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Letter from Brooklyn

New York City's Dirtiest Beach

Long-lost clues to the lives of forgotten New Yorkers are emerging from the sands at Dead Horse Bay

September/October 2018

Brooklyn Dead Horse Bay Beach

Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay looks about as appealing as it sounds, resembling something out of a postapocalyptic movie. On most days it is devoid of people, yet an improbable amount of debris blankets its shores. Glass bottles, old leather shoes, car tires, broken dishes, children’s toys—along with mysterious sun-bleached bones—are everywhere. As waves splash against the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of glass fragments on the beach, and then retreat, a sound almost like wind chimes can be heard. This otherwise quiet and remote peninsula juts out into the mouth of New York’s Jamaica Bay. Given its prominent position at the bay’s entrance, one might assume that this barrage of material came to rest on this sandy spit through the idiosyncrasies of tide and current. But larger, heavier items such as metal safes, car parts, chunks of flooring, and bathroom fixtures suggest that it was not chance that bore these artifacts here.


The sea- and sun-stained appearance of objects, the rust, the faintly legible labels bearing the names of unfamiliar and long-defunct companies, and, of course, the bones, suggest that this material is not new. In fact, these objects were buried here decades ago but are now gradually reemerging along the beach. They are not just rubbish, nor flotsam or jetsam, but the remnants of little-known chapters in New York City’s history.


The shores along today’s Dead Horse Bay were once part of a place called Barren Island. Although Barren Island is nowhere to be found on most modern maps of New York, this peculiar little place played an integral role in the city’s history. “It’s archaeologically very rich, but also very tangled and complicated because of the many different uses that the geography has had,” says Robin Nagle, an anthropologist at New York University. This area today little resembles the tidal flats, salt meadows, and sandy beaches that Dutch settlers first encountered in the seventeenth century and curiously named Beeren Eylandt (“Island of Bears”). Originally, the island comprised about 30 acres of uplands and 70 acres of salt meadows, but land reclamation projects during the first half of the twentieth century permanently altered the topography. Well before that, however, its remote location made it the perfect spot for solving an intractable city problem.


It is fitting that today, in the twenty-first century, Dead Horse Bay is notorious for having New York City’s filthiest beach, since throughout its history, this particular corner of New York has been synonymous with refuse, offal, and unpleasantness. That reputation dates back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the city began shipping its garbage to Barren Island.


Located around a dozen miles southeast of downtown Manhattan, the area was relatively peaceful during New York’s early history. But its remoteness eventually caught the eye of city officials and entrepreneurs. By the mid-nineteenth century, New York faced a serious dilemma about what to do with its rubbish, particularly its deceased horses. In an era before cars, horses were everywhere and, of course, they died. One might not give it much thought today, but disposing of a horse carcass was not an easy task, and often they were simply left to rot in the streets. After a cholera epidemic broke out in the city, officials decided to seriously crack down on health hazards, which included finding a resolution to its dead horse problem. Because Barren Island was mostly uninhabited and was isolated from the rest of the city, it was deemed a logical location to build the much needed, and extremely odorous, animal disposal facilities.