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A Swamp Forest Grows in Brooklyn

An abandoned reservoir inspires dance and debate around a new kind of landscape

by Ginger Strand
Photographs by Kenta Nagai

Published in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion magazine

Photo: Kenta Nagai

IT’S A BRIGHT SUNDAY MORNING during the fall migration in New York City. A small group convenes in Highland Park, a plateau of greenery straddling the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Most of the fifteen or so people—retirement age, in mesh hats, with binoculars slung round their necks—are of the urban genus known as Birder. A few obvious outsiders lack binoculars: a young reporter from the Queens TimesLedger (“Nothing else is happening today,” he says), a Queens woman with her tween daughter, a choreographer, and me and my boyfriend, Bob. The equipment shortage is soon rectified: two New York City Urban Park Rangers in khakis, utility belts, and Smokey-the-Bear hats arrive and begin handing out binoculars.

“This is a bird walk?” Bob asks, looking betrayed.

I convinced him to get up early and take the subway to Highland Park by telling him we were going to see some decommissioned hydroinfrastructure. Bob loves hydroinfrastructure. Birds he can take or leave.

Kids climb on playground equipment nearby and a radio loudly preaches the morning’s sermon. Twenty feet away, the Q56 bus zooms down Jamaica Avenue, sounding like a small boy revving an imaginary race car. As the rangers introduce themselves, the birders, in unison, begin slathering on sunscreen.

“I can’t wait to see the reservoir,” the Queens woman announces. “I haven’t been here since I was a kid. We used to come and swim in it. The helicopters would chase us away.” It isn’t clear if she understands that the reservoir no longer holds much water. Built for Brooklyn in 1856, Ridgewood Reservoir occupies a large chunk of Highland Park. Since being closed and mostly drained in 1989, it has become a lively habitat for birds, frogs, salamanders, plants, and trees. It has also become the site of an unusual standoff: community residents versus parks.

“Ranger Kate” introduces Jennifer Monson, the choreographer. Jennifer, who has spent much of the last several years on a dance project about the reservoir, has offered to enhance the bird walk with a short series of movement exercises meant to get everyone thinking like a migrating bird. She starts by trying to help us locate ourselves in space.

“Close your eyes,” she says. “Now listen for something very close to you.”

Peering surreptitiously through my eyelashes, I see Bob, who hates the sun, easing himself into the shade of a streetlamp. He’s thin, so this maneuver actually works.

“Now listen for something far away,” Jennifer instructs the group. “What’s the farthest thing you can hear?”

The nearest and the farthest thing I can hear are the same: the radio, now cranked up and blasting CD 101.9. “Smooth jazz for relaxing on the weekend,” a suave male voice intones.

“Now, keeping your eyes closed, turn and face north,” Jennifer says. I peek again. All the birders but one are facing north.

RIDGEWOOD RESERVOIR is a curious new kind of landscape. This is not a park, or a piece of preserved nature, but a previously developed area in the process of reverting to wildness. Urban wildernesses tend to happen by mistake. In a city like New York, where space is at such a premium that former synagogues, sugar factories, and schools have all been reborn as luxury condos, a wilderness can only be the result of inattention.

Ridgewood Reservoir is the recipient of such benign neglect. Originally built to store water from wells and ponds on Long Island for Brooklyn, the three-basin, 100-million-gallon reservoir came under the control of New York City’s Board of Water Supply when the five boroughs united in 1898. It continued to provide Long Island water to Brooklyn throughout the early twentieth century, but development on Long Island was compromising water sources, and fast-growing New York was already looking elsewhere to slake its thirst. The Croton Water System, delivering water from upstate Westchester and Putnam counties, was completed in 1911; the Catskill System was finished in 1927; and the last of the Delaware System’s four massive reservoirs, capable of supplying half the current demand, came online in 1965. The first Catskill water—the “champagne of drinking waters”— came to Brooklyn in 1917, and from then on, as upstate aqueducts and tunnels came into service, Ridgewood Reservoir gradually became obsolete. By 1960, it was demoted to backup, and in 1989, the city decommissioned it and drained two of its three basins. It sat forgotten—by humans anyway—until 2004, when it was signed over to the Department of Parks and Recreation. And that’s when things got interesting.

SOMETIME IN THE EARLY 1990s, Jennifer Monson stumbled upon the reservoir. She lived in the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick and often biked or walked her dog in Highland Park, using the path that rings the reservoir’s basins. At the time, she was working on Bird Brain Migrations, a multiyear effort she calls a “navigational dance touring project.” In it, Monson and small groups of dancers traveled North America, Cuba, Mexico, and Guatemala, following the migration paths of birds and gray whales. Bringing together community groups, conservationists, and the public, the dancers offered panel discussions, dance workshops, and free, site-specific performances that sought to reconnect communities with their local habitats and the migrating animals that used them. They brought plants indoors and performed dances outdoors, trying to help people see their own locales in a new light.

