by Steve Garza
A group of forty concerned residents of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan made their way to Highland Park this past Sunday to tour the Ridgewood Reservoir with the Ridgewood Reservoir Education and Preservation Project (RREPP). They came to view for themselves the site that has been at the center of controversy since last month when NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe made clear his intent to develop the largest of the reservoir's three basins for "active recreation" which would require the removal of thousands of trees.
Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) had requested that the tour begin earlier than planned because of a scheduling conflict. He accompanied Rob Jett, a nature enthusiast and photographer who is a member of RREPP, and a handful of others down a seldom maintained path between basins 2 and 3 to observe the landscape and wildlife. Avella stopped several times at scenic areas and shook his head in disgust at the thought of the city's plan to clear cut 22 acres of reforested land in basin 3. He stated, "It is inconceivable that the Parks Department would approve a plan to destroy thousands of trees and decimate one of the few natural areas left in our city. If the Mayor and the Parks Department are going to talk the talk about becoming a greener city, then they should also walk the walk and step up to the plate to protect this unique natural area." Avella vowed to do all he could to see that the reservoir's natural habitat is preserved before he parted company with his fellow hikers. Avella departed as a few dozen more people
made their way up from the parking lot, and the group, now numbering 40+, continued down the overgrown walkway.
Nature enthusiasts present on the tour discussed the various species of wildlife present at the site, which they say is unusually diverse for an urban environment. Steve Nanz, an RREPP member who is also a nature photographer from Brooklyn, noted the presence of winter waterfowl in basin 2. "There are bufflehead and ruddy ducks in there. They'll stay
here through the winter," he said. Nanz's wife, Heidi Steiner, the chairperson of RREPP, pushed their 3-year old daughter, Veery, in a stroller and pointed out the different leaves that were in the process of changing color and the berries that grew on both sides of the path. Veery seemed more interested in the lake, however. Orrin Tilevitz, a Brooklyn attorney and bird enthusiast, noticed a sharp-shinned hawk soaring above the tree canopy. "They are about the size of a blue jay and eat smaller birds," he said. "This is the time of year they migrate through."
Historians and preservationists in attendance were also fascinated by what they observed at the site. Christabel Gough, Secretary for the Society for the Architecture of the City, a Manhattan based preservation group, was intrigued by the ornate cast iron fences that lined the paths. She noted that the fence surrounding the middle basin appeared to be older than the one that circled the basin containing the endangered trees. The middle basin was completed in 1856, and the third one was added in 1869. Many have expressed the desire to see the cast iron fences restored. Currently, large sections of each fence are
Charles Monaco, whose home sits just outside the park and is considered by many to be the park's unofficial historian, led the rest of the tour. He provided a briefing on the park's past, explained why it was chosen as the site of the reservoir, how it was built, and how it used to look. He said that Brooklyn actually purchased the rights to the site from Queens and that it may technically still belong to Brooklyn. The true border between Brooklyn and Queens has been hotly debated for centuries, and Monaco noted that Highland Park sits within both boroughs.
As for the construction of the reservoir, it was considered to be a modern marvel at the time. "I've estimated that there are as many stones lining the basins of the reservoir as there are in the pyramids at Giza, with probably as many workers creating it," Monaco said. He pointed out that the ridge towering above the eastern end of the reservoir is estimated to be about 200 feet above sea level, making it quite possibly the highest point in both Brooklyn and Queens.
Monaco is the founder of the band of volunteers known as Highland Park Advocates, and is also the director of the Urban Environmental Youth Corps, a group he formed to "keep kids out of trouble" through promotion of nature education and interaction. When he asked attendees what they had learned from the tour thus far, many indicated that it was their first trip to the reservoir and were stunned by its tranquility and beauty. Edward Kampermann, a resident of Middle Village, reminisced about childhood visits to the reservoir. "My father and I used to walk around the reservoir every Sunday during World War II. You could see all the way down to Jamaica Bay from up here."
The views Kampermann spoke of are still available. When the group made its way along toward the south side of the reservoir, the marshes of the bay became visible through the trees that grow alongside the curving path near the edge of basin 1. The uniform rows of white headstones at Cypress Hills National Cemetery, a large twin-spired church, the elevated J train and the control tower at Kennedy Airport can be also be seen by an observer looking out from this point.
