Jamaica Bay is an 18,000-acre wetland estuary, sometimes described as a tidal lagoon, surrounded by Rockaway Peninsula to the South, Brooklyn to the northwest, and Queens to the northeast. Until about 100 years ago it was also known as Grassy Bay.
One of New York City's most extraordinary natural resources, Jamaica Bay remains an undeveloped marshland near the heart of New York City.
Comprising an area almost equal to that of Manhattan, the shallow, brackish bay consists of numerous islands, a labyrinth of waterways, meadowlands, and two freshwater ponds. Some of the islands and channels, like Canarsie Pol, have been altered by man over the years.
The bay is very similar to, though separated by the neck of the Rockaway Peninsula, from Long Island's Great South Bay. Prior to European settlement, Jamaica Bay was the province of the Canarsie Indians who lived all along its northern circumference, Though their villages reached inland as far as Bushwick, Canarsie and Winnipeague (now Bergen Beach) were their two largest towns. A major landmark for the Native Americans of Paumanok was an immense pyramid-shaped pile of shells which stood in the area of today's Canarsie Pier.
The Canarsie used the rich bay as a source of game, fish, and shellfish, which were their greatest food sources, and their major commodities for trade. Circa 1614, they sold the bay and its shorelines to the Dutch. By the time of the British takeover in 1664, the Canarsie people had vanished as an identifiable ethnic group.
Pollution has been, and remains, a problem, since the area is both a wildlife refuge and a recreation area. Despite Jamaica Bay's overall undeveloped condition, the area all around the bay is heavily developed, with airports and residential areas. New York City's oldest airport, Floyd Bennett Field, opened in 1930, was converted to military use in the 1940s, and was closed in 1972. Rockaway Naval Air Station on the Rockaway Peninsula, had a similar history.
John F. Kennedy International Airport, on the north shore of the bay, was opened in 1948 as New York International Airport. It became known as Idlewild (after the flowers that had grown in the area's marshy soil) in the 1950s, and was renamed in memory of President Kennedy in 1963. One of the busiest airports in the United States, planes overfly Jamaica Bay many scores of times daily.
Conditions around the bay and in the bay were such that the bay began to die in the 1950s. Concerned that the death of the bay would have devastating consequences to the ecosystem, the U.S. Government established Gateway National Recreation Area in 1972. Its Jamaica Bay Unit comprises almost all of the Jamaica Bay shoreline. The old Floyd Bennett Field property comprises another Unit, as does the Rockaway Peninsula. Since the establishment of Gateway, the region's natural environment has made a comeback, though issues remain.