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Collectors Petition to Preserve 1950s Household Trash at Marine Park’s Bottle Beach

December 30, 2020 Clark Adomaitis
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Antique collectors of a trash-ridden Brooklyn beach are petitioning the National Park Service for the preservation of its junk.

According to the scavengers, Glass Bottle Beach in Marine Park provides an “accidental time capsule” into domestic NYC life in the 1950s when the landfill underneath it was created by Robert Moses. The landfill’s cap burst in the ’50s, and bottles, bricks, and household trash have been unearthed on the beach ever since.

Scavengers regularly searched the toxic beach for exciting, sand-and-rust-covered finds. Miriam Sicherman, 48, author of a book on the history of the beach, Brooklyn’s Barren Island: A Forgotten History, has found a newspaper from January 1953 when Winston Churchill visited President Dwight Eisenhower in New York. Howard Warren, a retired Bottle Beach tour guide and retired elementary school teacher, has found pieces of the 1950s Mattel toy called the Tricky Trolley, a wobbly red train.

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The discovery of treasure amongst the trash heap has given rise to the idea of “crowd-sourced archaeology.” This tactic involves beachcombers collecting and protecting “resources that can be used in the future to interpret and represent the historical significance of the site,” according to Mary McCarthy, executive director at the Beachcombing Center, an organization dedicated to discovering sea glass.

Sicherman is leading a movement to preserve the relics covering the beach. She is getting signatures for a petition to the National Park Service that requests that the beach’s debris be collected, decontaminated, conserved, and catalogued.

Rusted parts and glass bottles infesting the wildlife at Glass Bottle Beach. Eagle photo by Clark Adomaitis

Her petition emphasizes that “there is much we can learn from those artifacts about midcentury New Yorkers—everything from their makeup, fashion, and cleaning regimens, to their drinking habits, to the news they read.”

Ideally, the petitioners want relics from the beach featured in a public exhibit. Warren says, “my hope and dream is that the National Park Service decides to create a museum to showcase what life was like in New York City based on the discards of its citizens from the 1950s. I would love to see that area made into a modern resort for everybody to enjoy, which would mean a capping and no accessibility to any of the artifacts.”

A beach-wide shutdown might be beneficial to their cause, preventing further pilfering while Parks considers the petition. The beach was closed in August because radium, a radioactive contaminant, was detected among the beach’s wreckage.

Moving forward on a cleanup of the contamination, the Park Service will evaluate “the nature and extent of contamination at a site and assess potential threats to human health and the environment.” They will also evaluate the potential costs for the cleanup.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic is slowing their process down. The Park Service needs to hire contractors who will go to the beach, test, and collect samples. “The contractors may be held up due to restrictions,” said Daphne Yun, Public Affairs Specialist for the Park Service, adding that the pandemic will make that a long process.

Signs outside of Glass Bottle Beach on Flatbush Avenue. Eagle photo by Clark Adomaitis

The National Park Service could consider the conservation of the 1950s trash. “If deemed appropriate … measures will be taken to ensure that potential archaeological resources will be identified and as necessary, preserved,” says a Park Service FAQ.

In fact, the pandemic has already had an effect on closing of the beach. The Park Service had plans to close Bottle Beach in March, but the pandemic forced the closing to be delayed until August.

Recreational traffic comes to the nearby Floyd Bennett Field all the time, but the nearby Bottle Beach is overlooked. The Floyd Bennett Garden Association, a non-profit community garden with close to 600 members, had not even heard of the Bottle Beach closure.

The Park Service said it will “develop a Proposed Plan for public review and comment, which will outline the preferred cleanup option identified for the Site. Public feedback will be sought and considered prior to finalization of the Proposed Plan.”

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