An exploration of what it means to live in, build on, and design for a city of pervasive toxicity.
Celebrate ten years of Urban Omnibus and support ten more years of fresh, independent perspectives on citymaking with a donation today!
At the end of Plank Road in Maspeth, in the shadow of a Department of Sanitation garage and just past a squat row of concrete traffic barriers, a small garden had begun to take shape. Led by volunteers from the Newtown Creek Alliance, it was a valiant effort to convert this neglected street end, which abuts one of New York City’s most contaminated waterways, into a more welcoming environment. About 30 feet away, a small shed — a castaway’s cabin built out of scrap plywood by artist sTo Len, and adorned with a small sign that read “Newtown Creek Center for Visual Research” — seemed to take up the challenge; so did the series of public walks and performances on and around the Creek hosted by the roving, public art curatorial practice Chance Ecologies as part of a project for the Queens Museum. Two miles further along the Creek on the opposite bank in Brooklyn, the Newtown Creek Nature Walk — a new, permanent installation designed by the artist George Trakas — operated somewhere between public park and field guide. At various places along the its narrow path, stairs appeared to lead visitors down into the water itself, even though swimming in the creek, at this point, would not be possible.
It is not so common for artists to be commissioned to design brick and mortar spaces at the scale of the Nature Walk. However, in recent years, many artists have been engaged in the construction of ephemeral alterations and interventions confronting the complex relationships between public space, human and non-human inhabitants, and histories of marginal or impacted locations. Often playing out over a season, a weekend, or an evening, such temporary public art interventions are speculative and future-facing. They push our imaginations to question the effective bounds of what can happen here; for what and by whom such sites might be used in the future; and who should have a say in their destiny.
In the winter of 2016, I led a series of early morning boat tours on Newtown Creek in a handmade punt. Launching from the Plank Road site at seven in the morning, two days a week, through a historically mild winter, I invited artists, social scientists, and members of the public to encounter the Creek as a waterway hanging in the balance between remediation and neglect. As an artist working on environmental themes, I was particularly interested in delving into the role of art in shaping public opinion and influencing policy around climate change and toxic urban waterways. Hunkered low in a plywood craft — just above the toxic water line, and within close enough proximity to sense ourselves in some danger should the boat tip — we were to reflect on the aesthetics of that place and its overlapping sensory experiences. Artists’ depictions are often used to sound the alarm for why such sites should be preserved or rescued. Pushing up against a kind of “disaster porn,” I wanted to see how art and culture function in these marginal places, and to ask why artists in particular have been so drawn to depicting them.
Several years later, to conclude an experimental artist residency program at Freshkills Park, I invited four artists dealing with toxic sites to a shared meditation on how beauty, abstraction, and responses to toxicity figure in their work. The conversation began on a blustery Sunday morning in July as Marie Lorenz, sTo Len, and I set out on an exploration of the former landfill and future park’s waterways in one of Lorenz’s handbuilt boats, gliding along the Arthur Kill and out into New York Harbor. I’ve collected and edited excerpts from this and subsequent, separate conversations below. Marie Lorenz and her collaborator, composer Kurt Rohde, who are working with writer Dana Spiotta to create an opera for the Newtown Creek, reflect on what it means to make a total artwork for a toxic place. Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves discusses her ongoing, hybridized visual and literary work The Florxal Review and the relationship of language to empathy. sTo Len, who was a participant in the Field R/D research residency at Freshkills — and is just beginning his year-long tenure as the Artist-in-Residence at the City’s Department of Sanitation — discusses the appeal of abstraction in working at toxic sites which are too large or too complex for pictorial or figurative representation alone.
