At the southern end of Howard Beach’s Addabbo Bridge are two parking lots fronting a beach, one on each side of the road. People from all over the borough visit the area, which is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, to fish, bird-watch and enjoy the view of Jamaica Bay.
That experience has been spoiled for some, who have spent more than 12 hours in the last month cleaning the garbage and debris littering the lots.
Volunteer Ina Brennan said she took on this chore as one who respects nature, but emphasized that it shouldn’t be her responsibility. “We figured that, over time, perhaps we can shame the park service into doing something,” she said.
Bringing a litany of complaints to Gateway’s maintenance staff and park rangers hasn’t accomplished much, Brennan said, faulting the small size of the staff and insufficient funding for the oversight.
Kathy Kraus, chief of interpretation of Gateway’s Jamaica Bay Unit, said the park service is “very concerned” about the perpetual litter problem. The untidy sight results from visitors, religious groups, beach debris that washes ashore and trash that blows off from landfills, she explained.
“We know it’s bad and we’re doing the best we can right now,” Kraus added, but the size of the maintenance crew has hindered cleanup efforts.
Brennan and three friends, all Gateway volunteers, first noticed the accumulating trash in early January. Disgusted by the lots’ appearance and concerned for the safety of migratory birds, who reside in the sanctuary, they decided to clean up the area themselves.
“You hear all about conservation, and most of us don’t do much,” Brennan said, explaining the group’s verve for action. “But so many of us like to get hands on and do something. We’re doing something for the environment.”
Spending between two and three hours every Thursday afternoon since Jan. 10 collecting plastic, paper and metal objects, among other things, the small volunteer group has made its presence known to Kraus, who appreciates the effort.
“The bridges have been an issue for a long time,” she said, explaining that Gateway is attempting to improve its maintenance and communication with visitors this year. Thanks to some extra cash at Gateway’s disposal, the park service will hire a handful of seasonal staff members this summer to aid in cleanup efforts. This will “kick (maintenance) up a notch,” she said, adding that she could always use more volunteers.
According to Kraus, Gateway has already launched an awareness campaign that engages the local Hindu community, which has been performing rituals in the area and leaving objects behind.
Last week, on the windiest day of the month, Brennan arrived for the cleanup expecting to see the usual mess, and instead found what have become to her familiar items. Coconuts, lemons and limes, displays of fabric and candles in clay holders dotted the sand.
Having once worked for an Indian company, Brennan recognized the objects, which had been present at almost of all of her beach-cleaning endeavors, as those used in death rituals by Hindus of Caribbean descent. They worship the deity Ganga Mata (Mother Ganges), believing that through running water there is purity and sanctity.
Aware of the rituals, Kraus and her co-workers have reached out to religious leaders and are working together to find a solution that satisfies all.
Until such a compromise can be reached and Gateway’s maintenance staff grows, Brennan and her friends will continue their weekly grind. “We’ll keep at it until it’s all cleaned up,” she said.