It’s true: old Brooklyn is washing away. This is not an allusion to the borough’s rising crop of gourmet condiment shops, but to Barren Island, Brooklyn’s most remote seashore and, for now, the resting place for a discarded cache of Americana. Located in the far southeast corner of the borough in between Jamaica and Dead Horse Bays, Barren Island served as an ad-hoc landfill for New York from early March through the end of April in 1953, when the dump was sealed. Like so many other city legacies, the whims of Robert Moses are to thank for the landfill’s short but intense existence; in addition to ordinary household waste, byproducts of Moses's many mammoth construction projects went to be buried at Barren.
Despite its name, by 1953 Barren Island was actually no longer an island. It became a peninsula in the late 1920s, affixed to Long Island proper by six million cubic yards of silt and sand in order to create Floyd Bennett Field, New York’s first commercial airstrip. The construction of Floyd Bennett not only destroyed the island’s topography, but also laid waste to a small village of islanders, all of whom were forced to leave their homes and employers. (The most conspicuous of which was a horse-rendering plant, inspiring the name of the adjoining bay.) What they didn't take with them was entombed in sand.
Since the closing of Floyd Bennett in 1971, though, the detritus of the landfill has slowly started to reemerge. In the early 1990s, glass bottles, dentures, water pistols, bottles, and other bric-a-brac discarded in 1953 begun appearing on the beaches of Dead Horse Bay. The man-made time capsule has become exposed.
"Everyone knows it as 'Bottle Beach.' I hate that name. Because it's reducing a period of time to just bottles."
For Howard Warren, the spoils of Barren Island are certifiable national treasure. An elementary school science teacher at the Trinity School on the Upper West Side, Warren curates a museum at Trinity dedicated to deciphering artifacts collected on the beaches of Dead Horse Bay. Since the bay is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, a federally-administered area, Warren has been in close contact with the Park Service over the years, and has secured an exemption from the prohibition against removing items from federal lands.
Despite the proscription, antiques chasers (and curious New Yorkers) have begun to go hunting on “Bottle Beach,” as the inland coast of Dead Horse Bay has come to be known. Some sell their finds at local flea markets, and others hoard their stash at home. Whatever they do with it, Warren says, many are misinformed about their haul. The seaside bounty comes exclusively from the eroded landfill, he says, not from the old Barren Island village, the remains of which still lie buried under Floyd Bennett. The landfill’s extremely short lifespan is probably responsible for the confusion; while artifacts that predate March 1953 can be found on Bottle Beach, it is because they were acquired at an earlier time and then thrown out.
Warren is not particularly enamored with the collectors, who he says are "picking the flesh" of the country’s past. Arguable the city's staunchest guardian of the island, the Upper West Side resident says he ventures to Barren Island three times each October with his class, and every three or four months by himself, though just to wander and not collect. To learn more about this harbor of New York history, Gelf caught up with Warren by phone. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Warren mulls the value of trash, why "Bottle Beach" is an unsatisfactory name, and the perils of giving a cause too much attention.
Gelf Magazine: How'd you get interested in Barren Island?
Howard Warren: Back in 1987, there was an ad in the Daily News from a Cornell University Cooperative Extension looking for people interested in teaching children science through fishing. I know all about fishmy father had a market on the Upper West Sidebut they wanted anglers. So, in 1987, I became a master angler through Cornell; they took us to Barren Island, and that's where I cut my teeth. The place was so incredibleI would go there without Cornell and go investigate. There was nothing there except for Floyd Bennett field, which was still an inactive (yet active) airfield. And then I began taking kids out to the area to fish.
I grew up in the Bronx, and I knew all about Randall's Island, where I would walk the shoreline catching crabs and minnows in the tide pools. NYC is an incredible place if you love shoreline. You just don't have beaches like Aruba, Antigua, and Tortuga. You have industrial shorelines, magnificent in degradation, incredibly gorgeous in their depravity.
Gelf Magazine: According to a feature in The Brooklyn Rail, the landfill at Dead Horse Bay burst in the 1950s, but trash is still turning up on the beach. 62 years on, how is this still happening?
Howard Warren: First of all, the landfill was capped in 1953. There's so much crap about Barren Island all over the internet. I think people love creating stories because the place so inspires it. It was 1991 that [my students and I] started seeing a few little pieces of artifacts on the beach, which we would take back to school. I noticed shards of china, art deco compacts, 7-Up bottles with pixies, and more, all created in 1953. Before that it was just a sand beach. As far as anybody knew, there was no landfilljust a place.
Gelf Magazine: Why didn't you start finding stuff until 1991?
Howard Warren: Before the government created Floyd Bennett field, it was like a scrotum hanging from the bottom of Brooklyn. Six million cubic yards of sand were dumped on Barren Island to make the airport. Whatever homes, whatever was left behind by these families, was bulldozed. So everywhere on the island, you have buried treasure from what people left.
