On the western edge of Staten Island is the hamlet of Travis, population of approximately 2,000. Travis exudes small-town America, a hidden spot tucked away from the teeming city. The children of Travis yell and play on the streets amid small ranch houses. A large butte rises several hundred feet above the town, covered in green grass, surrounded by a small swamp, dotted by trees. Blackbirds glide in gusts of wind along its face. The hill looming over the town is a reminder of the days when this was the final destination of New York City’s millions of tons of trash.
Ten years ago, the Travis mound was part of the Fresh Kills Landfill—at 2,200 acres, the largest landfill in the world at that time—the place where most, if not all, of the garbage of the city went. The landfill is composed of four main mounds, which range from 90 to 225 feet. The biggest mound is taller than the Statue of Liberty and can be seen by the naked eye from space. When the dump was open, the garbage produced a noxious, rotting stench that fouled the air of Staten Island.
“My daughter says she hasn’t smelled anything since she moved here a year ago, especially the gas,” Patty Hadley said, sitting on the front porch of her daughter’s home on Beresford Avenue, a dead end in Westwood Estates subdivision which faces the large butte. Hadley was referring to the smell of methane, which is produced from the old garbage decomposing underneath the soil. Her daughter’s brand-new house is only ten
lots away from where the marsh begins at the base of the Travis mound.
By 2008 the Travis-facing section of the mound, known as North Park, will begin a transformation, according to officials at the New York City Parks Department. It is the first section scheduled as part of the department’s three-phase, 30-year, $1.4 billion dollar plan to turn the former garbage dump into a park three times the size of Central Park, an oasis of hiking, horseback riding, canoeing and cycling.
In 1996 then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced that the site would be closed, but doing so took another five years and help from then-Governor George E. Pataki. After a great deal of legal wrangling, Fresh Kills officially closed December 31, 2001; the landfill was to close earlier, but the massive amount debris from the attacks of September 11, 2001 delayed the closure for another year. Part of the 30-year plan is to put a monument in the park to commemorate those lost in the attacks.
“It’ll be good for my daughter, for her property value,” Hadley said. But she sounded skeptical, and raised her hand in disbelief. “But I don’t know. Mayors change, priorities change, plans get delayed.” Hadley has a reason for skepticism. The landfill was open from 1947 to 2001, but it was only supposed to a temporary place for trash from the beginning. And the entire park plan is not scheduled to be finished before 2035.
Staten Island was primarily rural and not heavily populated when Robert Moses,
the large-scale and controversial city developer, began Fresh Kills Landfill in 1947. Most of the area was an intertidal marsh, and wetlands weren’t considered valuable at this time. Because the borough lacked population it lacked the kind of political clout that could block a garbage dump. Moses said the dump would only be open for five years. His idea, as grand as always, was to close the dump and build the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge on top of the landfill. But once the bridge was built, Fresh Kills kept taking garbage.
In 1964, when the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge opened, it led to the doubling of Staten Island’s population. As the population grew, so did opposition to Fresh Kills. But even with the opposition, the residents were unable to close the dump. Staten Islanders began to see the dump as a symbol of disrespect by the rest of the city. In 1993, the feelings became strong enough for the residents to vote 2 to 1 to secede from New York, but the movement ground to a halt in the state assembly. When Guy V. Molinaro, a Republican and a political ally of then-Mayor Giuliani, became borough president of Staten Island in the early 1990s, the stage was set to finally close Fresh Kills. The borough was an essential part of Giuliani’s election, and, to repay the favor, the mayor joined with Molinaro to close the dump.
“I remember when the dump was small,” said Staten Island resident Lynn Rodgers, “but then it grew so large so fast.” The last thing that Rodgers wants is for Staten Island to be seen as a garbage dump. And like many on the island, Rodgers wants to forget Fresh Kills, to erase it from the record.
Rodgers works atop another hill in Travis: Sylvan Grove Cemetery, a rundown cemetery across from the landfill mound where the founders of Travis rest. The cemetery is littered with old beer cans, and the tombstones are toppled and overgrown with weeds. Rodgers is executive director for Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries, a group restoring the old cemeteries throughout Staten Island. “People are more interested in preserving these places now that the dump is gone,” Rodgers said, adding there is more pride in Staten Island as it moves away from the days when it served as the city’s garbage can.
But Travis is an unlikely place for a surburb to grow. From the east and south, the town is surrounded by the mounds of Fresh Kills. And to the west is Arthur Kill— “kill” is the Dutch word for stream—which separates the island from New Jersey. Across the waterway is New Jersey’s Chemical Coast, where numerous chemical plants are serviced by the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Travis is the end of the line for the S62 bus on its 10 mile journey along Victory Boulevard from the Staten Island Ferry. Despite the obstacles, new homes in Travis are going up one after another.
Established in 1816 by Daniel Tompkins, a governor of New York and sixth Vice-President of United States, Travis was part of the Richmond Turnpike, a throughway to Philadelphia. Before the garbage came, in 1873, Travis was called Linoleumville, when the American Linoleum Manufacturing Company was the first place in America producing linoleum. But the factory only lasted until 1931, and then the town voted to change its name to Travis. Colonel Jacob Travis was a large land owner in the
area during the 1850s.
“There’s great history here,” Rodgers said. She talked about the important people buried in the cemetery, but she also meant more. “You know what movie was filmed in Travis? ‘Splendor in Grass’ was filmed right outside the cemetery, right on Victory Boulevard.” The 1960 film starred Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
As New York City’s garbage dumps closed one after another, Fresh Kills was relied on more and more. By mid 1980s, Fresh Kills was the last dump. In its prime, Fresh Kills received over 29,000 thousands tons of trash a day. In total, it is composed of 150 million tons of solid waste, according to the parks department. It is a testament to a bygone era, before the advent of recycling, when everything went into the trash with no thought of the consequences. The garbage site is one of the world’s largest man-made structures, rivaling the Great Pyramid of Giza.
To prepare the Travis mound for its transformation to a park, the garbage was coated in plastic and covered with thousands of acres of dirt and clay, which the parks department calls an “impermeable cap.” Today, there is almost no visible trace left from the massive dump site, aside from the black, keg-like structures dotting the hillside—collection wells used to collect methane. Because the landfill emits methane and non-methane gas, according to the department, it will take years before all of Fresh Kills is safe for recreation. The gas is burned off and collected by Keyspan Energy to prevent explosions. EPA studies assert that the site is safe. The parks department believes Fresh Kills will eventually stop producing gas.
On an autumn afternoon in Travis, nail guns hammered away as a new Holiday Inn Express was being built near the West Shore Expressway, which courses through the entire Fresh Kills site. New homes built as recently as three years ago are selling for over $370,000 as part of Wildwood Estates, the new subdivision at the base of the Travis mound. The days of garbage, stench, bulldozers and birds feasting on trash seem centuries away, as newly minted construction shined in the sun. “I guess it’s nice place to raise a family,” Hadley said. “My daughter likes it, but I’m not sure if I could live here. I remember what the hill was.”