Sunday, April 25, 2010

Jamaica Bay as it Used to Be

During the 1970s, the new Environmental Protection Agency hired freelance photographers to travel the country and document environmental problems and everyday life. The Documerica project produced over 15,000 images. Thanks to the National Archives, many of those images are available in high-resolution scans in the Flickr Commons.

One of the sets, by photographer Arthur Tress, covers the waterways of Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens, with an emphasis on the area around Jamaica Bay. Many scenes look familiar. Broad Channel, in particular, retains much of its character.

However, many of the communities, including Broad Channel, still lacked a sewage system, so wastes flowed freely into the bay. I assume this problem has since been corrected. Update: One community on the edge of Jamaica Bay just got sewers this year.

The lands around the bay were also loaded with trash, such as the rusting car at the top of this post, an auto chassis, tires strewn around on the beach, rusty oil drums, construction debris, and the abandoned ice cream truck pictured below. The Spring Creek landfill was still in operation on part of the bay's marshes.

While much of the trash and pollution have since been cleaned up, it would not surprise me if remnants persisted under the wildlife refuge's ponds and just offshore.

When Tress documented Jamaica Bay, the wildlife refuge had only recently been acquired by the National Park Service. (Previously the land was owned by the city.) Tress captured some scenes of birds and birdwatchers using the refuge.

Two other sets in the Documerica collection cover parts of the New York City area. One, with photographs by Wil Blanche, covers Lower Manhattan and landfills. Another includes photographs by Danny Lyon from Brooklyn and Paterson, NJ, among other urban areas. Photos in this post link through to the original images.