How did [the landfill] "burst"? Erosion. Water, wind, rain, snow, storms; layer by layer, each would take away sand. What should not be there, nature will remove. Over a 60 year period, that's exactly what happened. If you were to ignore that island, eventually it would carve back into what it originally was. Now there is macadam, but only where they wanted roads and runways. Otherwise they just put sand right on top of the "trash." I hate to call it trasheverything that was there was from somebody's life or somebody's business.
Gelf Magazine: Is the city taking measures to slow the erosion?
Howard Warren: This October, the city announced a partnership between the mayor's office, the U.S. Secretary and Department of the interior, the EPA, and the State Department of Environmental Conservation. This was a very quiet news release. One good thing: [much of] the bay is going to be a no-discharge zone, so no ship can discharge its holding tanksthat includes bathrooms and reservoirsinto it.
Gelf Magazine: Why wasn't there enough time for residents to remove their stuff?
Howard Warren: Remember who was living therepeople who worked on the island. These were not wealthy people. It was the turn of the century, and they were first generation Americans working in horse and fish processing plants. They didn't have a lot of money, or moving vans, so what they couldn’t take was left to be bulldozed. So, underneath Floyd Bennett field, there are all of these artifacts of pre-1930 Brooklyn. Depending on where you go on the island, if anyone were able to get a permit, he would find amazing things. Everyone knows [the Dead Horse Bay shoreline] as "Bottle Beach." I hate that name. Because it's reducing a period of time to just bottles.
Gelf Magazine: Why can't they get a permit to excavate?
Howard Warren: First of all, it's part of Gateway National Recreation Area, which is federal property. If you take anything from federal property, you are breaking federal law, and you could be fined and/or jailed. The park is so undermanned, anyway, there's no way they can do any kind of enforcement.
Gelf Magazine: So, people are taking the stuff they find and selling it?
Howard Warren: Some are, in the name of art. Others are selling things on eBay, or in flea markets, where they turn it into jewelry and sell it. As somebody who sees the incredible education that this layer of earth provides, it's just so frustrating that people come in with garden tools and rip away the sand. They pull at the plants, and once the plants are gone there's nothing holding the sand in place.
Gelf Magazine: Is there any enforcement?
Howard Warren: People at the flea markets will say "we got it at Barren Island," or Dead Horse Bay, or "Bottle Beach." There's no enforcement. The place for enforcement would be right at the beach. The National Park Service doesn't have any money for enforcement at Barren Island; how would they have it at flea markets? The crime is that the stuff they're taking belongs to everyone in the United States. They don't have the right to take this.
Gelf Magazine: That's interesting. I've been to some local fleas, and never thought about where their stuff came from. Have you tried to take any action against the sellers?
Howard Warren: When I'm out there I tell people what they're doing is against the law, that it's federal property. Some people put the stuff down, and others pretend to put it down and get it later. I open up my mouth and I do say something, because I think it's my responsibility. I'm not a police officer or national park service ranger. I can't say "put it down or I'm going to arrest you." I can only let people know, and let their conscience know.
Gelf Magazine: Recently, the city unveiled an extremely ambitious plan to turn the Freshkills landfill into Freshkils Park. As the estimated 30-year project kicks off, are there any lessons to be learned from Barren Island?
Howard Warren: What we learn from Dead Horse Bay is how penny wise and pound foolish we were. For example, think about how industry went from glass bottles to plastic. It's much less expensive to create plastic bottles in the short run. But in the long run, we have all of these poisonous bottles that don't get recycled as they should and get left into the environment. In Dead Horse Bay, we find glass bottles, which were washed, sanitized and reused. We absolutely could go back to the old way, and reduce our need for those millions of barrels of oil needed to produce all of those bottles.
I ask my students: based on what they left behind, what do we know about the people who used these artifacts? I say the same thing now: when people look at your trash from 2012, what are they going to say about you in 70 years? What will your legacy say?
Gelf Magazine: What will yours say, and your trash?
Howard Warren: I'm a pretty good liver of life. I live a lot more modestly today than I did last year, and the year before, and the year before. Every day I try to get better and better. At my school, I'm always going into the trash, taking out aluminum recyclables and cardboard. People are just lazy; I fight the good fight. I'm a consumer, I know that. But we pick our battles. The best battles, as Mr. Smith says, are those that are the hopeless causes. But I still have hope.
I think the best thing that could happen to Dead Horse Bay and Barren Island is that another six million cubic yards of sand get put on top of it, until someone who is really dedicated to learning the layer can do it justice.
Gelf Magazine: Is there anywhere else in NYC that has a similar story to Barren Island?
Howard Warren: About a month ago, a magazine listed four places for pickingincluding Dead Horse Bayand it drove me crazy [Ed. The magazine was Time Out: "Unearthing New York".] I've made the mistake of talking about Dead Horse Bay and Barren Island too much. One person brings three people I hate to say it, but I think I've caused some of this theft and frenzy because here I love this area so much, and talk about it with such a deep love, and now, word is out. And so are the pickers.