Closer to the path, however, the view is quite different. Every lamppost along the designated greenway has been smashed. "It's a shame that the city has not lifted a finger to fix the park in twenty or thirty years," said Kevin Walsh, resident of Little Neck, bicyclist, and author of the Forgotten New York website and book. "It's a beautiful untouched reservoir, but the city should at least have cleared the weeds along the path and fixed the lampposts." As for active recreation at the reservoir, Walsh seemed satisfied with what was already in place for bicyclists and walkers. "I am happy that nature has reclaimed the spot, and I am happy that the city has made a greenway there. But I would like to see it publicized better," he said.
Before the conclusion of the tour, the group stopped and talked for a long time about the potential plans that the Parks Department has for the site and what insiders have told them about what is expected to happen. Heidi Steiner, who is the chair of the RREPP, said she was reaching out to different groups and elected officials to make them aware of
the seemingly imminent plan for the reservoir. Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler, a well-known preservationist from Sunnyside Gardens, said he thought the site should be designated as a bird sanctuary. As he made this suggestion, several birders in the group turned their attention to two nearby birds which they identified as a black-capped chickadee and a golden-crowned kinglet. An ongoing bird survey being conducted this year has thus far identified 132 species of birds that either nest in or migrate through the park.
Jean Loscalzo, of Richmond Hill, mentioned that when she would return to her car after visiting the reservoir on weekends during this past spring to participate in the bird survey, she found that the athletic fields in the park were underutilized in the middle of the day, despite the Parks Department's claim that there was a waiting list for field permits. Many of the fields and other amenities in the park are in poor condition, which may explain the lack of activity on them.
Steve Fiedler, a volunteer at several parks within community board 5, pointed to the pink spray painted marks appearing on the hillside that sloped up to the path. "This is where they're planning to cut right through for access to basin 1," he said in frustration.
Throughout the tour, group members had to dodge ATVs, minibikes and motorcycles along the path, all of which are illegal. The path is dedicated solely for pedestrian and bicycle use. "If the Parks Department has all this money to spend cutting trees and installing fake turf, it would be nice if they bothered to take care of their existing facilities and enforce their own rules," said one tour-goer who asked to remain anonymous. "The money collected from the tickets they should be giving out to these hoodlums could pay for extra security; maybe even fix a lamppost or two."
Prior to the tour, a bicyclist named Angel, who is 65 years old and has been coming to the reservoir for 40 years, said that he and his wife would bring their two, now grown, children to the reservoir all the time. He said, "A lot of old people used to come and walk around the reservoir but they have been chased away by the ATVs. There was a serious accident recently between two ATVs on the bike path. An ambulance had to be called for one of the drivers. "People call the police on the ATVs regularly, but nothing is ever done."
The tour ended with refreshments and a video highlighting the natural features of the park, which was played on a laptop computer.
Whatever the plan for the reservoir and Highland Park, the group was nearly unanimous in its opposition to the use of synthetic turf anywhere at the site. "The New York Times this morning printed an article about parents in the suburbs being concerned with potential dangers of artificial turf," said one woman, who asked not to be identified. The article to which she referred was called, "Parents Raising Concerns Over Synthetic Turf," by Jeff Holtz. In the article, parents and health officials expressed concern that the rubber used in the turf may release chemicals that are potentially harmful to the athletes who play on it. "Why would they destroy this beautiful place and install something that could cause cancer?" she asked.
Jett agreed with her assessment, and pointed to other spots in the park in need of refurbishment. "The city wants to spend millions of dollars to develop the reservoir, but has no plans to fix up the existing ball fields or the band shell, which are in decrepit condition." The broken lampposts around the bike path were obvious to all and several noted that there are few enforcement personnel present in the park. Jett continued, "The ideal solution for Highland Park is for the city to take a good portion of the money that they want to allocate for the ripping down of decades old trees and divert it instead toward fixing up the rest of the park. The community stays away in large part because of the feeling, justified or not, that the park is unsafe. Let's give their park back to them in a better condition and allow them to also enjoy the wonders of nature present within the basins of the reservoir," he said.
The video mentioned in this article can be viewed online at ridgewoodreservoir.blogspot.com. Jett said that future tour announcements will also be posted on the site.