At a bend in Staten Island’s North Shore where the Arthur Kill gives way to the Kill van Kull, there’s a strange, desolate landscape that’s equal parts industrial wasteland and pristine wilderness. Here, an array of factories and freight lines are enveloped by a network of streams, swamps, ponds, and salt marshes, with place names like “Howland Hook” and “Old Place Creek” that wouldn’t feel out of place in a pirate story.
Mariner’s Marsh makes up 107 acres of the area, buffering a dense residential neighborhood from the sprawling New York Container Terminal with a wide expanse of green. Having endured a brief period of industrial use followed by 75 years of abandonment, the resulting wilderness is characterized by the vine-covered relics of factories that thrived on the spot 100 years ago. Even the Parks Department’s official signage describes the landscape as “eerie.” But the text rightfully avoids its darkest chapter, when in 1976 the tragic final act of a forbidden teenage love affair played out among the ruins of Mariner’s Marsh.
The ruins date back to the early 20th century, when the land was occupied by the Milliken Brother’s Structural Iron Works. Later, the foundry was converted to Downey’s Shipyard, which manufactured war ships, among other vessels. The factories closed down in the 1940s and have sat abandoned to this day. Wood components of the buildings have completely rotted away, but concrete pylons, pits, and passages remain. As the buildings deteriorated, the landscape transformed. Today, the former shipyard’s ten man-made basins function as reedy freshwater ponds. Elsewhere, the topography varies from pine and poplar forests to vine-gnarled swamps where wildlife and rare plants thrive.
Mariner’s Marsh was acquired by the Parks Department in 1997, but it’s been “closed to the public during environmental investigation” for nearly a decade. The investigation in question took place in 2006 under the direction of the EPA, which found that a small area of the park contained a high concentration of hazardous materials stemming from its industrial age. Though it appears that some work has been done on the spot, it’s not clear when the park will reopen. In the meantime, warning signs haven’t stopped neighbors and dedicated bird watchers from enjoying it. Trails are well-defined and the area is relatively free of garbage, despite the presence of some larger debris. The east side of Downey Pond is dotted with abandoned hot rods from another era.
Long before Staten Island’s industrial boom, the Lenape Indians camped here to take advantage of the nearby wetlands, where shellfish were plentiful. Remnants of the wetlands are still visible across Forest Avenue in Arlington Marsh, which is home to some of the last stretches of healthy salt marsh in New York City. Acquiring it was a major coup for the Parks Department, which plans to keep the 55 acres wild. Here, ghostly remnants of long-forgotten piers and burned out vessels seem oddly in sync with the tidal rhythms of the natural world. At low tide, a boat graveyard comes to the surface in an adjacent cove, where native cordgrass and mussel beds take root in the old hulls of 19th century sailing ships.
This post would’ve ended there if I hadn’t come upon a mention of the 1976 murder of Susan Jacobson in connection with the area. Though the scene of the crime is never referred to as Mariner’s Marsh, the description is unmistakable in a New York Times article published in 2011, which begins:
“The 16-year-old boy had settled on a plan on how to kill his girlfriend. There was a blighted section on the north shore of Staten Island called Port Ivory, overgrown coastline facing the industrial banks of New Jersey. The land was pocked with holes leading to small underground rooms, like bunkers.
This abandoned lot was the last thing a 14-year-old girl named Susan Jacobson ever saw as she climbed down into one of those holes with her boyfriend, Dempsey Hawkins, on May 15, 1976. “
Included in the article is a scan of a handwritten letter from Hawkins to the reporter in which he details an idyllic romance with Jacobson that ends abruptly following an abortion. In the final paragraph, he goes on, “In came 1976 and the insanity and the whole painful mess I am about to relate succinctly simply because it’s disturbing. I strangled Susan and concealed her body in a metal barrel in a wooded area across from a Proctor and Gamble factory on Staten Island.”
