Off the beaten path
It was when my son was considering a trip to Europe over spring break with his school that I planted an alternative bug in his ear and suggested taking the money it would’ve cost us and instead spend it on a week in New York City for the whole family.
“Sure!” he agreed, and what an amazing decision it turned out to be.
It was my first sojourn to the storied metropolis and for anyone who’s never been, all I can say is that any description you’ve heard does not do justice to the electricity, frenetic pace, and chaotically beautiful aura that weaves its way through the skyscrapers, brownstones, and throngs of people, each out on their own respective adventures.
After three days of playing tourist, bathing in the glow of the lights of Times Square, learning to walk dodging extended elbows, and exploring every neighbourhood by foot until even the kids’ feet were hurting, my husband had a different idea – a trip out to a barren southwest portion of Brooklyn to explore Dead Horse Bay.
Like most exploits, getting there is half the fun so armed with fresh Band-Aids on my blisters and wrong directions from a disengaged bus driver, we found ourselves walking along a mostly abandoned part of Flatbush Avenue looking for something that looked like a beach.
With the disorientation that accompanies the first time in an unknown location amplified by the realization that we might be lost, I heaved a temporary sigh of relief when we finally stumbled upon a crooked, faded sign that read, ‘Park Entrance.’
The relief was short-lived as we followed a winding path through dense overgrowth for what seemed like far too long.
“We don’t get vines like this back home,” said my youngest.
“They’ll never find our bodies,” I muttered.
Like most of my worries in life, it was all for naught as we came upon a clearing to the bay, famous for its beach strewn with remnants of lives disrupted over a half-century ago, the visible remains mostly consisting of glass bottles, ceramic shards, and, for some reason, leather shoe soles.
Originally named Barren Island, Dead Horse Bay was christened in the 1850s after it became home of a number of horse-rendering plants for the beasts who’d outlived their lives as carriage-pullers. This unsavoury location was also a dump where Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx brought its garbage.
By 1936, urban planner Robert Moses had the area of mostly poor immigrant Irish families evicted and bulldozed the community that had a one-room schoolhouse, four saloons, and five factories in order to make way for the Marine Park Bridge. The landfill – consisting mostly of people’s homes and their contents – was capped until the 1950s when the eastern portion burst and the ocean’s tides revealed the buried memories.
Save for one other couple from Washington D.C., in town to see their daughter perform with her indie band, the beach was empty and we were privy to the gentle waves eroding and revealing the disrupted lives of previous generations.
“Feels haunted,” my son said. I couldn’t disagree.
After a good two hours of scavenging in the afternoon sun, we finally headed back with a small booty of excavated bottles and memories of one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen.
Only after arriving back in Montreal and doing more research did I learn removing anything from Dead Horse Bay is a federal offense, though a poorly enforced one, as local historians continue to wage battle with collectors and scavengers.
Our collection has a respectful place on a shelf back home and in learning their history, I like to think their current locale honours them more than their spot among the detritus under the ocean waves.
Historical info obtained from discardstudies.com/2013/07/11/detritus-from-historic-deadhorse-bay-trash-meant-to-be-left-behind.