The Persistence of Trash: Dead Horse Bay

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“Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.”
-Ray Bradbury

On a humid August Saturday, a pal and I explored Dead Horse Bay in Brooklyn to do a photo shoot we called “Trash”. Dead Horse Bay is a strange place full of New York history, even if this history is something most people would like to forget. The name of this trashy beach is very literal: According to the NY Times: “From the 1850’s until the 1930’s, the carcasses of dead horses and other animals from New York City streets were used to manufacture glue, fertilizer and other products at the site. The chopped-up, boiled bones were later dumped into the water. The squalid bay, then accessible only by boat, was reviled for the putrid fumes that hung overhead.”

You can still find horse bones here, mixed in with vintage bottles, the soles of shoes, toilets, dead shellfish and rusted machinery.

Machinery

The reason being that when horses were replaced with cars, the shift created a new kind of refuse, and the bay became a landfill. So the funny thing about Dead Horse Bay is that while the rest of NYC is becoming a gentrified nostalgia fest where we all bemoan the death of our favorite bar, diner or bodega, Dead Horse Bay is where the detritus of those memories finds a home.
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Film critic Pauline Kael once said, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
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And maybe it’s true.
Just like the broken bottles and bits of metal make this incredibly beautiful tinkly sound as the waves come in and out, some of these vintage bottles are a gorgeous testament to the past, a testament that was never even supposed to be an afterthought.
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But that’s the thing about trash–it really isn’t all that disposable.
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Whether it’s the artificial sweetness of sugar cereal with no nutritional value that transports you back to childhood memories of Saturday morning cartoons or the chorus of some dumb pop song that you still remember 20 years later. Or even naughty photos we thought we’d deleted on our phones.
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Trash keeps lapping up at the shore.

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