March 11, 2016 By Christian Murray
Jamaica Bay, a forgotten body of water located at the southern edge of Queens and Brooklyn, was the City’s dumping ground for most of the 20th Century where sewage, garbage and chemicals would flow.
But its polluted history is slowly changing and the delicate ecosystems of yesteryear are beginning to re-emerge. The once disparate communities that have surrounded the Bay for decades have started to join forces to collectively improve it.
Dan Hendrick, a Sunnyside resident who was introduced to the Bay nearly 15 years ago while working as a reporter for the Queens Chronicle, has dedicated more than a decade of his life to the 18,000-acre estuary.
While his husband, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, has been negotiating city hall budgets and hosting community events, Hendrick has spent hundreds of hours shooting footage and working in a dark room editing film.
Hendrick published a book on the Bay in 2006, aptly called “Jamaica Bay,” after he noticed one hadn’t been written before. Then in 2011 he started work on a film, called “Saving Jamaica Bay,” which will be screened for the first time on March 17 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the Queens World Film Festival.
Hendrick didn’t know much about filmmaking when he started in April 2011, so he recruited an editor and a director to help him get it going. He held fundraisers, passed the hat around and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to get it done.
He even persuaded Susan Sarandon to narrate it.
Hendrick’s goal is to increase public awareness of the Bay, which is a national park and is home to more than 300 species of birds and 100 species of fish. Furthermore, there is a lot to do there, he said, such as kayaking and fishing.
“Jamaica Bay is the size of three Central Parks, three Van Cortlandt Parks and three Prospect Parks combined,” Hendrick said.
“It’s great being out there and breathing the fresh air,” he added.
Hendrick said that in an era of increased urbanization, “urban parks are more important than ever before. You might go to Yosemite once in a lifetime but a park like this you can go to all the time.”
“My aim is to make people aware of this, to learn about it and to care about the Bay,” Hendrick said, who recognizes that many people know very little about it.
The 76-minute documentary explores the Bay’s history, its people, recent improvements and its prospects. It also explores the damage the Bay sustained as a result of Superstorm Sandy.
Hendrick said the Bay was once viewed as offering some of the best oyster beds on the East Coast.
But that quickly changed when it became “the toilet bowl for Brooklyn and Queens [south of Grand Central Parkway] where vast quantities of untreated sewage began pouring into the Bay.”
The opening of two airports in the 1930s and 40s further undermined its environmental health, Hendrick said. Two airports were constructed—the Floyd Bennett Field and Idlewild Airport (later renamed JFK Airport in 1963)—which resulted in thousands of acres of marshland being lost. Meanwhile, five landfills opened around the Bay’s perimeter.
The occasional body is found in the Bay.
“It’s the only national park where people dump bodies, very New York,” he said.
Today, four sewage plants spew nitrogen and chlorine into the water every day. However, the plants have all been upgraded and the nitrogen levels are coming down and less effluent is going into the bay.
“The water quality is getting better,” Hendrick said, adding that he would eat fish out of it. He said the Bay is cleaner now than it has been in decades.
Hendrick has also documented the people who live around the bay – in the neighborhoods of Broad Channel, Breezy Point, Canarsie, Marine Park and the Rockaways – and how they live.
He said there are people from a host of different backgrounds and religions—although he noted a few large groups consisting of Indo-Caribbean (Guyana, Trinidad), African-Americans and hardy white stock whose ancestors were likely fisherman in New England.
“There hasn’t been a lot of dialogue between these groups over the years,” Hendrick said. It was a case of each group looking after its own patch.
But then Sandy struck and they found out they were all in it together. Hendrick chronicles these communities as part of the film.
“It destroyed a lot of lives,” Hendrick said, and people moved away. “Homes, [wrecked] boats and oil ended up in the bay.”
Even the terrain changed. For instance, a fresh-water pond got swallowed up by the sea in the storm and is no more. All the birds that lived by the pond have gone.
“At that the end of the day I love underdogs and the people who live there are underdogs,” he said. “Hey, I’m a Mets fan, I route for these people and I want them to win.”
He chose the title “Saving Jamaica Bay” because its future has to be closely monitored. Every so often the Port Authority puts forward plans to add runways at JFK Airport that would require filling in 400 acres of the Bay, which would change the dynamics of the environment.
The proposal was suggested last in 2011 and a meeting was held by residents who were upset. Nothing has come of it.
But Hendrick attended that meeting.
“At the time I thought to myself what can I do to help save it?” he said. “I decided I should make a film.”