Photoessay: A barge graveyard and a yellow submarine hide within Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood
To get there you take the F to the end of the line — the Coney Island stop. Then walk a few blocks of commercial buildings in the 90 degree sun. Then walk past the Six Diamonds baseball fields and past one more big block, choked with weeds and stinking of sewerage to get into the park.
This is the Calvert Vaux Park and you can follow the Calvert Vaux Park Greenway all the way around this modest promontory, though you may have to scramble down some thin, overgrown paths occasionally to get to the water. There you’ll find a pretty polluted shoreline, littered not just with horseshoe crab shells, but also with reams of soggy unidentifiable paper, as well as, well, anything else you can imagine: Broken dolls, beer cans, milk cartons, potato chip packets, coconut shells, a random bagel, and, yes, hypodermic needles.
The park signage appears in English and Russian. It describes this little ecosystem where the Coney Island Creek runs into a small bay before emptying into the sea.
It explains that 80% of New York City’s original marsh land has been engulfed by development and that this area represents a project to restore the salt marshes. The random horseshoe crab shells you’ll find represent a struggling species (Limulus polyphemus), which seek to spawn on the now protected beaches here. The eggs of those same crabs serve as food for local and migrating birds. So although this area may still seem glutted with pollution and detritus, it’s actually on the mend.
Upon reaching the shore, I find three teen boys in yarmulkes skipping rocks across the water, but my eye is drawn to the two older men fishing with a net.
I follow them down the shoreline until they throw their net out again.
They’ve caught scores of tiny fish, which they confirm are useless for eating. They’re collecting them in a bucket anyway.
I asked if they were using them for bait and they say, no. Only later does it occur to me I should have asked what they were using them for anyway.
I leave them to their work, though, and make my way to a cluster young men sharing a joint where the rocks and weeds and the steep grade suddenly make following the narrow shoreline any further almost impossible. They tell me they been coming here for years and they used to ride dirt bikes and have barbecues and swim in the area. Though the area’s since been designated a protected habitat, its earlier life still survives in part: Make your way down any path, no matter how overgrown, and you’re likely to encounter a recently used fire pit. This is New York, after all. There are no unclaimed spaces.
One of these guys refers to the area as a “graveyard for barges,” which is as suitable a description as any. I leave them behind to follow the shoreline and get a closer look at these rusty corpses.
You can also spy the famous Coney Island Yellow Submarine, which actually appears on Google Maps as a local attraction. Apparently, some other boats are scattered through this graveyard, too, as well as the barge structures you’ll see littered throughout.
Though there are exotic stories about where the sub came from (no, it’s not a Civil War-era ironclad), the truth is nonetheless intriguing: The Quester I, as it’s named, was a Brooklyn Navy Yard welder’s creation. Jerry Bianco first launched the Quester into the Coney Island Creek in 1970 and it’s original purpose was to salvage the SS Andrew Doria, the Italian cruise liner, famously sank off Nantucket Island. “I painted it yellow,” he said, “because the yellow zinc chromate paint was the cheapest I could find.” “The name Yellow Submarine really caught on but it had nothing to do with the Beatles.”
Alas, after some initial success in raising local ship wrecks, the Quester itself sank in 1981 after a storm drove it to its current location. As you can see, however, the newly constructed Quester was quite an impressive little submersible.
In it’s current location, it still serves as a curious attraction, stranded between the overgrown park and Coney Island’s rambling high rises.
Further west along the shoreline lies the rusted hulk of a ship’s boiler. Beyond that you see what looks like a more traditional white sand beach from where more people are fishing, sunbathing and swimming.
This looks like the beach the locals head to when the hordes come to Coney Island’s beaches, not even a mile away on foot.
Honestly, I had no idea what this thing was when I first encountered it, huge, heavy and hulking near the shoreline.
But, as always, social media rewards: I asked friends on Twitter and Facebook what this thing is and quickly got the same answer that it’s a ship’s boiler.
Continuing on, I find a string of fisherman. There are fisherman and families picnicking all along the greenway, even though it looks practically deserted when you first arrive.
Even deep within this greenspace, you can hear the air horn repeating incessantly from the nearby baseball game and in the distance, your typical NYC sirens coursing through Coney Island itself. But in between you can hear birds chirping and tree leaves rustling in the hot wind.
From some vantage points, it’s easy to forget you’re still in New York City’s most populous borough.
You need only turn a corner, however, to see the new Freedom Tower looming in the distance, as a reminder that you’re still in the city.
From there, you can trudge back through the weeds and the ball parks and heat towards more familiar spaces.