For most people, weekends mean sleeping in. Not for me. At least, not this past weekend. In all the years I’ve lived in New York City, I have found there are still undiscovered places to see. Gems, really. So, there I was, up at dawn, prepping my photo gear for a trip to the flatlands of Brooklyn (who knew Brooklyn had flatlands?!). It would take nearly two hours to get there on mass transit, and all I could think as I got ready in the dark was, “It’d better be worth it!”
Having arranged to meet a few other adventurers for the trek, I layered up and walked in the cold morning air down to 42nd Street to catch the subway, from where we took a train to Flatbush, the last stop in Brooklyn. Chatting made the time pass more quickly as we shared stories of places we’d all photographed and traded ideas for new places to visit. When we reached Flatbush, we still had to catch a bus out to Fort Bennett Field, site of New York City’s first public airport (now a nature park). My anticipation and enthusiasm were still elevated, so I didn’t mind the extra travel. The bus pulled up, we boarded and headed out towards Dead Horse Bay.
Just the name “Dead Horse Bay” peaked my curiosity. I researched it on the Internet and found several websites with descriptions and photos of the area but little historical information or background. Most sites quoted an old New York Times article. According to this and various other blogs, Dead Horse Bay is basically a marshy area and beach located on the southeastern edge of Brooklyn that was occupied in the 17th Century by a Dutch Settlement filled with tide mills that ground wheat into flour. As the community grew, so did the need for transportation, likely provided by horses. In the 19th Century, rendering plants began to inhabit the area. With horses being the main source of transportation, their carcasses were sent to the plants and turned into glue and fertilizer, among other things. The remnants of that process -- chopped-up, boiled bones -- were then discarded into the bay. As automobiles became available and horses were no longer in high demand for travel purposes, the need for these factories diminished.
The area was also used as a landfill for New York City’s trash until the 1930’s, when it was capped. Some 20 years later, the cap burst and trash expelled onto the beach, only to be churned in the tide. To this day, vintage garbage continually evacuates from the surrounding earth. The past reappears in the shape of glass bottles, horse bones, toys, shoe leather, rusted iron, cups and saucers and even full-size boats.
We walked down a wide, snow-laden path to get to the bay. The sun reached into a hazy sky, casting soft shadows onto the reeds holding post beside us.
Just before I reached the cove, I was greeted by a welcoming committee of one. Lying alongside the reeds was a chunk of rusty. Rusty what, I didn’t know. I couldn’t figure out what it was. As I walked onto the beach, I noticed small glints of light coming from broken glass scattered along the shore. We had arrived at Dead Horse Bay.
On the day I visited, I saw a rusted-out bank safe from the 1800’s sitting on the shore near a large wheeled wagon that most likely carried it. What irony it is to find a safe that can no longer protect its contents!
The landmass itself, pumped full of sand in the 1920’s, contains a compacted base of garbage and discards besieged with tree and reed roots, exposing a different past with each incoming tide. In the surge, the base erodes a bit further, releasing the next cache of castoffs and collectibles into the hungry inlet.
Numerous bottles, intact and as clear as the day they were made, litter the beach and sway back and forth in the tide. Some are half-buried and filled with decades of sand. Others are broken and set among relics of our past, staying awhile before the tide reappears to claim them.
The more I read, the more fascinated I became. Like digging in the sand at Dead Horse Bay, I dug deeper for information until I discovered that it is federal property and managed by the National Park Service. There were no signs posted that I could see and others, like me, browsed the aisles, so to speak, looking for relics.
We meandered in different directions, stopping here and there, taking our time to snap photos or kneel down to inspect some discard from, perhaps, decades ago. I began to absorb the scene around me like beach sand absorbing water.
How old is this stuff? What is this thing? Who threw that away? Who drank from this pop bottle? Was anything locked in that safe when it was dumped? What food sat upon this broken, decorated plate?
Did that coffee cup host tea as well? Who created that sand-covered doll whose porcelain head is broken off? Who held it in their hands and placed it on their mantel? And how did it end up here in a forgotten zone on the fringe of Brooklyn?
Then something caught my eye. A roll of film, yellowed and bare of images, rested on a half-buried pier. Loosely coiled, the strip’s frames hung from the edge. Who shot that roll of film? And what defining moments in time had been stripped away from its acetate base?
There is a true beauty in the dirty, pretty things of our world. The old, the forgotten, and the discarded possess ghosts of our past and souls of our loved ones who cared for them. Now, they eagerly reach back out to those of us who can’t resist giving them one brief, sparkling breath of life in tribute.
I came away with a few interesting bottles as a remembrance of my time at Dead Horse Bay, but, looking back, I wish I had taken that discarded strip of film home. It serves as a reminder that we are all disposable. But, even more so, we are all equally, powerfully, and most fervently memorable.
Love to all,
Heidi M. Nunnally