested the freeway system throughout greater New York— though at tremendous human cost, much of it exacted on the poor, and none of it free of controversy. “So, are we looking at Garbage?” Nagle continues. “This is not what you put on the kerb.  And much of what you see here speaks to, and tells the story of, the lives of people.”

As we wander down the beach again, taking in the assorted artefacts of the anonymous masses, Nagle’s words find their mark. Still full perfume bottles and broken bits of boneware, mouldering books, and the soles of countless shoes hint at ordinary lives uprooted and cast away. The sheer endlessness of this mournful filth assaults any greater sense of purpose, implying an existential void, wherein, as one fellow explorer noted, “Your possessions will outlive you and burden future generations.”

Part of what makes Dead Horse Bay such a powerful experience is the hovering sense that somehow, this is wrong — that we weren’t meant to see this.  The trash that is busy unearthing itself is doing so against the wishes ofthose who interred it there, and while it is hardly a killing field, there is something vaguely sinister in wandering through what is clearly a graveyard, of sorts.  The trash that these vanished lives now leave; the world that allowed for its sloppy sequester, and the implications this story has for our more consumptive present moment all assemble here, glinting in the hazy sun.

And then, there it is: that abyss, looking back at us.

Turning back up the beach, the tour ends, with the aid of the Reliquary’s formidable Molly Cox, and her pet Megaphone:

Trust me: she rocked it.

And so, we bid adieu to millions of bottles, old spoons, and an intact edison bulb. As we left, Wendy Brawer, a fellow explorer and former Cooper Union professor, now promoting citizen-supported sustainable data maps for a changing urban ecology, held up a dingy brown piece of bone: horse, clearly.