All Images © Evan Simon
Dead Horse Bay is perhaps New York City’s most forgotten treasure. A desolate cove hidden on the edge of government property, the shores of Dead Horse Bay are blanketed with garbage more than half a century old. Childrens’ toys and rusted toilets emerge from the sand as waves crash to the sound of broken glass.
The Bay has endured a tortured history. The glass coated beach sloping its eastern shore was formerly Barren Island, the largest of a series of marsh islands that once dotted Jamaica Bay. At the close of the 19th century Barren Island was home to the largest waste incinerator in the world, dozens of offal factories, and seven horse rendering plants. Each emptied their by-products into the adjacent tide, giving the bay its namesake. The horse bones, sliced in exactly two inch increments during processing, can still be found along the shore.
However, it wasn’t until 1953 that Dead Horse Bay became what it is today. As part of a larger effort to lure the middle class into New York, Robert Moses developed the Belt Parkway, a massive highway that passed along the shores of Brooklyn and into suburban Long Island. Moses declared eminent domain and evicted thousands of residents from homes in the parkway’s route. Like the community that surrounded Dead Horse Bay, the evicted often couldn’t afford to carry all of their possessions and left piles of belongings beside their condemned homes. In 1953 Moses collected the belongings, along with debris from the bulldozed houses, and ordered they be used as landfill to extend the shoreline along Dead Horse Bay and make more room for the parkway. A monument to their forgotten stories, the belongings of these residents have laid there for nearly 60 years, washing in the tide, buried in the sand.
Today, Dead Horse Bay remains a national park off the radar. In 1972, the federal government acquired Dead Horse Bay through the Gateway National Recreational Area. Underfunded and faced with a complex ecology, Gateway has let the waste lie for forty years and seems determined to ignore the uncapped landfill eroding beneath its shores. Dead Horse Bay isn’t mentioned on Gateway’s website and there’s no sign outside its entrance, a foreboding trail barely discernible behind the traffic of Flatbush Avenue. Maintaining Dead Horse Bay would require water quality tests, which might reveal what Mickey Cohen, a retired biologist, called the most chemically polluted water in all of Jamaica Bay.
Dead Horse Bay’s history of violence, against both earth and man, are perhaps unrivaled in all of New York City. My earliest visits to the bay were charged with concerns for public health, the local ecology and organizing a clean up. It took much longer for me to understand the value of Dead Horse as it was. In 2010, New York City adopted an exclusive waste exportation program, sending 100% of its garbage out of state, closing every city landfill, and creating the largest waste displacement gap in the country. As a result Dead Horse Bay is now one of the last places where New Yorkers can see, smell, and touch New York City garbage. Part time capsule, part crystal ball, a walk along the beach at Dead Horse Bay provides a visceral education on the consequences of rampant consumerism and unchecked urban growth. Like scar tissue, its waters carry the reminder of a pain worth remembering.