Thursday, December 22, 2011

Alley Pond Park wetlands

A park, in parting. The next post will be from the southern hemisphere. 

I had wanted to visit Alley Pond Park for a while. I surf over New York on Google Earth, looking for patches of green, and this one was large, on the northern edge of Queens, right up against the Long Island Sound, complete with wetland and woods. The NYC Parks website looked promising. Different sources recommend different ways of getting there, and I chose the most simple: Long Island Railroad to Douglaston, $12 roundtrip, off peak, departing Penn Station, then a half-ish mile walk. We headed out last Saturday, the coldest day we've had so far, with temperatures just below freezing. The view above was stunning, south over the wetlands, from a pretty little bridge.

We checked in at the Alley Pond Environmental Center to pick up a map and I asked about the new-looking waterworks built nearby: Vince had asked me as we arrived, What's that? Looks like a sewage plant, I answered. And that's precisely what it was, though the lady with red nails at reception spoke delicately and vaguely about a filtration plant for 'runoff'. A sign at the end of newly constructed boardwalk made it clear, though.

I was pleased to see it being treated at last before the water heads out into the Sound. 

The view from the end of the boardwalk. Alley Creek, dense stands of invasive phragmites, a heron, ducks. This was as good as it got. But we didn't know that, then.

We headed back to find the trail around the wetlands and to work our way south to the largest part of the park, shown on the map on the other side of some serious freeways.

Phragmites. A pretty problem.

The first ice of the season. The path was in very poor repair and churned with mud, so we were grateful for the freeze, which kept our feet from sinking in. In the winter bareness the undergrowth was stripped, but it hinted at impenetrable and depressing tangles of invasives.

Many robins. Sometimes eating crabapples, and here with bittersweet berries. The roar of a freeway, the Cross Island Parkway, came closer, until soon we were walking feet away from it.


At last we found an unsignposted path up an embankment and down to several underpasses, our way, we thought, to the southern arm of the park.

I had to laugh. Now it was like the park at the end of the world, post apocalyptic, perfect for Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The end of everything.

Hedges of tall weeds. From the Parks Department website:

"In its zeal to convert the area for recreational uses and through the construction of the Long Island Expressway and Cross Island Parkway in the 1930s, Parks filled in much of the marshland. This land now is now recognized as a vital link in nature’s ecosystem. In 1974, Parks created the Wetlands Reclamation Project and began rehabilitating the natural wetlands of the park. The Alley Pond Environmental Center opened in 1976 to provide the public with an understanding of the park’s history and ecology."

Back to the freeway again, heading, according to the map, for Alley Pond itself.. 

This park is managed, if that is the right word, by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. I mean, is this agency now one in name only? Where is the money?  Mr Mayor? Mr Mayor? (Is this thing on?)

This, and that, is Alley Pond. Fringed by weeds, populated by some happy geese, surrounded by decrepit signs warning of thin ice. Girdled by traffic. Thank you, Robert Moses.

And there we got stuck. No way on to that fabled greenness on the map. Trapped between the Long Island Expressway and a wish for access. There is no mention of this on the websites. This is not a contiguous park and if there is an effort to join the disparate parts, "the vital link in nature's ecosystem,",no mention of it. No signs, terrible trails, no visible maintenance at all. To abuse JM Coetzee: Disgrace.

Back to the website:

"Alley Pond Park offers glimpses into New York’s geologic past, its colonial history, and its current conservation efforts. Because of its glacier-formed moraine, the park has numerous unique natural features, like its freshwater and saltwater wetlands, tidal flats, meadows, and forests, which create a diverse ecosystem and support abundant bird life."

A pretty picture.

I learned later, after a series of emails to and from Irene Scheid,  the executive director of the Alley Pond Environmental Center that:

1. The sewage works at the northern end were installed and paid for by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, who also built the new boardwalk and paid for the wetland rehabilitation we saw at the beginning of our adventure.
2. APEC is a small non-profit organization which maintains that northern part of the park as best it can.
3. The land the center is on is owned by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.
4. The southern part of the park, actively managed by Parks, and which we could not reach, is accessible by subway and bus, but not on foot from its northern arm. That southern part is generally known as Alley Pond Park, even though the whole park is technically Alley Pond Park.

I had hoped to come away excited by a beautiful green jewel in the city's crown. Under layers of grime and muck and neglect there is certainly something very sparkly there. But you have to be looking for it, and you have to want to see it. This place needs cash. Lots of it. And a healthy does of activism. And a sprinkling of rage.

If you live near the park or have money to spare, the APEC is trying to raise $10,000, to match an amount offered by our mayor. $20,000 will help them staff their center.

It is a drop in the creek. This park needs millions.

And some municipal respect.


  1. The first few photos are breath-taking - what a shame it can't fulfill that promise. But, thanks for taking us with you. I am constantly amazed at the things you show us that are so far outside my mental image of NYC.

    Travel safely.

  2. What can I add? Driven by this for so many years. Never paused to go in, although I stopped into several sister north moraine estuaries including the one with the cardinal flower which probably inhabited these waters in another life!

  3. In the very early 1940's, when I was 4 or 5 years old my father took me and my younger brother there one Sunday morning to float pond boats. It's a favorite memory of mine. I remember it as a beautiful fresh clean, serene place.


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