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Urban Nature
Where the Wild Things Are
Local New York city activists fight to preserve an abandoned reservoir in New York City that has sprung to life. 

A pond in the center basin of the Ridgewood Reservoir, surrounded by fields of invasive reeds.
Jessica Leber

As devoted New York City birders, Heidi Steiner and Rob Jett thought they had visited all the reliable places to spot migrating songbirds or nesting waterfowl within their well-trodden urban stomping grounds. But in early 2007, in a city known for baring all, they discovered a place they had missed—an obscure haven known as the Ridgewood Reservoir. This former city water supply was abandoned nearly two decades ago, and during its neglect, nature repossessed the 50 acres. Now the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is exploring how to convert it into a park—one that’s part nature reserve and part athletic fields. Steiner and Jett, along with a group of community activists and nature enthusiasts, soon embarked on a campaign to preserve the full extent of this unlikely wilderness.

Straddling the border between Brooklyn and Queens, Ridgewood Reservoir perches atop a terminal moraine, a pile of rocky debris bulldozed there thousands of years ago by the southern edge of a glacial ice sheet. Revolutionary War troops battled at these heights where today, on a clear day, you can see miles south to Jamaica Bay or glimpse the Empire State Building to the northeast. In 1865 the then independent city of Brooklyn began building a water supply reservoir on had been a cornfield. Soon after, a network of conduits and pumps fed waters from miles east on Long Island into its three clay- and stone-lined basins, which together held a daily average of more than 150 million gallons.

Looking down into a basin of the Ridgewood Reservoir.
Jessica Leber

The reservoir did not feel like today’s forbidding public utilities. During Depression-era summers, families would hike there and sleep in the surrounding park, cooled by higher-elevation air and water breezes. By then, however, Brooklyn had become part of New York City and received piped water from more pristine upstate watersheds. Though the city continued to fill at least some of the reservoir as an emergency backup supply, its waters were last used during a mid-’60s drought. In 1989 the city drained two of the three basins, sealed the last pipes, and began biding time while it figured out what to do with three big bowls in the ground.

Meanwhile, the landscape both in and around the reservoir evolved of its own accord. The area began a long decline in the 1970s; first blackouts and riots, and then rampant crime and drugs ensured that all but a few avoided or nearly forgot the reservoir and the adjacent Highland Park. But the reservoir was anything but lifeless. Seeds germinated in the silts and in between the wrought iron gates that lined the paths flanking the basins. Andrew Greller, now a retired professor of botany at Queens College, visited the area as part of a plant survey decades ago and was impressed to see pink spirea, a wildflower, growing out of the stonework. In 1993 Jennifer Monson, an experimental-dance choreographer who at the time lived in nearby Bushwick, began biking to the reservoir. She remembers that through the sparse infant forest she could see the center basin, which unlike the outer two, still contains a freshwater pond. 

The forest that grew is different than more typical urban green spaces because it’s not manicured. Snaky vines haphazardly coil around whatever is in reach. Thin trunks emerge in chaotic directions, and limbs litter the floor—future fodder for the adolescent woods. Inside the eastern basin, where native birch, sweet gum and maple trees form the foothold of a young coastal swamp forest, it’s now hard to imagine that these sunken wilds teeming with life were once a manmade, pipe-fed lake, and a cornfield before that.

Familiar bluet at the Ridgewood Reservoir.
Steve Nanz

Today the reservoir is one green patch in a quilted oasis of open space that includes large swaths of nearby parkland and a string of super-sized cemeteries. A narrow jogging path encircles the chain-link fence. In recent years off-road vehicle drivers and paint-ball enthusiasts have made it their playground, stealing through the poorly maintained barrier and ignoring the No Trespassing signs. Sometimes others, with official consent, descended into the 20-foot-deep basins. Those who enter for the first time often experience a moment of disbelief as the hum of the nearby parkway dissipates: “You feel like you’re in another world,” is how Steiner describes it.

Ridgewood Reservoir’s future incarnation, however, remains uncertain. In 2004 Mayor Michael Bloomberg transferred the property to the city’s parks department so that it might be developed for public use. This made no big splash until 2007, when Bloomberg allocated $50 million to the project under a broader plan to make green spaces, parks, and “active recreation” opportunities more accessible to all city residents. This last goal could be met in the reservoir by clearing the vegetation and filling at least part of the basins to create new fields—a prospect that makes opponents cringe. Building inside would, in addition, require breaching at least one of the basin walls. “It’d be like opening a big Pandora’s box,” says Steiner. Many opponents worry that breaching the walls will invite in additional disturbances from invasive plants, pets, and people.

These plans might have gone through without a blink, if not for the Ridgewood Reservoir Education and Preservation Project, a grassroots coalition that opposes disturbing the reservoir’s basins. The group would rather see it managed as a reserve with an education and research center, a museum, and better facilities around the basins and the nearby Highland Park. In particular, Steiner and Jett argue that the reservoir is unique habitat for birds. They began visiting the reservoir while participating in a breeding bird survey in 2007, commissioned by Jennifer Monson for an interdisciplinary dance and nature project.

Black-capped chickadee at the Ridgewood Reservoir.
Steve Nanz

During the spring and summer that year, groups of birders visited the reservoir twice a month. The perimeter jogging path offers a unique vantage point for spotting birds because the tree tops are at eye level. During its survey, the group confirmed twenty breeding species, including American woodcocks, redstarts, Baltimore orioles, and black-capped chickadees (above). To date they’ve seen more than 140 species, including short-eared owls and Cooper’s hawks, along with five other birds that have special conservation status in the state, as well as eight on the National Audubon Society’s WatchList.

Though not nearly as big as nearby birding hotspots, the reservoir is an essential stopover for the city’s migrants. “Every speck of green space is important as stopover habitat,” says Glenn Phillips, New York City Audubon’s executive director, explaining that New York City-area habitat is especially needed by millions of birds migrating north along the Atlantic Flyaway because the region is a bottleneck around which birds must turn sharply east to continue following the seaboard.

Italian wall lizard at the Ridgewood Reservoir.
Steve Nanz

These birds, as well as insects, reptiles, and aquatic life, all thrive on the reservoir’s diverse array of plants. According to an ecological survey the city completed, the eastern basin contains a relatively healthy native forest with a robust leafy and mossy understory. In the center basin, swaying fields of invasive reeds swell around the pond. The actual controversy revolves around the third and largest western basin, which an initial proposal indicated may be entirely converted to fields. As opposition mounted, a subsequent proposal was downgraded to cover only half this basin, or 20 percent of the reservoir property. That portion, completely dominated by invasive black locust trees and mugwort, lack the native plant diversity that makes the reservoir such important habitat in the first place. “If they had to build ballfields, those 10 acres are the least valuable,” says Phillips, though he still doesn’t favor that plan.

Others, however, do want to see fields built on those acres, such as East Brooklyn Congregations, a community development organization that is advocating for improving the reservoir and Highland Park’s neglected grounds as a unit. Bishop David Benke, a founder of the organization, whose parish is two blocks away, says that the need for more fields can’t be met by the space in Highland Park alone—although he adds that members of his group, too, are hoping to see the majority of the area preserved. “We’re not opposed to birds,” he emphasizes.

American redstart at the Ridgewood Reservoir.
Steve Nanz

All those familiar with the controversy, however, agree that fields or no fields, the invasive plants should be managed. It is a matter of time before they overwhelm other parts of the reservoir, says Uli Lorimer, curator of native plants at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Greller agrees, though he points out that the entire place, left to its own devices, is like a laboratory running one big unintended experiment—one that might allow us, if we don’t interfere too much, to gauge how the flora and fauna are responding to the complexities of an urban lifestyle and changing climate.  

Opportunities to observe wild areas in cities in general are getting rarer. “It’s like the last buffalo hunt out there right now,” says David Burg, president of WildMetro, a group that works to maintain nature near where people actually live. As pristine metropolitan habitat becomes all but extinct, Burg says, we need to start recognizing the value of reclaimed urban spaces. Sometimes the ecosystems that sprout in them can be even more valuable than what they supplanted. Take the example of Floyd Bennett Field: Originally a native salt marsh, this defunct Brooklyn airport now welcomes grassland birds, a group that requires one of the rarest habitat types on the East Coast.

Although its ultimate fate won’t be decided until official plans are submitted, reviews made, and approvals had—which could take years—one thing’s clear: Ridgewood Reservoir has captured our attention once again. And whether you call it wild or reclaimed, manmade or natural, it’s one of those few urban habitats we can’t afford to lose.

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