One early-March afternoon in 2007, Rob Jett climbed through a hole in a chain-link fence and thought he had entered a lost world.
He and two fellow bird-watchers rappelled into a dense swamp forest of birch and sweetgum, mosses and lichens. They were standing in ankle-deep water in the west basin of the 160-year-old Ridgewood Reservoir, the last vestige of Brooklyn’s old waterworks, smack on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Inside this wilderness, the sounds of the city faded away above the reservoir’s stone levees.
“We were like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” Jett told the Voice.
Jett, 61, had never seen a place like it, even though he had grown up only two miles away and for years had been writing about bird-watching throughout the city.
The reservoir was once important to the growth of Brooklyn as it became one of the largest cities in the country. Steam engines pumped the water into the three reservoir basins and then gravity carried it downhill as it traveled under city streets, into people’s homes.
But the reservoir was drained and abandoned in 1989, and within a single generation nature had reclaimed the basins and transformed them into a swamp-forest mix unlike any in the city.
Jett and his companions — married couple Steve Nanz and Heidi Steiner — crawled underneath vines straddling the path between the west and central basins.
They saw signs of paintball matches and tire tracks from dirt bikes and ATVs. All the lampposts were smashed. They daydreamed about the possibilities for the fifty-acre site: boardwalks through two of the basins and a nature center inside one of the two derelict redbrick gatehouses.
Their ideas conjured something similar to the High Line project, which was then being designed: a piece of obsolete urban infrastructure integrated with nature.
Until Wednesday, June 21, the city had never held the same view as the bird-watchers. Originally, the parks department, which acquired the reservoir from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2004, presented $50 million plans that would have bulldozed it for athletic fields. The reservoir remains standing because of a small group of naturalists, preservationists, and community activists who rallied to defend it as a nature preserve and historic jewel.