George Trakas at the Water’s Edge: Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek’s notoriety as one of the most polluted waterways in the country belies its peculiar beauty and uncommon potential to provide vistas of New York’s industrial history and the scale of the city’s waste management machine. It’s also a wicked cool place to impress a date with a surprise picnic.

Artist George Trakas saw the potential of this canalized estuary as he navigated the waterways of New York over the past forty-five years. When the City’s Department of Environmental Protection launched a $3 billion upgrade of the wastewater treatment facility in the late 1980s, Trakas was able to seize the opportunity – through the City’s Percent for Art program – to go beyond the brief and to provide public access to the water for treatment facility employees and local residents. And by access, he means access: visitors won’t merely see the water from above, behind a fence. Rather, you can descend staged granite steps to the water’s edge and sit (or dock your boat) on a series of getdowns perforating the bulkhead along the Whale Creek tributary. It’s part amphitheatre and part shore, with horticultural and sculptural references to local history, geology, and geography. But it’s also a model of a successful community engagement process. Trakas participated in meetings with the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee every month for the past ten years, incorporating community feedback and priorities into his design. Instead of using art to conceal environmental hazards with decorative band-aids, Trakas has created a Nature Walk that provides an interpretive frame on its surroundings and invites visitors to share his delight in water, industry and the urban beauty of the overlooked.

Clearly, I’m a fan. Are you? I’m curious to hear people’s notions of how public funds for design and construction should incorporate or accommodate art. Is public access to New York’s waterfronts a citizen’s right or a passing fetish? Does the scale of environmental degradation (the Greenpoint oil spill dwarfed the Exxon Valdez and is the subject of constant litigation) on Newtown Creek render the artistic response to the wastewater treatment facility upgrade seem too-little-too-late? And, from those of you who have visited the Nature Walk, send in any stories (run-ins with the swamp thing? a marriage proposal? extreme urban golf? )

The Nature Walk is just one part of a 53-acre project. The environmental engineering team includes Hazen & Sawyer, Malcolm Pirnie and Greeley and Hansen. Polshek Partnership Architects served as masterplanners and architects, led by James Polshek and Richard Olcott. Phase One of the Nature Walk was begun in 1997, completed and opened to the public in 2007. Phase Two will continue over the water and Phase Three – to be completed in 2016 – will bring the Nature Walk all the way to Kingsland Avenue. Check out a rough plan of Phase One below.

This pamphlet overview by NYC DEP outlines the Nature Walk and its design elements.

Get involved: keep up to date with work of the stewards who advocate for Newtown Creek’s revitalization and environmental remediation.

Newtown Creek was an early case study site for the development of an innovative collaborative mapping project on environmental justice issues. Check out habitatmap.

Keith Rodan has been documenting the site on video for years, and we thank him for the use of his 1998 footage in the video above. Check out his site, filled with lots of other NY-waterfront related gems.

Architecturally, the treatment facility itself is something to behold. And, the Nature Walk wasn’t the only aspect of the plant’s upgrade that employed artistic practice: the lighting accentuates this new landmark in the Brooklyn-Queens skyline, and an indoor/outdoor fountain on the southern side of the plant by Vito Acconci will welcome passersby to the visitor’s center and administrative building.