After Bird Brain, Monson returned to Brooklyn. She felt a desire to focus on a single place. “The traveling was inter-esting, but we were always in the same season,” she says.

“I wanted to be in one place and notice how it changes over the year.”

Then someone took her down into the reservoir she had walked and biked around for years. The moment she stepped into what seemed to be an untamed swamp forest right in the middle of New York City, she was hooked. Her interest only increased when she began to learn about the controversies over the reservoir’s future.

ON THE BIRD HIKE, the group completes Monson’s exercises. The rangers then lead us through the park and up some ramshackle cement steps punctuated by shattered, akimbo street lamps. Designed in the 1890s, Highland Park has stately trees and winding paths, but years of hard use and tight budgets have taken a toll. The stairs lead up a hill at the park’s north side to an asphalt path that rings the reservoir. Bicyclists and joggers are in evidence. As soon as the birders have all arrived, as if on cue, an osprey sails in a wide circle overhead. Fifteen pairs of binoculars veer upward. Slightly lower, a broad-winged hawk crosses the sky.

Immediately, the level of enthusiasm among the birders rises. Field guides are produced, and as the walk proceeds, a group of catbirds is spotted in the bittersweet that overflows the chain-link fence enclosing the reservoir. Two members of the group, however, seem disgruntled: Bob, who’s been told that the park rangers will not allow anyone to go down into the reservoir, and the Queens woman, who has realized that her former swimming hole is now filled with brush, saplings, and trees.

“I can’t believe this,” she keeps saying, in the tone of a Puritan minister arriving on the set of Gossip Girl. It’s understandable. The scrubby trees and undergrowth beyond the fence lack both the grandeur of an established wilderness and the picturesque order of a garden. The young forest looks like what it is: something unattended, gone to seed.

She and Bob both perk up, however, when the rangers partially relent and pull aside a piece of chain-link fence so the group can squeeze through onto the platform of the reservoir’s decrepit pump house. From there, we look south across the middle basin, the only one that still holds water. Its edges are choked with phragmites. In the sky beyond, a 767 lumbers up from John F. Kennedy International Airport. And there, centered on the shallow pond, are two coots and a wood duck, floating serenely in parti-colored glory.

In 2004, when the Parks Department announced plans to make the former reservoir into a park, there was celebration. But three years later, as they launched the design process, something surprising happened. At community meetings, the city’s $46 million plan to upgrade the reservoir with a running track, a cricket pitch, and athletic fields was met with attitudes ranging from lukewarm to hostile.

“We totally reject the idea that the Ridgewood Reservoir should be turned into a conventional park,” Paul Kerzner, president of the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association told the New York Daily News. “Migratory birds have been using the site for at least thirty years. This is their Holiday Inn. Why take it away from them?”

In June 2007, the Department of Parks and Recreation hosted a “community listening session” on the future of the reservoir. Attendees were divided into teams and given templates of the area, along with cardboard cutouts of recreational facilities: baseball diamonds, tennis courts, running tracks, cricket pitches, and more. Each team was to place the facilities they wanted on the reservoir space.

To the surprise of many attendees, the teams showed little interest in the recreational facilities. One team refused to place any. Another suggested a nature center instead. A third team insisted nothing ought to be decided without environmental studies, and a fourth suggested leaving two basins untouched and adding only a skateboard park to the third. The only recreational facility that got any enthusiasm from the final team was an indoor swimming pool. Rob Jett, a birder–attendee with a blog called Save Ridgewood Reservoir, noted that the community seemed to realize something the Parks Department didn’t. “The Department of Parks and Recreation wants to create a world class destination in Ridgewood,” he wrote in his blog; “what they don’t realize is that it already exists.”

In New York City, there have traditionally been two competing schools of thought about parks, each the legacy of a powerful man. There’s the Frederick Law Olmsted legacy, which holds that parks are relief from urban life, landscapes designed to soothe the city-dweller’s spirit and inspire the higher emotions evoked by nature. And there’s the Robert Moses legacy, which sees parks as recreational outlets, places where the poor and middle class can let off steam and engage in wholesome activities like sports and swimming. To Olmsted, the urban dweller required temples to the spirit; to Moses, the masses needed to get off their—couches, let’s say. Neither of these points of view is about ecological value. Neither considers other creatures who might use urban greenery: birds, amphibians, small mammals. And neither attributes value to simply coexisting with an untamed place. Even Olmsted, who saw landscape as spiritually vital, felt that only a certain kind of landscape could perform the work of urban amelioration and social reform: the rolling fields, stately trees, and sweeping prospects of the English pastoral. This carefully defined aesthetic would inspire the moral sentiments and genteel behavior he wanted to instill in the public. His parks reflect this taste beautifully: plop a manor house down at the end of Central Park’s mall and it would look right at home.

