My trip to Great Kills Park, part of the Staten Island Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area accidentally occurred too early for two different reasons. The first reason is that I went in late March, only a week before the ranger station opens up for the summer season, though I didn’t realize it at the time. The second reason takes a bit more explaining, so keep reading.
After a long bus ride from Manhattan, I arrived at Great Kills Park – two stops after the one I was supposed to get off on. Siri has never been my friend and the location I thought was supposed to be the park entrance was actually just a fenced off section of the park. I walked along the side of the road to get back to where the gate is and once again took in the sight I’ve become so used to: trash everywhere and lots of vines.
When I finally made it to the gate I was surprised to realize how far of a walk it was to get to the main section of the park. The sidewalk stretched on forever and there wasn’t much to see. The parklands on either side of the road were fenced off. I saw a sign saying that an environmental cleanup operation was going on and that entrance was prohibited. Other signs said that there were hazardous materials in these spaces. I kept walking.
The path was surprisingly busy, despite the chill. Lots of people were running or riding their bikes. Some walked with family, others chatted on their cell phones. All were out to enjoy the park.
Eventually I reached the beach, and the closed visitors center and parking lots. The beach seemed nice, though lifeguards were not posted at the time (they’ll start working after Memorial Day). I’m not much of a beach person, so I kept walking. I passed by the busy marina and walked all the way out to Crookes Point. In this area of the park I was finally able to find hiking trails, though they were very short and not cleared very well. They felt like afterthoughts to the general purpose of the park. Finally, I sat on the edge of the water, on a rocky ledge, watching a group of men fish and some seagulls fighting.
All in all, I have to say that this is not my kind of park. I prefer parks with great views and lots of hiking trails. Great Kills is meant for more recreationally minded people, what with the beach and marina. My assessment of the park was furthered when I was able to get ahold of a map. The park contains soccer fields, four ball fields, a model airplane flying field, and a few more trails in that mysterious closed off section of the park.
That 265-acre mystery section was once a city landfill. Robert Moses (the same Moses who built the Jamaica Bay Ponds) wanted to strengthen that section of Staten Island marshland so that it could be used for recreational purposes. Household and industrial trash was dumped there to compact the land and fill it. In 2005 during a helicopter sweep of the area, the New York Police found 80 hot spots of radiation, which were 200 times the background levels expected in such an area. That section of the park was then closed down to be surveyed. Though Hurricane Sandy delayed the survey process, eventually the National Parks Service discovered 1,200 locations with elevated levels of radiation. Thirty-five of the spots were excavated and the rest still need to be investigated.
It doesn’t end there though. During the survey, the NPS realized that not only was the radiation even more prevalent than they first suspected, they also found out that the waste material dumped in the land, as well as having radioactive materials, contained chemical contaminants. This has led to another, separate study of the land that started in 2015, which will take approximately five years to finish.
It’s hard for me to make an assessment of how well Great Kills can stand up against climate change with so much of the park blocked off. It was difficult to get a feel for how much land invasive species had taken over. From what I could tell, the beach seemed healthy – if a bit full of trash – and there were barriers in place to prevent erosion. On park message boards I saw signs for a Littoral Society clean up event from last October. I visited Great Kills four years too early to really understand the park, but hopefully I’ll get the chance to visit again in the future.