Q&A: Martin V. Melosi on Fresh Kills

Fresh Kills is excellent in many ways–clarity of prose, strength of narration, depth of research, and command of the literature. Melosi is one of the finest urban historians working today, and he is, although this will sound like an unintended slight, the premiere historian of garbage. He possesses as thorough a knowledge of the many relevant secondary literatures as anyone. One could not find a more appropriate scholar to take up this topic.

~David Stradling, author of The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State

Fresh Kills—a monumental 2,200-acre site on Staten Island—was once the world’s largest landfill. From 1948 to 2001, it was the main receptacle for New York City’s refuse. After the 9/11 attacks, it reopened briefly to receive human remains and rubble from the destroyed Twin Towers, turning a notorious disposal site into a cemetery. Today, a mammoth reclamation project is transforming the landfill site, constructing an expansive park three times the size of Central Park. In Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City, historian Martin V. Melosi offers a comprehensive chronicle of Fresh Kills that offers new insights into the growth and development of New York City and the relationship among consumption, waste, and disposal.

We interviewed Marty about the book, the landfill, and how to write a three-hundred-year history.

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Q: First of all, congratulations on the book’s publication! Fresh Kills is such an interesting project: rooted in the deep past of the place that is now called Staten Island, it poses questions about the history of capitalism and consumer culture, the settlement and expansion of New York City, and the political and technological history of waste. Could you start off by telling us about how you got the idea for a project about Fresh Kills—arguably the most infamous landfill in the United States?

Martin V. Melosi: I started writing about Fresh Kills in the late 1970s when I was writing Garbage in the Cities. At the time, I noted what a gigantic landfill it was and played upon that idea. Not until 9/11 did I consider doing more work on Fresh Kills. An archeologist I know was on the 9/11 Commission and called me to ask about documenting Fresh Kills as a site for the materials and human remains moved from the Twin Towers to Staten Island. This got me thinking that the site was more than a landfill—it was also a cemetery. When the city decided to create Freshkills Park, I placed Fresh Kills in a narrative arc longer than its life as a landfill (1948-2001). I also began to study the backstory of the land where Fresh Kills Landfill was built and uncovered a long history of using the space for purposes other than the original salt marsh. Now I had a story extending from the nineteenth century to the present, in which the landfill played a central role. 

Q: In the book, you insist on the importance of a long timeline for the kind of historical work that you’re doing. You certainly don’t limit yourself to the timeline of the design, construction, and operation of Fresh Kills; the book describes the precolonial past of the site and extends into present-day New York. What kinds of stories or claims does a deeper delve into the past help you elucidate that a shallower timescale wouldn’t?

MVM: Most especially, the book is not limited to the life cycle of a landfill. Although this is useful, it is important to understand that the landfill is only part of a larger story about the long history of that landscape, and what it meant to people at various stages in time—a salt marsh, a location for a quarantine station, a waste reduction plant, a gigantic landfill, a cemetery, and a park. Such a timeline coincides with the history of not only Staten Island but also all of New York City. The space played different roles in the history of the city at different times. It highlighted the fact that New York City was chronically land poor and used its space in a variety of ways. Such decisions about how to use the space had political and environmental consequences. A longer timeline helps to unearth trends that you can miss when looking more narrowly at the subject.

Q: On a related note, have there been any methodological challenges you’ve had to overcome as an historian assembling an archive that stretches well beyond common temporal frames? 

MVM: Every project has challenges. In this case, I had to mine a vast array of archives in Manhattan, Staten Island, and Albany. No one archive covered all the issues I was examining, nor did every topic have a clear set of documents. For the more recent period, especially the chapters on the park, oral interviews were necessary. I also had to draw on a vast amount of secondary literature on New York politics, consumerism, capitalism, and waste disposal. The book is written in narrative form, so I had to have a vast amount of material that connected the chronological dots.

Q: Could you tell us about how the book has been received by the people with whom you spoke? What kind of community has emerged out of the question of solid-waste disposal in New York as you’ve been writing and sharing your work? I imagine the readership is very broad—on our end, I’ve noticed it’s one of the most-requested sample copies of recent CUP books! 

MVM: It’s difficult to answer this question because the book did not come out until late January, and public attention to it has been quite limited because of our need to concentrate on the coronavirus. Some public talks have been postponed, and we’re still waiting on reviews. However, several historian colleagues read the manuscript for me prior to publication, especially people with expertise on Staten Island and New York City in general. They have been enthusiastic supporters. I have put together a couple of briefer article-length pieces, especially for historians (national and international) and specialists in waste issues. Again, the response has been heartwarming. All of the interviewees, including local political and administrative leaders in New York, artists and architects, and engineers, have been very interested in the various directions the manuscript goes. With this book, and my previous work on waste disposal issues, there has been a visceral interest because the topic touches everyone’s life in one way or another.

Q: The book centers on the idea of “waste,” and solid waste in particular. How are you thinking about that concept in ways that might surprise readers?

