Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Fresh Kills: An Unnatural Context
Emily Gertz, 2 Apr 04

Flow-01-02-Clip.jpgGoogling around this evening, I have come upon this incredibly detailed web site devoted to New York City's Fresh Kills Landfill. I've been spending over an hour just moving around taking all this in. Surely no other garbage dump on earth has been so lovingly documented.

Fresh Kills is the largest pile of (mostly) household waste in the world. It is composed of four mounds ranging in height from 90 to 225 feet, covering 2,200 acres, in/on the borough of Staten Island. It was originally opened around 1951 and was supposed to operate for about three years. It stayed open for 50 years instead. This is only one of the reasons Staten Island has seriously threatened to secede from New York City over the years.

In model Modern American Straightfaced Lack of Irony, the web site text lauds "nature's ability to adjust to man's presence:"

Although Fresh Kills Landfill is not a wholly natural environment, the site has developed its own unique ecology. Today, even with four large landfill mounds on the site, forests, tidal wetlands, and freshwater wetlands still exist. One of the fundamentals of nature, adaptation, is demonstrated in the evolution of these natural features in an unnatural context.

Fresh Kills is right under the Atlantic Flyway. 45 species of birds stop over in Fresh Kills during their seasonal migrations.

Flow-01-01-Clip.jpgOne reason the site has been documented in such detail is that it is probably the only landfill in the world with a "resident artist," Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles has been creating artworks in cooperation with the New York City Department of Sanitation since the late 1970's. She sees landfills as a sort of earthworks for the rest of us:

I felt that that the classical American earthworks that I loved had an unfortunate un-public aspect about them, since theywere in isolated places and avialable only to a few who cold afford the trip. For the rest of us, there were only the pictures. Almost all of these works are/were on private land. In New York City there were huge tracts of public land on municipal landfills; weird, yes, but land that the public actually owned and could make a claim on, land that you could take a subway or bus to, available to all. (Cabinet Magazine Issue 6, Spring 2002, It's About Time For Fresh Kills)

Ukeles' work with the Department of Sanitation has been devoted to re-establishing a relationship between the residents of the city, their garbage, and the people who manage the garbage. In one piece, she shook the hand of every employee of the Department of Sanitation and thanked them for helping New York City live.

Check out these quicktime movies (with sound) by Ukeles of the Fresh Kills site and the landfill systems.

The other reason for all this online detail is that Fresh Kills is being turned into "New York's New Parkland." This is not an uncommon fate for a landfill. So, the web site has all sorts of groovy material about this transformation: maps, photos, reimaginings. The concept, the master plan, the timeline, and how the public can get involved, including three design workshops in May and June 2004.

Although the dumping supposedly ended for good on March 22, 2001, section 1/9 (see a 360 degree panorama) of the landfill was reopened on September 13, 2001 to receive debris from the World Trade Center. "The authorities explained that there was no comparable place at the required scale, and Fresh Kills was the only site that was sufficiently secure," Ukeles writes.

So, now the park plan includes a 9/11 memorial.

Ukeles found this use of the site disturbing, and I can't disagree, but she also saw a path to reconciling the disturbance: the path of art. In Spring 2002 she wrote,

The completely new question at Fresh Kills concerns the nature of the memorial or the graveyard or whatever it will be. Is it for the particular individuals who died? A person and a person and a person, turned to “flying dust?”* Will there be a marker with the person’s name, some details, objects, messages? Many will say no, it should be a general memorial, a meditation place, a place for gathering and pondering. For all. Un-programmed.

To me, what’s wrong with creating a general, un-individuated memorial for some particular place within Fresh Kills is this: To call something “garbage” means that the possessor of the object has lost desire for it. Desire has passed, and with it goes value. The value of the object evaporates. We are quite expert at this; in consumerist society, we’re trained to lose desire as fast as possible and to buy again, more and more. To call something “garbage” means stripping the materials of their inherent characteristics. So that even though differences are obvious, hard becomes the same as soft, wet as dry, heavy as light, moldy old sour cream as a shoe, wet leaves as old barbells— they become the same things. The entire culture colludes in this un-naming. Then we can call it all “garbage”—of no value whatsoever. To put it away, actually paying to put it away, as soon as possible. Thus forgotten. And then paying tremendously to remediate its effects on the land, the air, and the water.

So that’s why, in this 50-year-old social sculpture we have all produced, of four mountains made from 150 million cubic yards of the un-differentiated, un-named, no-value garbage, whose every iota of material identity has been banished, the memorial, graveyard—or whatever it is—needs to be created out of an utterly opposite kind of social contract. The shattered taboo that enabled this unholy shotgun marriage needs to be restored; a chasm-change in attitude is required, one of very deliberate differentiating, of naming, of attentive reverence for each mote of dust from each lost individual. Thus remembered. This must become a place that returns identity to, not strips identity from, each perished person.

Hasn’t it been art that can transform the meaning of material, re-invent identity, and re-name the lost? This part of the overall Fresh Kills site must become a double place: the unnamed healed and the named re-named. Otherwise the doubling being done here tumbles necessity into obscenity.

I’ve done a lot of other work over the years, but basically I’ve been waiting for 24 years to get to work on this. Garbage is hard enough. The scale of 2,200 acres, equivalent to 2.5 Central Parks, is mind-bending. Now this unimaginable new Layer Four. I’m ready to get to work on this now.

* “Flying dust” comes from the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) prayer: “As for man, he is from dust and will return to dust; he earns his bread at the risk of his life; he is like a broken shard, the grass that withers, the flower that fades, a fleeting shadow, a passing cloud, the wind that blows, the flying dust, and as a fleeting dream.”

Bookmark and Share


Lovely piece, Emily. Thank you for posting this.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 2 Apr 04

You're most welcome.

It was a nice confluence of sources--coming upon the web site with Ukeles' work insterspersed throughout, and remembering the Cabinet Magazine article. At the time that ran, there was no formal plan to include a 9/11 memorial at Fresh Kills, but obviously Ukeles is quite prescient about a lot of things involving landfills and American culture.

I can't recommend Cabinet enough, by the way - - for anyone looking for really good new writing about art and culture. It's got a serious intellectual focus but with attitude, and each issue is just a beautiful object unto itself. Editorially, there's a big interest in art that engages with and explores the physical world.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 3 Apr 04



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg