eographer. Jennifer, who has spent much of the last several
years on a dance project about the reservoir, has o=ered to
enhance the bird walk with a short series of movement
exercises meant to get everyone thinking like a migrating bird.
She starts by trying to help us locate ourselves in space.
“Close your eyes,” she says. “Now listen for something very
close to you.”
Peering surreptitiously through my eyelashes, I see Bob,
who hates the sun, easing himself into the shade of a streetlamp. He’s thin, so this maneuver actually works.
“Now listen for something far away,” Jennifer instructs the
group. “What’s the farthest thing you can hear?”
The nearest and the farthest thing I can hear are the same:
the radio, now cranked up and blasting CD 101.9. “Smooth jazz
for relaxing on the weekend,” a suave male voice intones.
“Now, keeping your eyes closed, turn and face north,” Jennifer
says. I peek again. All the birders but one are facing north.
service, Ridgewood Reservoir gradually became obsolete. By 1960,
it was demoted to backup, and in 1989, the city decommissioned
it and drained two of its three basins. It sat forgotten—by humans
anyway—until 2004, when it was signed over to the Department
of Parks and Recreation. And that’s when things got interesting.
RIDGEWOOD RESERVOIR is a curious new kind of landscape. This is not a park, or a piece of preserved nature, but a
previously developed area in the process of reverting to wildness. Urban wildernesses tend to happen by mistake. In a city
like New York, where space is at such a premium that former
synagogues, sugar factories, and schools have all been reborn
as luxury condos, a wilderness can
only be the result of inattention.
Ridgewood Reservoir is the
recipient of such benign neglect.
Originally built to store water
from wells and ponds on Long
Island for Brooklyn, the three-basin, 100-million-gallon reservoir
came under the control of New
York City’s Board of Water Supply
when the >ve boroughs united in
1898. It continued to provide Long
Island water to Brooklyn throughout the early twentieth century, but
development on Long Island was
compromising water sources, and
fast-growing New York was already looking elsewhere to slake its
thirst. The Croton Water System, delivering water from upstate
Westchester and Putnam counties, was completed in 1911; the
Catskill System was >nished in 1927; and the last of the Delaware
System’s four massive reservoirs, capable of supplying half the
current demand, came online in 1965. The >rst Catskill water—
the “champagne of drinking waters”— came to Brooklyn in 1917,
and from then on, as upstate aqueducts and tunnels came into
SOMETIME IN THE EARLY 1990S, Jennifer Monson
stumbled upon the reservoir. She lived in the nearby Brooklyn
neighborhood of Bushwick and often biked or walked her dog
in Highland Park, using the path that rings the reservoir’s
basins. At the time, she was working on Bird Brain Migrations,
a multiyear e=ort she calls a “navigational dance touring project.” In it, Monson and small groups of dancers traveled North
America, Cuba, Mexico, and Guatemala, following the migration paths of birds and gray whales. Bringing together community groups, conservationists, and the public, the dancers
o=ered panel discussions, dance workshops, and free, site-speci>c performances that sought to reconnect communities
with their local habitats and the migrating animals that used
them. They brought plants indoors and performed dances outdoors, trying to help people see their own locales in a new light.
After Bird Brain, Monson returned to Brooklyn. She felt a
desire to focus on a single place. “The traveling was interesting, but we were always in the same season,” she says.
“I wanted to be in one place and notice how it changes
over the year.”
Then someone took her down into the reservoir she
had walked and biked around for years. The moment
she stepped into what seemed to be an untamed swamp
forest right in the middle of New York City, she was
hooked. Her interest only increased when she began to
learn about the controversies over the reservoir’s future.
ON THE BIRD HIKE, the group completes Monson’s
exercises. The rangers then lead us through the park
and up some ramshackle cement steps punctuated by
shattered, akimbo street lamps. Designed in the 1890s,
Highland Park has stately trees and winding paths, but
years of hard use and tight budgets have taken a toll. The
stairs lead up a hill at the park’s north side to an asphalt
path that rings the reservoir. Bicyclists and joggers are in
evidence. As soon as the birders have all arrived, as if on cue, an
osprey sails in a wide circle overhead. Fifteen pairs of binoculars
veer upward. Slightly lower, a broad-winged hawk crosses the sky.
Immediately, the level of enthusiasm among the birders
rises. Field guides are produced, and as the walk proceeds, a
group of catbirds is spotted in the bittersweet that over?ows the
chain-link fence enclosing the reservoir. Two members of the