A Visit to Ridgewood Reservoir and Highland Park, Bird Heaven

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    Yesterday, I was invited to come along on the Newtown Historical Society’s walking tour of Ridgewood Reservoir, which actually straddles the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Now, I’m sort of known for my explorations of a very different part of this border — Newtown Creek — so this was terra incognita for me.

    Having never visited the spot, nor the New York City park, Highland Park, which surrounds it, attending this event was a no brainer. Lots of photos after the jump.

    The views are incredible, and we saw lots of birds and spring greenery. The park dates from the early 20th century, and is home to at least 156 bird species, according to our tour guides. Here’s more information from the Parks Department at nycgovparks.org:

    Conveniently located on a high plateau that straddles Queens and Brooklyn, Highland Park offers stunning views of Ridgewood Reservoir, the Rockaways, the Atlantic Ocean, and nearby cemeteries.

    Acquired in pieces over time, the park took its present shape between 1906 and 1908, quickly became a popular spot among residents of both boroughs, and continues to play an important role in the community. Children’s farm gardens act as hands-on classrooms, barbecue areas serve as meeting grounds for mass celebrations, and numerous tennis courts, baseball fields, handball courts, and basketball courts provide New Yorkers with safe, clean spots for athletic recreation.

    The Ridgewood Reservoir located on the Brooklyn/Queens border in Highland Park, served as a backup water supply for the two boroughs until 1989. After the reservoir’s closure, a landscape of woods and wetlands developed within the three basins. The pathway around the basins is heavily used by Brooklyn and Queens residents for walking and exercise.

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    The tour was led by Rob Jett, who is the City Birder. From ridgewoodreservoir.blogspot.com:

    The Ridgewood Reservoir was developed on 105 acres of farmland purchased from Isaac Snedeker located near Cypress Hills Cemetery, about a quarter mile west of Fresh Pond Road (now Cypress Hills Street) and south of Cypress Avenue.

    About 48 acres of the Snedeker Farm formed a natural basin and rose about 150’ above sea level. In fact, the reservoir’s location is at one of the highest points on geographic Long Island, atop a moraine formed by Ice Age glaciers eons ago.

    Location of the reservoir was important, as the gravity-fed system allowed water to flow naturally from the high reservoir down through the distribution system running below Brooklyn streets. At its peak, the reservoir would hold 150 million gallons of water, providing enough water to Brooklyn residents to last them at least 10 days.

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    Jett, accompanied by Christina Wilkinson of the Newtown Historical Society, related the history of the reservoir to the group. They described the 50 acre reservoir as consisting of three different basins, each of which exhibited a certain environment: pond, bog and forest. From tapeshare.com

    Have a look at the map; the avenue was a direct path. The reservoir was Brooklyn’s main distributing reservoir, serving all but 4 of the districts. Incidentally, “Conduit” avenue was also a reference to the original water conduits which ran along those paths. At first, the water supply served commercial interests that relied heavily on steam power. Local residents still depended on well water. The reservoir and pumping system was expanded over time and served all residents. Eventually New York City established a master plan to access water from the Catskills and this reservoir was rendered obsolete in the 1920’s. The Catskill system was tied in about 1917, ending the need for the pumping stations and the Long Island supply system(Robert Moses would snare all that land for his Long Island Parks.) It continued as a backup system to 1966, and remained a source for illegal swimming into the ’70s; accidental drownings were common. The pumping stations on the south side of Atlantic were removed by 1940 and became the site of East New York Vocational High School. The pumping station on the north side of Atlantic Avenue came down in the 1960s to make room for a promised park, which was never developed.

    One interesting bit of trivia. It is often assumed the reservoir was named after the town of Ridgewood. In fact the reservoir was named after the furthest supply source out on Long Island, known as the Ridgewood tract. The town that grew up around the reservoir took its name from the reservoir.

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    The Ridgewood Reservoir has become a major draw for migratory birds on the so called “Atlantic flyway,” as well as natives, and the two guides were quick to point out which specie the various calls, hoots, and whistles that we heard emanated from. From thirteen.org:

    Ridgewood Reservoir is one of those places that defies the common imagination of New York City. A lake sits surrounded by reeds and two massive basins, each with its own habitat. Dirt paths lined with iron gates from previous centuries surround the basins, but this all hides within a chain-link fence that cuts off access. The fence is a patchwork in constant development, telling the story of repeated entries with wire cutters. A few people might circle the outer fence’s road on foot or bicycle, but for the most part the site is empty.

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    We spotted several of “dese boids” as we moved along, although most of the “liddle bastiches” didn’t hold still long enough for portraiture.

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    No small amount of controversy surrounds the reservoir. Back in 2007, Parks Commissioner Benape announced plans to convert Highland Park to a “destination park” and to do away with the reservoir basins and their unique ecology to make way for ball fields.

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    Additionally, other government agencies voiced concerns that the pond section’s walls might rupture and flood Brooklyn. They described the reservoir as a “high hazard dam” and were bent on digging culverts to divert the water away from the basins into storm drains — a plan ultimately nixed by Governor Cuomo.

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    The guides told us that all of the local electeds have voiced support for keeping the place wild, allowing for the 156 species of bird that have been recorded here a place to nest and live in peace unmolested by the surrounding City.

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    Highland Park is appropriately named, situated on the terminal morraine of Long Island. On a clear day you can see forever, or at least to East New York and Far Rockaway.

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    At the pond, we spotted butterflies and birds, and the red brick structure at the far end grabbed my notice. It’s a gate house, which was used to control the flow of water into the reservoirs from the lakes in eastern Long Island that once fed it.

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    These are the manual valves which controlled the flood gates. A friend who accompanied me to the tour uttered “you just have to love Victorian engineering.”

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    Highland Park is open to the public, as are the walkways surrounding the reservoir. I wouldn’t want to ride a bike up the hills surrounding the park, personally, but if you live in Glendale, East New York, or Bushwick, the Ridgewood Reservoir is definitely worth a visit.

    Me, I missed my beloved creek, where tugboats gambol about and giant machines eat junk cars and spit out shredded metal, but to each his own.

    Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.

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