Born and raised in Ridgewood, Widerka, a retired dispatcher for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, has seen the reservoir go through various phases throughout the years, and would like to see the reservoir stay as close to its natural state as possible.
“It’s an oasis in the middle of the city,” said Widerka, 66. “You’re transported from the hum-drum into a different world.”
Widerka is not alone. Community leaders and residents on both sides of the Queens and Brooklyn border are at odds with the Parks Department over proposed renovation at the Ridgewood Reservoir and the attached Highland Park. Both sides are open to making the reservoir more accessible to the public via passive improvements, such as adding walkways, repairing broken lamp posts and fences, and fixing staircases. However, there is disagreement as to what to do with the basins surrounding the natural spring, and how to remedy the run-down ball fields in the park.
The Ridgewood Reservoir consists of three basins enclosed by a perimeter of chain-link fencing. Basin 2 holds the actual reservoir, a self-sustaining natural spring. Basins 1 and 3 are filled with a variety of plants and trees and flowers, giving them a jungle-like appearance.
The reservoir has seen a bit of wear and tear over the years. Fences, stonework, dirt pathways, and even the remnants of an old automobile have long been overtaken by decades of untamed trees and plants. The result is a natural habitat and ecosystem for a variety of plant and animal life, such as fungi, Italian Wall lizards and turtles. According to Steve Fiedler, parks committee chairperson for Community Board 5 of Queens, the reservoir is also an east coast flyby for migrating birds and has over 100 species, 15 of which are on the endangered list.
The educational value is of interest to communities throughout the New York City boroughs. Darryl Towns, Assembly-member for the 54th Assembly District of Brooklyn, is open to the passive improvements that will make the reservoir more accessible to the public. He sees the reservoir as a “nature sanctuary” that can give residents and students a chance to see what New York City was like before it was all asphalt and concrete. He believes that opening the reservoir to the public would be a great opportunity to “understand how ecology or natural ecology can exist within an urban setting.”
In addition to being a nature sanctuary, the reservoir also has a great deal of history attached to it. It is a pre-Civil War construction, and much of the stonework and fences were built by master craftsmen. The Battle of Long Island during the Revolutionary War was fought within a mile of the area. Attached to the reservoir is the Cypress Hills National Cemetery, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. It holds veterans from the American Revolutionary War through the Vietnam War.
Local members of the community, such as Widerka, see this historical value. He thinks the old pump and gate houses should be renovated into educational centers.
“It’s a unique location that can’t be duplicated,” said Widerka. “It’s an opportunity that’s staring us in the face.”
Contributing Reporter Cristina Merrill has worked for the Queens Chronicle and is currently attending Columbia J-School