MVM: Not surprisingly, I give attention to the incredible amounts and kinds of wastes cities contend with every day. But I am particularly interested in two big issues: How should we link consumption of goods with what we decide to discard? What kinds of problems does waste disposal pose for cities, especially those that are the size and complexity of New York City? Taken together, these issues force us to confront the dilemma of consumption that every society faces. In exploring the landfill itself, it is important to understand the intense politics of waste management, which determines how urbanites deal with waste. Political decisions—often void of much public input—have long-range implications. For example, some people thought Fresh Kills would remain open for only three years, not the more than fifty years that resulted. Another issue that I find important is the need to bring attention to those who must live with landfills and other disposal sites once we throw our waste into garbage cans. There are major environmental justice questions here.

Q: Fresh Kills describes the transformation of an “apparent marginal landscape of salt marsh into a wastescape and then into an ecoscape or reimagined park space.” Could you describe the relationship among these imaginaries of the landscape? How did the early marginalization of marshlands by colonists lead to their use as landfills later on, for example?

MVM: Until about the 1970s or so, marshland and swamps were regarded as useless land that only gained value if drained and reclaimed. As such, the salt marshes of Staten Island were an easy target for those who wanted to increase the amount of “taxable” land in New York City. An understanding of the intrinsic value of wetlands, especially from an environmental standpoint, was very late in coming throughout the world. In the more recent chapter of the story—converting a landfill into a park—there were different issues at stake. Some believed that a reclaimed landfill added usable land to the city’s inventory in much the same way the original marshes could be utilized for dumping waste. An amazing view. Others, caught up in more modern interests in ecology, hoped to use techniques of ecological restoration to restore the landfill to its former “pristine” state. This was a pipe dream and a physical impossibility. The next best thing, therefore, was to find uses for the space that went beyond fencing it off as unusable. There are several complex issues at work here, which raise questions about land preservation and restoration. Landfills are also mirrors of society’s material culture. But few promote any form of historical preservation of the space as important human artifacts.

Q: You also describe moments when the Fresh Kills landfill was reopened for waste disposal or as a cemetery—for example, after 9/11 and after Hurricane Sandy. What connections do you see between waste and death? Did these discrete moments of use transform the meaning of the site? 

MVM: I don’t think there was any intention to connect waste and death. Available space at Fresh Kills drove decisions to use the landfill after 9/11 and Sandy. Certainly, however, loved ones of those who died in the Twin Towers were aghast that the city would dump human remains at Fresh Kills and thus create a de facto cemetery. Tons of lawsuits followed. I don’t think the city had much choice but to dump the human remains along with the debris (although Mayor Giuliani unwisely promised that all the remains would be recovered), and a vast number of people scoured the piles in search of retrievable items (including remains). But the symbolism was greater than the reality. The association of landfills with those things we no longer value was certainly a stigma that citizens could not accept in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy.

Q: I’m really curious about the reclamation of the landfill as public park land. There are other examples of this nationally—in particular, I’m thinking of Red Gate Woods in Illinois, a park established on top of a nuclear waste dump. Could you talk about the implications of a transition of waste (something commonly imagined as valueless) into a park (something often imagined as valuable, or as additive of value for real estate development)?

MVM: What happened at Fresh Kills after its closing was not unique. Cities around the world have reclaimed landfills for other uses. There are, of course, caveats. Environmental health needs to be guaranteed at the sites, usually through methane and leachate mitigation systems. Cities have learned that landfill sites are not suitable for building tall structures, because the soil remains unstable for years. If a site can be shown to be “safe” for human use, then certain kinds of activities might be suitable—but I must stress “might.” In the case of Fresh Kills, a good part of the grounds was never used for dumping and thus can be treated differently than the major waste mounds. Recreational uses like hiking, biking, canoeing, games, and so forth have been central interests. Beyond the question whether the city can reuse the land is the question of whether the city should do so. And this always comes down to money—which has been in short supply most recently. 

Q: In the context of climate change and sea-level rise, many coastal areas of settlement, industrial or infrastructural importance, and waste management are being transformed and reimagined. What is the influence of these factors on the reclamation of Fresh Kills? What are the challenges posed by climate change for waste management, particularly for waste accumulation in marshland or swamp areas near the shoreline? 

MVM: I’m not a scientist, so my responses must be taken carefully. During Sandy the area around the Fresh Kill site suffered little damage, especially with wetlands along the water acting as an additional buffer. A bigger question that I have raised concerns consumption in general, which is a clear part of the climate change equation. I’m speaking of the scale of global consumption, especially in terms of production of goods through various manufacturing and industrial practices and unwise land uses. 

Q: How do you hope this project will influence solid waste management in the future? 

MVM: As with anything I write, I hope it will start several conversations. The book may be titled Fresh Kills, but it is meant to identify a whole range of issues building around consumption and waste. The book is difficult to describe in a few words, but the subject matter is meant to give us a better idea of New York City’s history as well as problems that face urban society everywhere.

Q: How has this project changed your own research interests—where will you go from here?

MVM: This book was extremely difficult to research and write, but I loved every minute of it. I loved attempting to write a sustained narrative about a place I consider extremely worthy of study. The various techniques and methodologies I utilized will help me become a better historian and writer. Currently I’m working on a classroom book dealing with water from an environmental perspective. The book will consist of thirty-two historical case studies spanning years precontact with indigenous peoples to the present, and will draw on research from Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

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1 Response

  1. Can anyone tell me when the exhibit “Recovery: The WTC Recovery Operation at Fresh Kills” took place? I believe I saw it at the Museum of the City of NY. Thanks for any help.

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