Wilderness at the edge of Bushwick

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The Ridgewood Reservoir. (Photo by Katharine Jose.)
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When something is left alone in New York, it usually falls apart, like Admiral's Row at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, or the shabby detritus of the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Corona-Park, and becomes something less than it was before. There’s a place on the border of Brooklyn and Queens where neglect has led to something good, something bigger than the sum of the parts that were left.

On a 50-acre piece of land on the border between Brooklyn and Queens there is a three-basin reservoir that was once part of the Brooklyn water-supply system, and that hasn’t been touched at all in more than 20 years, though it has been neglected for far longer. Inside the chain-link fence around it is an impossible landscape: thick forest, wet meadows, a small lake ringed with reeds; the Ridgewood Reservoir has been restoring itself to its original state for decades. From the one-and-a-quarter-mile path around the basins, the place smells, sounds and looks like the marshes on the coast of New England. And it’s virtually unknown.

It’s an unlikely secret, considering it is located just across Vermont Place from the large and popular Highland Park. Construction on the first two basins of the reservoir, as a place to collect water flowing from streams in Queens and on Long Island, began in 1856. A third basin was added later, but when Brooklyn joined Manhattan to become part of New York City in 1898, the borough had access to a superior water supply, from the Croton Reservoir in Westchester. The last time the Ridgewood Reservoir was used to store water was during a major drought in 1965. The outer basins were drained in 1989, and it has essentially been sitting there, right next to the Interboro (now Jackie Robinson) Parkway.

In the last five years or so, and particularly since the Bloomberg administration's PlaNYC was introduced in 2007, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation has been testing out human-reclamation plans, the most recent of which would fill in one of the basins in order to build baseball fields. For the relatively few people who live nearby, for hikers and birders and people who run or walk their dogs on the path around the reservoir, the idea of disturbing the site in the service of something so mundane is an unmitigated travesty.

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The resulting debate over the future of the reservoir has been less a battle over development than a fight about red tape and bureaucratic opacity.

After the Parks Department held its first listening sessions in 2004, a group of residents, most of whom were not practiced community activists, began to organize themselves. The Highland Park Ridgewood Reservoir Alliance has been relatively effective, securing the support of most local politicians and environmental organizations. They have developed their own plan for the site, which would involve removing invasive species, improving the paths, and promoting its use as an educational tool. They maintain a blog, and also lead a lot of awareness-raising tours, for elected officials, Parks employees, naturalists, birders, and more than a few members of the media. (I shared part of my tour with a crew from WNET).

 

GARY COMORAU, THE PRESIDENT OF THE HPRRA (a position he said later “doesn’t mean shit,” meaning he holds it only because he said he would, not because he’s the central actor) picked me up in a green Toyota Sienna on the corner of Wyckoff Avenue and Covert Street, in the raggedy, sparse bit of the Brooklyn-Queens DMZ just outside the Halsey L stop, on a sunny damp morning the day after the storm that took down hundreds of trees across the borough.

Comorau, who is 63 years old, was born in Brighton Beach and has lived in Ridgewood since the early '80s, in the house that his wife (who is a birder) grew up in, and that her mother had lived in since the 1930s. (She has since passed away, but remembered following lamplighters down Wyckoff and going to the reservoir in the winter to cut ice for the ice boxes.)

“I had never done this before,” Gary said, referring to attending a “listening session” on plans for the park several years ago. “We went because we live around here; we didn’t know anyone.”

Rob Jett, who met us in the parking lot across the street from the sunken-in and worn-down steps that lead to the hill that goes to the top of the reservoir, was more familiar with this sort of community involvement. (Comorau was my main contact, but insisted that Rob be on the tour. “Rob is great. He’s a little more, um, aggressive about it than I am, he gets more angry than I do. I just kind of plug along,” he said during a phone conversation before I visited.) Describing that first “listening session,” he said, “I was taking notes the whole time with the plan of posting a story that night on the blog, which I’m sure infuriated Dorothy Lewandowski.”

Dorothy Lewandowski is the Parks Department's Queens commissioner.

Jett, in addition to being a freelance Apple computer fixer, is The City Birder. Though he grew up in Forest Hills and spends a great deal of time looking for birds in trees, he did not know the reservoir existed until about three years ago, when a performance artist, Jennifer Monson, decided to undertake a year-long project “[investigating] the unique landscape of the reservoir.” Monson asked Jett to conduct a “breeding birds” survey.

“So I called my friends at the Brooklyn Bird Club,” he said. And “none of them had heard about it. ‘How did we not know this place?' We thought we knew everything about birding in New York. No one talked about this place.” (The Queens Bird Club, he discovered, did know about it.)

”I was asking a lot of the old-time birders what happened—why people stopped birding here—because I would hear stories from some of the old-timers about the great stuff they would see here.”

The reason, the story goes, is that after the 1977 blackout, there were riots in the neighborhood and it became a “very, very dangerous area.”

Jett lives in Park Slope and had taken the J train to the Cleveland Street stop. He was wearing a blue windbreaker and had long brown hair pulled back into a low ponytail. He likes to talk, and he knows a lot about birds and about the reservoir; he came interview-ready. 

“30,000 years ago if you were standing here, you’d be underneath enough ice that it would cover the Empire State Building,” he said.

When the glacier retreated, it acted as “sort of a snow plow," forming a ridge running “diagonally from southwest to northeast, across the middle of Brooklyn and Queens and along the North Shore of Long Island.”

“It was not just some random spot,” he Jett said. “[If] It’s going to be a gravity feed system, it’s got to be highest point.”

