Toxic Island

Yesterday I met and interviewed a very interesting Staten Island denizen named Debby Davis. I discovered her through the Toxic Trails map of Staten Island that she created. This map is probably the most important resource for anyone interested in understanding the history of Staten Island as a repository for New York City’s toxic waste over the last couple of centuries.

Davis is a graphic artist who has lived in the Staten Island neighborhood of Stapleton since 1990. She moved to New York City from Connecticut in the 1970s, living initially in the south Bronx and participating in the vibrant East Village art scene of the 1980s.

In recent years, Davis has begun exploring the history and political ecology of her home borough. One of the first products of this project was her photography show This is What Time Does: A Year of Walking Richmond Road, which documented the palimpsestic layers of history visible (and invisible) along this road that traverses various neighborhoods on Staten Island’s north shore. Davis spent a great deal of time in the archives of the Staten Island museum, producing a series of photographs that depict the layering of history through their collage of historical and contemporary images.

More recently, Davis began exploring what she described to me as some of the island’s forbidden places: sites of industrial contamination past and present. These excursions led to the creation of her Toxic Trails map of Staten Island. This work is an online, interactive map of the island’s various contaminated sites, from former and current Superfund sites to shipyards, power plants, bus depots, dumps and landfills, gas pipelines and petroleum storage facilities.

In addition to being an intriguing example of digital art, Davis’s map is an amazing resource for environmental justice activists. Struggles for environmental justice often are catalyzed when people become aware of the dangers posed to their own and their community’s health by local environmental toxins. But these toxins almost always come from somewhere else, and they often have a long history of accumulating in the environment.

Staten Island, for example, has long served as a dumping ground for the much of the city’s waste stream. The reasons for this are complex and multiple. Part of this history has to do with deeply inscribed perceptions of marshes such as those that surround much of Staten Island as a form of natural wasteland. Another part has to do with the Mafia control of New York City’s garbage hauling industry. In addition, though, the land and those who occupied it had to be seen as lesser in one way or another in order to legitimate the creation of a massive landfill such as Fresh Kills.

Much of the strength of the environmental justice movement in fact comes from the legitimate outrage felt by communities over precisely such form of race- and class-biased location of toxins. It is no coincidence, then, that I came across Debby Davis’s toxic map at an event organized by the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy, one of Staten Island’s grassroots environmental justice organizations. Her work is an incredibly important resource for such groups, illuminating the past and offering implicit lessons to help build a better, and more just, future.

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