Against the background of planetary systems collapse, as we strive to escape a paradigm of extraction and exploitation, aesthetics can bring the public onboard with the necessary work ahead. The philosopher Kate Soper, among others, has argued for pleasure and beauty as a means to extricate ourselves from an otherwise hideous situation. A spirit of adventure and creative passion may help us realign with hope, against despair-inducing narratives of disaster and fear. More directly and specifically, artists and cultural workers in New York City are increasingly aligning themselves with public action campaigns or working directly with (and within) community groups like the Newtown Creek Alliance or the Guardians of Flushing Bay. Their projects provide platforms for the public to experience sites in transition, even when such sites may be too toxic for a broad public to experience directly. – Dylan Gauthier
Why do you think so many artists are drawn to making work about Newtown Creek in particular?
Newtown Creek has very few visual access points, even though a couple of bridges go over it. There are so many utilities and so much private property that makes it inaccessible for people; even those that live a few blocks away from the creek don’t know the exact path of the waterway. When you’re in a boat, you can see parts of the city that are literally invisible from land. That’s true for a lot of New York’s waterways, but the Newtown Creek is also actually navigable in a tiny boat. There are some big barges that move in and out of it, but it’s really easy to be in there. There’s not a whole lot of current; it’s protected from the wind by the buildings that come right up alongside it. And it’s just a completely inside-out version of what we think of as the metropolis.
Newtown Creek also represents this microcosm of everything that’s wrong with urban development and waterfront development. It’s a Superfund site. It has horrendous problems related to historic pollution, but then it also has horrendous problems with current, day-to-day pollution, especially with the combined sewer overflows. It contains all of this stuff that is wrong with us. And within this couple-of-miles-long section, since it’s really easy to get to, there are more and more canoe clubs, docks, and other things that invite people to actually be in that space. Through the Newtown Creek Alliance and the North Brooklyn Community Boathouse, having people there has made real policy changes.
So, why an opera?
Doesn’t it seem like a natural thing?
It was three years ago that we started talking about it.
I was visiting the city, and we went on this walk along the creek. I’m from New York, and even I really didn’t even know about it. You talk about the things that are invisible, that you can only see from the creek, but I think it goes both ways; almost nobody I know knows exactly where it is. They don’t really know what it looks like. There’s no sense of place for them.
We went on this walk around it — it must have been over one of the bridges. There was just something about the way it looked from that perspective on that bridge. I looked at it and said, “This is something. We should make an opera about this space.” I don’t know what came over me at that moment; I just thought that there was something so different about it from any other place in a metropolitan area. What I really took notice of on that walk with Marie was that it was already in the midst of change. But at the same time, it looks like it’s been that way for a very long time. It’s both in motion and static.
I just thought, “This seems like the type of place where a story can be told with music.” I’ve done some operas in the past, but I’ve never done anything quite like this, where, first of all, it’s outside and it’s not about a narrative that is brought into the concert space. The concert space is the narrative. I’ve really gravitated towards objects and places where there’s a feeling of decay and also change — so decay is not the only type of change, but there’s some other type of change happening. Either things are falling apart or they’re moving into a new type of becoming.
How does the idea of opera encapsulate the various forms that you’re working with: visual, sonic, the landscape itself?
There are certain types of musical forces and forms that are more or less understood to be inside of this thing we call “the opera.” But I think the single most important thing about opera is that it involves a human voice. It’s in some way being sung, and there’s some type of narrative, no matter how abstract the voice is. The voice is the only way to tell the story, as opposed to reading, speaking, or acting the story. There’s been a lot of interesting investigations into what opera can do and the places where it can operate — the space of opera. So something like this is unusual, but it’s not as unusual as it would have been maybe ten years ago.
And I’m thinking in terms of just the practicalities, as we learned from a proof of concept piece we did about a couple of weeks ago on the Hudson River. Doing the simplest thing on the water is a huge undertaking, and we’re thinking about this being a multi-site, non-narrative opera where performers are on barges or on the shore.
Are there precedents in your mind for this kind of site-specific opera? Are there touchstones in the background as inspiration?