Here’s what he was really getting at.

Long Island is right in the middle of the “Atlantic flyway” (as opposed to the Pacific or Mississippi flyways), and many birds, “especially neo-tropic migrants” that winter in Central and South America, but breed in North America, go back and forth every year.

“In this area, they just follow along the top of that ridge,” he said, referring to the one we were standing on. “So this is a natural spot for migratory birds to stop off. And to put that in perspective, various organizations like Audubon and the Parks Department have put together bird lists of some of the city parks.” They found 152 species around the reservoir.

 

THE ONLY AID PROVIDED TO PEDESTRIANS LOOKING TO CROSS VERMONT PLACE to climb the steps to the reservoir is a stop sign, for the pedestrians, not the cars. Jett said he's been a little bit amused to see many visiting politicians and officials, including Bill Thompson, when he was comptroller, “running across here dodging traffic,” though none of them have said “maybe we should be doing something about this.”

At the top of the stairs is the lip of Basin 3, where the ground falls away sharply but trees grow in thick formation from the bottom of the basin, at least 20 feet down, to a an altitude above our heads. It’s a forest.

“A catbird,” Jett said suddenly, looking into the trees, He sucked air through pursed lips making a sort of low whine. I asked if he could do birdcalls. “Well, catbirds are like mocking birds,” he said. More sucking. “They're mimics and they usually respond to all sorts of sounds.” More sucking. A sounds like a long, low, whiny meow rang out. “There,” Comorau and Jett said in unison.

The ledge of the 23-acre basin is a wall lined with stones that were excavated in the process of building the basin, which was then covered with two feet of waterproof “puddling clay” and stone. This, Jett said, “is one reason why this is never going to be dry inside,” one of the arguments against building sport fields, which opponents say will just flood constantly. (A similar situation played out in Forest Park. Strack Pond was filled in and covered with two baseball fields in 1969, and flooded so consistently that in 2004 the Parks Department “restored” it to wetlands.)

The path that winds around the reservoir is in fairly good shape, wide and paved in most places and even in a few spots divided into lanes. We started walking south, following the path to where on one side it slopes down to Highland Boulevard, and on the other side a chain link fence separates people on the path from the dense forest on the other side. This basin is, according to Jett, "a wet meadow in one area,” and on the side we were standing, an “emerging forest” of black locust and great birch. It’s also the basin on which the city has “formally conceded that they’ve had their eye on for putting recreational facilities,” Jett said. (“They,” when he used the word, almost always referred to the Parks Department, though sometimes to the Bloomberg administration as a whole. Jett is a bit of a conspiracy theorist.)

It’s difficult to understand what is actually happening at Ridgewood Reservoir because there have been many groups debating many plans for many years, but not much communication. Everyone is relatively sanguine about Phase 1, for which $7.7 million has been set aside. The path will be improved, new lights will be installed—the walkway is lined with the same old-fashioned lamps as in Highland Park, but all of them have been broken for 40 years, according to Comorau.

When the other side of the path was covered by trees and not visible from Highland Boulevard, my guides began to look for a place in the fence that we could get through or under. You are not supposed to go beyond the fence, but it's not really enforced. You are also not supposed to go down into the basins, which Jett does regularly, but he ruled that day that because of the storm, it was worth it.

“After last night it’s probably a lake down there,” he said.

Much of the chain link seemed to have been patched recently. We found one place where the bottom of the fence looked pliable enough, and though it required both men to sort of slither under, we all got through.

On the other side was a small dirt footpath, one of the ones Jett and Comoreau would like to see open to the public at some point. “What we’d like to do is restore the fence, put in a nice fence, get rid of the invasive species ... ” Comorau said absent-mindedly.

“Unfortunately there was a time when—oh quick quick!” Jett shouted, though quietly. “It’s merlin falcon that just flew by!” A merlin, he said, is “a small, aggressive, powerful falcon.”

“So anyway,” Jett went on, “during Victorian days there was this idea—there it goes again!” he said, pointed to the falcon, “about ...

“Oh! And there’s a red-tailed hawk! See the size difference? They [merlins] are so aggressive they will chase a red-tailed hawk.”

He tried again. “So the Victorians, when they were doing their landscape designing, they were picking and choosing plants from all over the world. So for example this plant is called a mugwort. This will blanket ... ” he spotted another bird.

"There’s a belted kingfisher. What he’s doing way up there is beyond me," he said.

“So as you can see, there’s not a lot of variety on the lower levels of the ecosystem here, because plants like mugwort will completely wipe everything out.”

The maintenance paths, barely maintained, are lined with crabapple trees and cherry trees and lots of poison ivy. Forests of poison ivy in some places, poison ivy plants so tall and with leaves so large that they were more like trees than weeds.

After walking a little while we stumbled upon the remnants of an old wrought-iron fence, rusted but still intact.

“This is a secondary issue,” Jett said. There is lots of 19th-century fencing he thinks should be preserved, but the Parks Department plans to take it out and replace it with “you know, modern-day fencing.”

Currently, there is an eight-foot tall chain-link fence that runs the perimeter of the basins. It’s relatively effective, though there are numerous areas where it’s clear the fence was cut and then patched up. That fence is meant to keep paintballers, homeless people and various adventurers out of the basin, for safety reasons.

“People can do whatever they want down there!” Jett shouted.

He said he once found nine abandoned baby carriages arranged in a circle at the bottom of the basin. (Before they were drained in the 70s, people used to swim illegally, and there were several drownings.)