At their listening session, the Parks Department was getting push-back on their essentially Moses-school vision for the Ridgewood Reservoir. But that push-back wasn’t coming from the Olmsted school. It was coming from a completely new school, one that saw unmanaged nature itself as a “world class destination.” Less concerned with utility than ecology, this community seemed to value nature just for itself—even, surprisingly, when they were technically barred from it.

A few days after the bird walk, I come back to the reservoir with Jennifer and her dance group. I’m here to see a rehearsal of their performance, and also to trespass. In the parking lot, Jennifer introduces me to the three dancers and the performance’s sound designer, and I follow them up the stairs to the reservoir path. We walk around the fence to a gap on its far side, where we slip through and scramble down the sloped rock wall. The dancers do this with the agility you would expect of dancers. I try to appear equally agile, but eventually, clutching slim tree trunks and sliding down gravelly bits, settle for not killing myself.

At the bottom, the floor of the reservoir is dirt. Stands of skinny birches and aspens intermingle with carpets of moss and thickets of pokeweed and Japanese knotweed. Small maples are dotted about. Much of what grows here is what you would expect to find in the now-vanished Long Island swamp forest that provided the reservoir’s original water: it’s an ecosystem transplanted by infrastructure. There are signs of other trespassers too: broken glass, discarded cans, forts, and paint globs attest
to the basin’s attraction for paintball fans. Homeless people sometimes camp out in the reservoir, Jennifer tells me, but they favor a different basin.

The little group knows exactly where it is going. They always use the same spot, to minimize their impact on the landscape. They weave their way in and out through the trees and brush to a small clearing. Backpacks are dropped, sweatshirts pulled off, and everyone stands in a circle, chatting quietly, a moment that organically grows into the warm-up exercise. Like the birders, the dancers close their eyes, locating themselves in space.

I sink down onto the dry ground under a birch. The leafy, twiggy detritus has a slightly sweet smell. The wind comes up and the skinny birches sway in turn like sports fans doing the wave. A catbird meows. Then a long, high whistle passes by to the north: an Amtrak train gliding through Queens. The dancers move fluidly to their starting spots and begin a slow series of movements, long and dragged out, like changes in the landscape.

THERE IS SOME PRECEDENT for letting old industrial sites or infrastructure return to a wild state. The famous Ruhr district—once the center of German coal and steel production—is now one of the world’s largest postindustrial landscapes. Many of the region’s mines and factories were dismantled by the Allies after World War II; others were demolished in the wake of globalization and the decline of traditional manufacturing in Europe. But in 1996, the Projekt Industriewald Ruhrgebiet (Industrial Forest Project of the Ruhr) began converting some sites into parklands and nature preserves, with natural succession woodlands allowed to slowly disassemble the built environment.

These rewilded woodlands are a new kind of landscape, with new meanings. They suggest to the visitor not an untouched, prehuman world, but a reverted, posthuman one. That creates an interesting tension. Critics point out that there can be a “stigma” attached to such places: they symbolize economic decline as well as natural resilience. These landscapes also counter the ideal of historic preservation, which uses restoration to freeze time. Instead, they yield to decay, drawing the viewer’s attention to time’s relentless arrow.

Critics of the Ruhr project worried that visitors would find the new parks depressing. They haven’t. In fact, visitors seem to take special pleasure in the contrast between the crumbling built world and the vibrant, new natural one. And it isn’t in spite of the landscape’s implications, but because of them. Visitors enjoying nature’s unmaking of human places are following in the footsteps of the Romantics, who swarmed over ancient ruins and gazed up at the Alps, seeking symbols of human frailty and God’s grandeur. It’s a new take on an old idea: the post-technological sublime.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the famous “Grand Tour” of Europe centered on sublime sights, places that combined beauty and terror to inspire awe for something bigger than man. But once humans had mastered the landscape—waterfalls and rivers harnessed for power, distances conquered by the combustion engine, Earth’s very mysteries unraveled down to the genome—we turned to our own achievements in our quest to feel awe. Sublimity was found in the electrical turbine, the jet engine, the slow-motion explosion of a rocket leaving Earth.

As our eyes have adjusted to the brightness of our triumph, we have also discerned its dark underside. Our drive to control and master the environment has begun to frighten us with its success. Today—witness the paintings of Alexis Rockman or writer Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us—we find an odd comfort in the idea of our ultimate failure. All this is not irreversible, says the post-technological sublime. What we have done can be undone.

