May 18, 2014

Photo Essay: Ridgewood Reservoir, One of the Wildest Places in NYC

One of the things about New York City is that you rarely get to see much of it. You're always underground on the subway, popping up at your destinations but never really seeing how you got there or what you missed along the way.

I always preferred taking the bus in NYC.

If you're lucky, you can afford a cab home from the airport, when you can witness some deep borough delights. Maybe you're lucky enough to have a friend with a car who grew up in Brooklyn or Queens, who likes you drive you around and show you what you've missed out on.

One of the things you see if you happen to be above ground on, say, the Jackie Robinson Parkway is lots of cemeteries. But, because you're on your way to somewhere else, you don't stop for a look.

Nestled among those cemeteries is one 19th Century relic hidden from view, abandoned for decades, and taken over by nature: the Ridgewood Reservoir.

Built in the 1850s by the city of Brooklyn to provide drinking water for its growing population...

...the present-day site of the reservoir is actually in Queens, just over the border from Brooklyn.

When Brooklyn joined the City of New York in 1898, they got access to NYC's water supply, and Ridgewood became a backup reservoir.

It still held water until 1989, when it was officially decommissioned and drained.

Before being turned over to the Parks Department in 2004, nature took over, creating a swampland in Basin #2 full of reeds (non-native, and invasive) and collected stormwater. In Basin #1, a birch forest has arisen in a complex ecosystem of many different plant species. Pretty much the whole area is good for birdwatching.

In addition to visible retaining walls that remain, you can also see the remaining gate house...

...its red brick facade painted an unnatural brick red color...

...and the East and West Causeways – steep, stone walls that serve as walkways to traverse the reservoir, separating Basin #2 from Basin #s 1 and 3.

On the northwestern corner of the reservoir, with traffic on the Jackie Robinson whizzing by behind you, you can see the old Pump House...

...its windows blocked...

...its bricks also painted red.

A new wrought iron fence has been installed – with locked gates – to prevent entry into the reservoir, but the City has been talking for a long time about providing access to the water. For now, there's a bike path and foot trail that allows you to go all the way around the reservoir's perimeter, and peek through the new fence to see portions of the original fence which still remain.

It doesn't feel like you're in New York City (except, of course, the inescapable traffic buzz). No one's really using it for recreation during the day, during the week, on a gloomy, rain-threatening afternoon.  There have been plans to transform the wetlands into ballfields – something the community has asked for – but it would be a shame to lose something so wild, so eerie, so diverse in New York, one of the few truly natural areas of open space left.

If you think Central Park is "nature," go to Ridgewood Reservoir and listen to the birds.

Related Posts:
Ossining Weir Chamber & Old Croton Aqueduct, Part I
Feeling a Little Unstable

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