What we understand today to be valuable wetlands – marshes, bogs and fens – were until recently dismissed as “swamps,” useless areas from which diseases sprang. Until the 1960s, it was an article of faith among urban planners and farmers alike that the only useful thing to do with a swamp was to drain it or fill it in.
From the time Dutch settlers first inhabited Manhattan, filling swamps was an almost universal objective, serving several purposes. Filling created more land for the evolving urban center. Real estate has been a commodity in limited supply and nearly unlimited demand from the earliest days of the city.
In addition, filled land extended into deeper water, creating a well-defined shoreline with bulkheads that provided better landings for boats and ships, which were formerly the primary means of transportation for people and goods.
From the very beginning, swamps were also seen as the best places in which to dispose of the city’s growing quantity of refuse. First, the swampy areas surrounding Manhattan were filled. In places, the island’s shoreline is literally hundreds of feet further into the water compared to 400 years ago. Then, the swamps of the outer boroughs were targeted. Hundreds of acres of wetland were used for landfills.
The vast, grass-covered hill just south of Co-Op City in the Bronx, which is visible from the Douglaston Point, was one such a landfill. Both LaGuardia and Kennedy airports are built on landfills. Others surrounded much of Jamaica Bay.
Two of the largest, the Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue landfills, are visible as tall hills adjacent to the Belt Parkway west of JFK Airport. The world’s largest landfill, Fresh Kills (now closed), occupies hundreds of acres on Staten Island and, at 400 feet high, is reputed to be the highest point on the eastern seaboard between Florida and Maine.
The extensive marshes of the Flushing Bay estuary – known as Flushing Meadows – extended as far south as Union Turnpike. In the first several decades of the 20th century, it too became a major garbage dumping ground. Unlike properly managed landfills today, these open dumps of the past routinely caught fire.
During a time when most buildings were heated with coal, huge quantities of ash and cinders were dumped at the site. Often, they were still hot. The garbage would catch fire and continue to burn for weeks, months or even years. Putrid, stinking smoke plumes rose from every corner. This hellish landscape in north central Queens serves as the setting for one of the most memorable scenes towards the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s immortal novel The Great Gatsby.
In the late 1930s, this huge dump was covered over with soil and became the site of the 1939 and 1964-65 World’s Fairs. Afterward, the fair buildings were demolished and the site was restored as Flushing Meadows Park, but the marshes are irrevocably gone.
Gatsby has an even closer connection to Douglaston. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived for a time in Great Neck and were familiar with the Douglaston peninsula, which, as explained in my last column, is actually the “Little Neck” in Little Neck Bay.
Little Neck and Great Neck became West and East Egg in the great American novel. And what is now the commandant’s residence at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point is reputed to have been the inspiration for Gatsby’s East Egg mansion