'Saving Jamaica Bay': Film Review

SAVING JAMAICA BAY still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Daniel Hendrick
An eye-opening eco-doc.

Everyday New Yorkers push for public works with city-changing potential.

New Yorkers (understandably) love to boast about Central Park and its Brooklyn cousin, Prospect Park. But few know anything about the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, an urban oasis more than six times larger than both those green spaces combined. Exploring the history of this (literally) dumped-upon place and the increasingly urgent efforts to preserve it, David Sigal's Saving Jamaica Bay appeals on several fronts; though its theatrical potential doesn't extend much beyond regional bookings (Susan Sarandon's presence as narrator helps a bit), it has significant value in educational outlets and on TV.

Garbage Bay, some have called it: The vast Jamaica Bay has been the site of at least four landfills, polluting industrial sites no one else wanted, and secret Mob burials. One part of it was even used as a dumping ground for the city's dead horses. But its history also includes a stint as a waterfront vacation destination, and for generations, little Broad Channel Island has been home to a hardy stock of New Yorkers who, while officially living in Queens, boast the kind of outdoorsy lifestyles few others in the city can claim.

Sigal spends enjoyable time with three of them. For decades, Don Riepe has been part of efforts to clean up the habitat he says contains more species of wildlife than the Adirondack and Catskill mountains combined. He leads tours, takes nature photos (we see plenty of beautiful wildlife shots) and designs trails meant to introduce city folk into the place's unspoiled corners.

But when he needs "pit bulls" to deal with threats to the area, Riepe calls a father/son pair of career firemen, Dan Mundy Sr. and Jr. The Mundys' story proves to be an inspiring episode of grassroots activism: The self-taught environmentalists have, among other things, forced a recalcitrant Bloomberg administration into taking clean-up action here by threatening a lawsuit.

Sigal was on hand when Superstorm Sandy devastated this region, and in the aftermath, the Mundys' concern over maintaining weather-dampening marshlands was suddenly acknowledged to be a much more universal concern. The film introduces scientists and politicians looking for ways to reverse a century of neglect, maybe even to improve on the original. Assuming, that is, that nearby JFK airport doesn't just pave the whole bay over for new landing strips.

Venue: Queens World Film Fest
Production company: Grounded Truth Productions
Director: David Sigal
Screenwriter-producer: Daniel Hendrick
Editor: Trevor Laurence
Composer: Jonathan Sheffer

Not rated, 76 minutes