Approximately sixteen kilometers southeast of Manhattan, the southern coast of Brooklyn wraps north along Floyd Bennett Field — a former airfield turned derelict-littered national park — skips across Plumb Beach Channel, and turns west. The small body of water inside this curve is Dead Horse Bay, named for the daily shipments of dead horses it once received from Manhattan. There, on Barren Island, a tight-knit community of immigrants operated an industrial age predecessor to Agbogbloshie, Guiyu, and Chittagong, recycling growing Manhattan’s waste in squalorous conditions. In a city possessed of an entirely different metabolism than modern cities, that waste amounted to an incredible quantity of dead and dying matter, processed in factories, smelters, bone-boilers, guano plants, and open piles. This fetid surplus was converted into an array of chemical products — glycerin, glues, fertilizers, oils — and exported to Europe.
By the turn of the century, though, shifting technologies and new economies — the rise of the combustion engine and the growth of the petrochemical industry — decimated both supply and demand. Schemes sought to transform the surrounding marshy estuary, first into a “megaport” larger than Rotterdam, Hamburg, and Liverpool combined, and second into an ultra-modern airport. While the megaport was never realized, the latter scheme produced Floyd Bennett Field, at the time of its completion in 1930 the nation’s most technologically-advanced airfield. Air transport evolved even more rapidly than the chemical industry, though, and Floyd Bennett Field was quickly surpassed by even more modern LaGuardia, soon passing into the hands of the National Park Service. Today, slowly-disintegrating concrete landing strips share the Field with a strange concoction of ruderal plant communities, abandoned hangers, and the only urban camping sites in the National Park system.
Underlying these transitions from literal wasteland to airfield to half-forgotten park is an unusual and often overlooked infrastructure, common to littoral cities the world over: the rapid form of artificially-induced sedimentary geology known as dredging. In order to transform ruined Barren Island into gleaming Floyd Bennett Field, six million cubic yards of sediment were sucked out of adjacent Jamaica Bay and used to fill the channels around the island.
This is dredging as a linear industrial process. Dredging is perhaps better understood, however, as a component of a much wider cycle of anthropogenic influences on sedimentary processes, both intentional moments of applied energy and unintentional complexes of aggregate forces, all colliding and overlapping in bizarre ways, as natural processes’ timescales are alternately short-circuited and artificially extended. Here even geology, so old and seemingly inexorable, is dragged into our orbit, through the aggregate influence of a planet’s worth of agriculture, deforestation, mining, and urbanization; as islands are built up out of the sea from Tokyo to Dubai to Essex’s Wallasea Island; as dams trap enough sediment behind them to shift seismic profiles at continental scale; and by fleets of bucket, suction, and clamshell dredgers, drawing straight lines across estuaries and deltas. Relative to a geologic timescale, this cycling is fast, intense, and concentrated, approaching the event horizon at which acceleration produces not just a difference in speed, but a difference in kind.
Jamaica Bay illustrates this well. Dredging opened the once-shallow estuary to intense tidal forces, accelerating erosion, which, in a tight feedback loop, intensifies the further dredging required to maintain channels. Sewage and industrial pollutants degraded marine ecologies, further accelerating the pace of erosion. The sediment, meanwhile, is itself produced by human activities in the surrounding watersheds. And if there is any hope for a new sedimentary equilibrium in Jamaica Bay, that hope is now wholly artificial, dependent on intelligent intervention.
If this is what the first two centuries of industrialization have made out of Barren Island, Floyd Bennett Field, and Jamaica Bay, we are left to wonder: what new landscapes will this raw material be converted into the coming decades? As new economies and forthcoming technological regimes supersede ours, obsolescing productive landscapes, what new artificial strata will we build — intentionally and unintentionally — from their ruins? Now that we are recognizing that we are geologic agents, what will we do with that Promethean knowledge?