Two years passed before her remains were discovered by a boy playing in the tunnels. He had assumed they were dog bones until a friend spotted Susan’s tennis shoes. Hawkins, now 55, was denied parole for the eighth time in 2012 despite a history of good behavior behind bars. Parole commissioners have repeatedly taken issue with what occurred immediately after the crime. On multiple occasions, Hawkins himself participated in search parties for the missing girl, knowing all the while precisely where the body was hidden.
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Take the A train past JFK. You’ll be one of a handful of travelers left on a car that seemed well over capacity a moment ago; the babble of the crowd fades to the soft hum of an unimpeded machine. Nobody asks you for money, or directions. If you’ve made it this far, you know where you’re going.
Suddenly, the ground drops out and you’re gliding over the silver Jamaica Bay. The train runs just above sea level, skimming over a surface that teems visibly with diving cormorants. Clustered with skeletal boat frames, aged marinas jut from a neglected shoreline across the water, to the west, a row of painted houses stand on stilts. There’s no place like the Rockaways to experience New York as a city by the sea.
Head east at Hammels Wye, and a brief walk through the quiet neighborhood of Averne will lead you to a little known peninsula called Dubos Point, one of the last fragments of salt marsh left in a city that was once ringed with tidal wetlands. The marsh was filled with dredged materials in 1912 in preparation for an ill-fated real estate development, but over the last century, the area has reverted to its natural state. In 1988, the land was acquired by the Parks Department, deemed a wildlife sanctuary, and given an official name for the first time (Rene Dubos was a microbiologist and environmental activist who coined the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally”).
Parks officials envisioned marked nature trails and boardwalks for community use, and planned to build nesting structures and employ part-time patrol staff to encourage wildlife and keep the place clean, but none of this came to be. The Audubon Society of New York maintained the grounds sporadically until 1999, but abandoned its post citing a lack of resources. Since then, the area has been largely neglected, leaving its care up to volunteers. Green Apple Corps and the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance have orchestrated several clean-up events over the years, but they’re facing an uphill battle.
Every day, the shores of Dubos Point are bombarded with an onslaught of garbage, and it’s not coming from park visitors (the preserve is technically not open to the public). Most of the refuse is washed up from the bay, after a long journey through storm drains that began in the littered streets of New York City. Familiar objects are made strange, touched by a long encounter with an invisible world, caked with green algae, eroded with salt, barnacle-burdened and bleached by the sun. The entire peninsula resounds with the constant susurration of wind through grass. For all these reeds are hiding, perhaps they whisper secrets; mud-moored vessels, decaying toys, and saltbored furniture lay half-concealed in the tidal growth.
Standing water in old tires and plastic debris makes for a perfect breeding ground for the area’s most populous species. My first steps onto the grounds of Dubos Point seemed to disturb some ancient curse, as great swarms of mosquitoes rose from their stagnant hollows to draw my blood sacrifice. The Parks department has been criticized in the past for neglecting its duties at Dubos Point while mosquito infestation reached “plague proportions” in the late 90s, rendering backyards unusable from April to October. After years of complaints and little improvement, some residents resorted to building outdoor shelters for brown bats, a natural insect predator. Today, the only visible improvement made on the grounds of Dubos Point is a line of Mosquito Magnet kiosks, placed every 100 feet along the boundary of the preserve.
Despite decades of pollution, the Jamaica Bay harbors hundreds of species of wildlife, and the water is cleaner today than it was 100 years ago. As one of the last remaining pockets of undeveloped land in New York, the estuary supplies an essential resting place for migratory birds along the Atlantic Flyway; egrets, herons, and peregrine falcons are spotted here. Looking past the garbage, you can still make out the natural beauty of Dubos Point, and imagine what this whole region was like 400 years ago. Neck-high cordgrass is abundant, trapping bits of decayed organisms to fuel a thriving, though limited, ecosystem. Throngs of fiddler crabs crowd the soggy ground, scuttling sideways with one collective mind, crunching underfoot like eggshells. The breezy silence is only interrupted by an occasional splash from a jumping fish, or the roar of a plane, taking off from the crowded runways of JFK just across the water. Off the curling tip of Dubos Point, fishermen still cast their lines in the Sommerville Basin, affirming a bond we’ve all but lost.