“I’M ON A MISSION to re-engage people with their environments,” Monson tells me. In 2004, she created a nonprofit corporation called iLand—Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance—with this purpose. In addition to collaborating with educators, field researchers, and architects on place-based projects, iLand worked with the Parks Department to coordinate a full day of events on the path around Ridgewood Reservoir’s rim in June 2007. Six performers danced from dawn until dusk, park rangers provided information about the unique reservoir ecology, displays reported on a local bird
census and vegetation survey, and kids from a local school performed a dance choreographed by Jennifer. Like her current performance, the dance was designed to make people think about place. What shaped this location? What’s shaping it now?
“Dancing is a more direct understanding of how you affect an environment,” Jennifer says. To help the community understand the connections, she had choreographers available to help visitors interpret the performances. The project was considered a success.

Convinced that people would value the reservoir even more if they could see it from the inside, Jennifer tried to get permission from the Parks Department to do public performances in the reservoir basin. She offered to limit the size of audiences and have everyone sign waivers indemnifying the city. Parks said no. Jennifer is disappointed, but not angry. She herself is torn between a desire to help people appreciate the wild space and a protectiveness toward the new woodland just starting to take root there.

“In June we saw all kinds of young immigrant families out enjoying it,” Jennifer says. “They’re often used to having access to nature, and they need it. But then the way the paintball people destroy it, you don’t want to encourage that. Or the kids you see zipping around on their motorbikes. But they look so wild and powerful, and at least they’re outside doing something. It’s very confusing to me. But I love all those dilemmas.”

Dilemmas are likely to remain in a culture that has a hard time expressing the value in just letting things be. The Parks Department is protective toward the place because they see it as acreage: a new cricket pitch! a pool! Jennifer and many in the community value it for its uniqueness and resilience. But how do you quantify that? The birders, perhaps, do it best. On their blogs they keep lists of birds sighted there: chimney swift, cedar waxwing, yellow warbler, ovenbird, indigo bunting, goldfinch. The list may not be dollarable, but at least it’s a list. If this environment is destroyed, it says, something real will be lost.

IN THE MEANTIME, there can be no official performances of Jennifer’s Ridgewood Reservoir piece. But occasionally she and a small group of invited audience members might meet in the parking lot. They might walk together around the south side of the reservoir basins. Imagine them stopping at one point to admire the view across the middle basin’s water, and at another to look east, across Brooklyn. They squeeze through a hole in the chain-link fence and hold trees and each other’s hands as they scrabble down the reservoir wall. They gather around Jennifer as she recounts the reservoir’s history and tells them the names of the plants and trees. They follow each other through the pathless woods, stopping to touch bracket fungi, or run their hands across furry moss patches. They come to a place where the dancers are standing among the trees, looking as if they grew there. The audience members fall silent and settle themselves onto the ground. Radios wired to a central iPod and placed around them in bushes and trees make an ambient noise, almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the woods itself: the stirring of trees, the chirp of insects, squawks of birds, and behind that, the noise of traffic on the Jackie Robinson Parkway and of helicopters grinding through the sky.

When the dance begins, it’s almost as if the wind stirred it up. The dancers’ legs lift slowly in unison, moving like glaciers carving out a valley. Their chests rise and fall, a pulse that seems to relate to the pulse of the place, water rising and falling in the ground, plants drawing on it to grow. They are barefoot. Their feet stir up little puffs of dust. When they move, they move over and under branches, in and out of sight. At one point, one of them steps up into a tree, as deft as a squirrel. Another one lies down on the ground. Sometimes they shake the trees, and sometimes the trees move on their own, as if joining the dancers in the dance.

Finally, they lie on the ground and simply breathe.

Jennifer Monson grew up in the desert. “I grew up with, don’t touch, don’t pick a flower, leave everything as it is,” she tells me. “But as I come to a more dynamic understanding of the back and forth between human action and natural phenomena, I try to be respectful of the place I’m in, but not to feel other from it. To feel part of it.”

Does a community have to use a place in order to feel part of it? Or might they forge new connections through the radical act of leaving something alone? The dancers claim space as they move. They work out a relationship to the place around them, and they inscribe that relationship with movement and action and breath. So, too, the community around Ridgewood Reservoir will, given the chance, work through their connection to a place that’s part of their past, and their future too.

In the meantime, the place goes on with its own life, growing, changing, replacing human handiwork with a new work-in-progress by nature. 

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Ginger Strand is the author of Inventing Niagara (spring 2008) as well as Flight, a novel. She lives in New York City.

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