At the start of our adventure, Inhabitat and several other attendees gathered at the LAB in the East Village, and after two subway rides and a quick trip on the path train to New Jersey, we finally arrived at our destination. Standing on the shore of the Hackensack, we were greeted by Riverkeepers’ Captain Bill Sheehan and Hugh Carola and we were then boarded onto a set of pontoon boats to embark on the second part of our journey.
Officially referred to as the New Jersey Meadowlands District, this 32-square-mile area is governed not by the sate of New Jersey, but instead by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. As we trolled down the river we learned the history behind this urban waterway, its harrowing destruction and its inspiring rebirth. Our experience on Friday left us with at lot to consider, and now that we’ve been able to reflect on our expedition, we can’t help but wonder: Could this small pocket of earth be a micro-model with solutions for repairing our planet for the future?
History of the Hackensack and the Meadowlands
“If you look at how the natural landscape of America has been altered and changed since colonial times, you’ll agree that it’s a near-miracle that any habitats remain in the Metro area. But if you take the time to explore places like the real Meadowlands, Jamaica Bay, the Rockaways or the head of Long Island Sound you will see that nature not only survives – it thrives.”
- Hugh Carola Haskensack Riverkeeper
Starting in the 1600s when European settlers first gave the river a name – followed by logging, then ditching, diking and draining – the Meadowlands that once stretched over 32 square miles encompassing nearly 25,000 acres of wetlands and waterways, was reduced to only a third of its former size. By the late 19th century the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and factories from Hackensack to Newark bay were spewing untold gallons of untreated waste into the river, while raw sewage and refuse of all kinds were being dumped in and around the waterways.
This toxic combination left hotspots of chromium, PCBs, mercury and other contaminants throughout the river’s ecosystem. The invasive and unnatural change in the river’s chemistry wiped out almost all of the area’s plant and animal life, and by the 1940s the common reed – Phragmites communis – was one of the only plant species that remained. It was around this time people also started using the area as a regional garbage dump. Garbage trucks from scores of municipalities, including the Erie Railroad hopper cars, were filled with trash and unloaded onto the wetlands. We can presently count 34 historic dump sites. For some sites, fires were known to spontaneously combust, while others burned underground for years.