12,000 of the original 16,000 acres of wetlands around the Jamaica Bay have already been filled in for development, and sources predict that the last of the saltwater marshes could disappear in the next 20 years. It’s a shame to see one of the few protected areas in this condition, when its potential for education and recreation is so apparent. New York needs to protect its wild spaces, and sometimes that means getting our hands dirty. To learn about volunteer opportunities with the Parks Department, visit their website. And check back for information on the next Dubos Point clean-up.
Fort Totten sits on a far-flung peninsula of the Long Island Sound, forming the Northeast corner of Queens. The grounds of this defunct military installation turned underfunded public park are home to over 100 historic buildings representing a series of changes that have taken place over the area’s quiet 200 year history. Unfortunately, the majority of these stuctures have been disused for decades, and many are in a state of progressive collapse. With so much of Fort Totten closed off with caution tape, overtaken with vines, or hidden beneath rusty fences, it makes for an unconventional park, but a fascinating place to wander.
An 1829 farmhouse predating the land’s military use crumbles behind a weedy barricade; out front, a prominent sign bears the inscription: “Please Excuse My Appearance, I am a Candidate for Historical Preservation.” It’s an image that typifies the current state of affairs in the Fort Totten Historic District.
On the northern tip of Willet’s Point, a monumental granite fortification constructed during the Civil War as a key component of the defense of the New York Harbor sits unoccupied, though it’s used as a haunted house on occasion. Clustered on the rest of the grounds, dozens of dilapidated Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne Style officers’ quarters, hospitals, bakeries, movie theatres, and laboratories vie for restoration, but so far the funding has failed to materialize.
One such building, a two-story YMCA facility built in 1926, has been abandoned for close to 20 years, but much of what’s left behind lies undisturbed. On a bulletin board in an upstairs landing, a 1995 thank-you letter from a kindergarten class at PS 201 hangs by a crude depiction of Santa Claus, both lovingly dedicated to an Officer Rivera. Steps away, in a rotting book room, an incongruous stash of 80s porno magazines.
Most recently used as a community relations unit of the New York City Police Department, the building is cluttered with mattresses, discarded packaging, and unopened toy donations. The New York City Fire Department, which now operates training facilities in a renovation abutting the hospital building, currently uses the attached gymnasium as a storage space. The basement was filled with rusted-through shelving and ruined equipment, flooded and too dark to shoot.
On the other side of the peninsula, a series of concrete batteries sit half-submerged in plant life. These were constructed at the turn of the century, but by 1938, they were declared obsolete and subsequently abandoned. The boxy design looks like modern architecture to me, but the battery reveals its true age in other ways.
Pencil-thin stalactites ornament the ceiling wherever the rain gets in, suspended over a crank-operated machine designed to lift heavy weaponry a century ago. The network of maze-like tunnels feature arched hallways with metal doors, winding staircases, and yawning pits, all fit for a dungeon. Guards stationed at the fort were laid off in 2009, and it was unclear on my visit if the area was open to the public or not. A rusty barrier, more hole than fence, didn’t keep out a couple of high school kids, but offered a spot for them to park their bikes.
When the military base changed hands in 2005 and became an official New York City Park, Bloomberg predicted that Fort Totten was “certain to become one of New York’s most popular parks.” Some community members feared that the estimated 450,000 yearly visitors would disrupt parking, increase crime, and change the face of the neighborhood, but ten years later, tourism has yet to pose a problem.
Fort Totten hasn’t lived up to its potential just yet, but the progress that has been made gives hope for improvements to come. The park now offers regular events and educational programs to draw visitors and enrich the surrounding community. Several nonprofit groups have occupied and renovated the decrepit buildings, including the landmarked Officers’ Club, which now serves the Bayside Historical Society as an educational facility and exhibition and event space. These are small but significant victories in the effort to save the historic legacy of a little-known plot that could be the crown jewel of Queens parkland.
(Though in some cases, it may be too little, too late. One look inside the profoundly decayed Fort Totten Army Hospital, in Part 2 of this post, will assure you of that.)