Standing on the sidewalk adjacent to the northbound lanes of Cross Bay Boulevard as the road descends from the Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge into Howard Beach, Dorothy McCloskey, a Howard Beach resident and president of Friends of Charles Park, a group dedicated to protecting Howard Beach’s largest — and depending on whom you ask, only — public park, pointed to the mouth of Shellbank Basin and toward Jamaica Bay. A fence used to line the sidewalk, blocking access to the waterfront here, but Hurricane Sandy blew the fence down. Now, the chain-linked barrier lies rusted on the ground, partially embedded in the earth.
McCloskey took a step onto the collapsed fence, which recoils like a trampoline. She jumped suddenly.
“Ouch!” she cried as she looked down and noticed her left foot is bare. “There goes my shoe.”
The fence had caught the sole of the shoe and it was wedged between the steel and the dirt.
“You see how dangerous this is?” she asked as she pulled her shoe free.
The fallen fence is only the beginning of the problems this plot of land between 165th Avenue and Jamaica Bay alongside Shellbank Basin faces. Walking down through the overgrowth to the waterfront, the signs of human presence lie strewn about: an empty Tropicana carton, the partially-folded legs of a captain’s chair, glass bottles with the label peeled off, a bucket, a baseball cap and a partially eaten pastry.
“Look at this; this is horrible,” McCloskey said. “This is what you see when you come over the bridge into our neighborhood? This is how we’re represented?”
The land, which is about 50-feet wide and several hundred-feet long, is in geographic limbo. Across the basin is Charles Park, clearly mapped as part of Gateway National Recreation Area, which also owns the marshy shorefront on the other side of Cross Bay Boulevard, but this land is split between federal control — between 165th Avenue and the start of the physical bridge — and city control thereafter. Another chain-linked fence marks the property line. At the bridge, the situation is even worse with refuse washing up like clamshells in a tide pool. Graffiti mars the bridge’s concrete piers.
But it sits at a scenic point in the neighborhood, with expansive views of Jamaica Bay, subway trains snaking across the water and planes rising from the runways at JFK Airport. Birds, many of which come from the refuge across the bay, zip by and recreational boats glide past every so often.
“This could be a wonderful spot if someone would just take care of it,” McCloskey said.
Even before Hurricane Sandy, she said there had been attempts to push the National Park Service to maintain the land or give it to someone who could. Last year, Frank Russo, owner of Vetro, the restaurant that sits on the corner of 165th Avenue and Cross Bay Boulevard, offered to buy or lease the land from the NPS and use some of it for parking and maintain the rest as green space, but McCloskey said the NPS refused the offer.
“If they won’t, or can’t, take care of this space, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t give it to a member of the community in good standing with a good reputation who will take care of it. Who’s going to do it better than him?” she said. “If that’s not going to happen then the National Park Service needs to come up with a plan for this site.”
McCloskey said the site had been used in the past, most recently as a staging ground for marsh restoration in Jamaica Bay. But since Sandy, the plot of land has only been utilized by recreational fishermen during the day and, from her own words, “who knows who” at night.
“At night, you can see fires burning here,” she said. “This has become a dumping ground for construction vans too.”
NPS Spokeswoman Daphne Yun acknowledged in an email that the site is owned by the federal agency and was cleaned in the spring, adding that the site is slated to be cleaned again in the fall.
The city section of the land also got some attention in the spring.
In April, Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Park) sent a letter to Mayor Bloomberg demanding the city clean up its part of the property, including removing the graffiti from the Addabbo Bridge. Most of the graffiti was removed by the New York City Graffiti Unit in May, but some of it has returned.
The problem even goes beyond the plot of land. On Monday, crews were working to clean up trash — including a mattress — left on the northbound shoulder of Cross Bay Boulevard just before the bridge on what is city property. One of the workers struggled as he used a stick to pick up a piece of cardboard from the street.
“You can see how long this has been here,” said the worker, who did not want to be named. “It’s stuck to the street. This must have been here for months.”
“If you can put cameras on our cars to catch us speeding, then why can’t they put cameras up here to see who is dumping?” McCloskey asked.