group, however, seem disgruntled: Bob, who’s been told that the
park rangers will not allow anyone to go down into the reservoir,
and the Queens woman, who has realized that her former
swimming hole is now >lled with brush, saplings, and trees.
“I can’t believe this,” she keeps saying, in the tone of a Puritan
minister arriving on the set of Gossip Girl. It’s understandable.
The scrubby trees and undergrowth beyond the fence lack
both the grandeur of an established wilderness and the
picturesque order of a garden. The young forest looks like
what it is: something unattended, gone to seed.
She and Bob both perk up, however, when the rangers
partially relent and pull aside a piece of chain-link fence
so the group can squeeze through onto the platform of the
reservoir’s decrepit pump house. From there, we look
south across the middle basin, the only one that still holds
water. Its edges are choked with phragmites. In the sky
beyond, a 767 lumbers up from John F. Kennedy International Airport. And there, centered on the shallow
pond, are two coots and a wood duck, ?oating serenely in
swimming pool. Rob Jett, a birder–attendee with a blog called
Save Ridgewood Reservoir, noted that the community seemed to
realize something the Parks Department didn’t. “The Department
of Parks and Recreation wants to create a world class destination
in Ridgewood,” he wrote in his blog; “what they don’t realize is
that it already exists.”
“I can’t believe this,”
she says, in the tone of
a Puritan minister on
the set of Gossip Girl.
The young forest
looks like what it is:
gone to seed.
IN 2004, when the Parks Department announced plans
to make the former reservoir into a park, there was celebration.
But three years later, as they launched the design process, something surprising happened. At community meetings, the city’s
$46 million plan to upgrade the reservoir with a running track,
a cricket pitch, and athletic >elds was met with attitudes ranging from lukewarm to hostile.
“We totally reject the idea that the Ridgewood Reservoir
should be turned into a conventional park,” Paul Kerzner, president of the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association
told the New York Daily News. “Migratory birds have been
using the site for at least thirty years. This is their Holiday Inn.
Why take it away from them?”
In June 2007, the Department of Parks and Recreation
hosted a “community listening session” on the future of the
reservoir. Attendees were divided into teams and given templates of the area, along with cardboard cutouts of recreational
facilities: baseball diamonds, tennis courts, running tracks,
cricket pitches, and more. Each team was to place the facilities
they wanted on the reservoir space.
To the surprise of many attendees, the teams showed little
interest in the recreational facilities. One team refused to place
any. Another suggested a nature center instead. A third team
insisted nothing ought to be decided without environmental studies, and a fourth suggested leaving two basins untouched and
adding only a skateboard park to the third. The only recreational
facility that got any enthusiasm from the >nal team was an indoor
IN NEW YORK CITY, there
have traditionally been two competing schools of thought about
parks, each the legacy of a powerful man. There’s the Frederick
Law Olmsted legacy, which
holds that parks are relief from
urban life, landscapes designed
to soothe the city-dweller’s spirit
and inspire the higher emotions
evoked by nature. And there’s
the Robert Moses legacy, which
sees parks as recreational outlets, places where the poor and
middle class can let o= steam
and engage in wholesome activities like sports and swimming.
To Olmsted, the urban dweller required temples to the spirit; to
Moses, the masses needed to get o= their—couches, let’s say.
Neither of these points of view is about ecological value. Neither
considers other creatures who might use urban greenery: birds,
amphibians, small mammals. And neither attributes value to
simply coexisting with an untamed place. Even Olmsted, who
saw landscape as spiritually vital, felt that only a certain kind of
landscape could perform the work of urban amelioration and
social reform: the rolling >elds, stately trees, and sweeping
prospects of the English pastoral. This carefully de>ned aesthetic would inspire the moral sentiments and genteel behavior
he wanted to instill in the public. His parks re?ect this taste
beautifully: plop a manor house down at the end of Central
Park’s mall and it would look right at home.
At their listening session, the Parks Department was getting
push-back on their essentially Moses-school vision for the
Ridgewood Reservoir. But that push-back wasn’t coming from
the Olmsted school. It was coming from a completely new
school, one that saw unmanaged nature itself as a “world class
destination.” Less concerned with utility than ecology, this
community seemed to value nature just for itself—even,
surprisingly, when they were technically barred from it.
A FEW DAYS AFTER the bird walk, I come back to the reservoir with Jennifer and her dance group. I’m here to see a rehearsal