The Light from Dead Horse Bay

I confess: I scavenge at Dead Horse Bay. I didn’t used to think it would be something to confess, until I learned that the “trash” there is protected.

From the 1850s until the last residents were evicted in 1936, Barren Island was a community built on trash, home to dozens of factories and rendering plants. At its height during WWI, it took in all of the household trash of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and the daily remains of all five borough’s animal dead. This refuse was sorted and rendered and converted to major profits as glycerin, fertilizer and glue by a community of immigrants–mostly Polish, Italian and Irish, with a small population of blacks–who lived on the island and worked its factories. Tasks were sorted according to social rank, with black families getting the worst job, converting daily tons of dead fish to fertilizer. Second to that was the job of rag-pickers, who used their bare hands to feel for and sort out valuable fabric from the garbage; comparatively less horrifying were the jobs of sorting bone and scavenging metal and paper. The smell from the island was so intense that at one point a group on mainland Brooklyn calling itself the Anti-Barren Island League held considerable sway in city politics, continually proposing legislation to close down the island or somehow curb the stench. Residents of Barren Island were completely separated from mainstream life in the city, and their daily reality was as distinct as if it were another country: at the turn of the last century, the island had no electricity, no post office, no doctors or nurses, four saloons, five factories boiling vats of garbage day and night, and a one-room schoolhouse. School let out early so children could help their parents sort garbage.

In 1926, the waters around Barren Island were filled in with garbage, sand and coal to make what’s now Floyd Bennett Field. In 1936, Robert Moses ordered evacuation of residents to build Marine Park Bridge, the island’s cottages were bulldozed and everyone was scattered. In the 1950s, a cap on one of the landfills burst, littering Dead Horse Bay with eras of waste, which continually washes ashore here. Source.

This rusted light fixture is one of those objects. It was in someone’s house, something they passed by or touched every day, before they were evicted by Robert Moses. This belonged to someone. Before I met Max, I thought this was just regular old trash from an old dump, and I partook in the scavenger’s paradise of Dead Horse Bay, or, as the hipsters call it, Glass Beach. But now I know that Dead Horse Bay is a heritage site, a heritage site without enough funding to police its artifacts, and every year, hundreds and hundreds of people like me take the artifacts away. Max taught me about stewardship, about taking care of objects and their stories for future generations. I want to donate this object, which needs someone’s stewardship, to the Object Ethnography Project in thanks for this knowledge and in hope that future generations have access to these artifacts.

— hand delivered in New York City

Exchange Story

I’ve never heard of Dead Horse Bay or Barren Island until today. When I first saw this rusted light fixture I thought it looked pretty strange and ugly. After reading the story I realize this is part of history with a story.

For the last year and half I have been working on a project trading trash (unwanted objects) with people for their unwanted objects. I started with my own things that I took to Bulgaria to collaborate on this project with my friend who works in the Roma community as a researcher on waste management. The description of Barren Island reminds me of the community where my friend does her research, a neighborhood where many people make a living from trash picking. I will be taking this light fixture back to Bulgaria in April and inviting people to trade for it.

[This person donated the Top of a Bulgarian taxi to complete her exchange project]



  1. […] researching the role of narration in the value, exchange, and circulation of objects.  She took a Light from Dead Horse Bay and left behind the Top of a Bulgarian Taxi, which was in turn taken by someone else. The Object […]

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