We asked ourselves that question early on: What’s like it? What else is out there? We looked at the recent production of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, an opera that was focused on traffic in LA — a multi-site unfolding of a narrative taken from a particular piece of text. With Hopscotch, The Industry (the company which produced the opera) took this existing text, set it to music and worked it into the landscape. But in Newtown Odyssey, the text is written for a conceit, which is a boat trip along the Newtown Creek. It’s an absolute site, and even the idea that there are participants getting in boats and seeing something is folded into the text of the piece.
There was also the piece by Jeff Stark called The Dreary Coast, a musical performance where people were brought into the Gowanus Canal, with movable stages and participants singing on the water. And then, there’s Tide and Current Taxi, my long-standing project bringing people to various New York City waterways in a rowboat. That whole project is just about being in that space with people and seeing what unfolds.
I don’t think this opera could exist without your practice. It just doesn’t seem we would have been able to get to this point were that not already in place.
Even though it’s going to involve more people, and even though we’re doing something much more complicated, there’s something calming to me about the idea that the audience is in a boat. Maybe that sounds crazy. When we’re doing a performance where the audience is on land, while we are in the boats, there’s kind of this feeling that I need to be showing them something. But if they’re in the boat, that’s all that really needs to happen. It can be so subtle. It can last an hour and a half and barely anything needs to happen because just being in this space is so profound. Even though there are so many more wheels in motion with the Newtown Creek and what we want to do in 2023, I prefer knowing that I’m not the center of attention, that the creek is the main performer.
Thinking more about the Newtown Creek itself, there are these histories of horse glue factories and horrible toxins that are literally still decomposing there. And then there’s all of the sewage runoff; it’s basically a three-mile-long open sewer. On top of the historic monumental oil spill. Do you think that there is potential for a site like Newtown Creek to be remediated?
I would have said “no” six months ago, but then the Gowanus Canal started to be dredged. I remember when dredging the Gowanus seemed impossible. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it was the power of the developers that suddenly made it possible. I think Newtown Creek will move along the same way that the Gowanus Canal has moved along. I think that investment in real estate will happen somewhere on that schedule, and then will speed up actions that look like remediation. There will be negative parts of that and positive parts of that. But I think that because of the activities of the Newtown Creek Alliance and the North Brooklyn Community Boathouse, people are more likely to have a say. Will it be a wonderful boardwalk with birds chirping and like clean water that you can jump into? Probably not.
There’s no need to idealize an endpoint. That’s probably not very helpful. You know, the fact that it takes developers who have such deep pockets and potential for an extraordinary amount of profit only just proves that it’s not impossible, because basically, if you’re willing, it can be imagined to be remediated.
Can you talk a little about the experience of “beauty” on the creek? What is beautiful about this open sewer? Where exactly does beauty happen in relation to this place or to your work there? Does the opera allow for beauty, or is the experience of viewing the opera, with the performers “aboard moveable and floating stages, and the audience passing by in boats,” as your description proposes, itself beautiful?
I think the opera is going to be beautiful. But, the quality of that beauty is perhaps something that we’re still developing. The more connected I am to the actual space and the more exposure I have to it, the more I get my own articulable understanding of why this is beautiful to me. Yes, I think really disgusting, horrible things can be really beautiful. There is something arresting about being on the creek. Partially, it’s because you are on water that you can tell — without anyone telling you — that there’s something wrong with the water. And yet, it’s serene, it has its own type of calmness, and it’s alive. There are all sorts of contradictions side by side. Isn’t that beautiful? There’s a bird and the bird is carrying a condom in its mouth? It’s sort of confusing, but comforting. And there is something about leaving that space which stays with me, leaving that place and feeling like I can’t stop thinking about it.
I’m so enchanted with it that sometimes it’s hard for me to describe. We went there with singer Charlotte Mundy and there was a bloated rat down on the rocks. I forget that sometimes that’s part of it, too, and I’m like, “Here we are. Isn’t this awesome?” while unpacking my equipment. “Oh, and actually, don’t go over there because there’s a bloated rat on the rocks.” That’s gross and dangerous, and not where people want to set their equipment down. But another thing about that kind of space and its beauty is folded into what Kurt was saying about reflection and presence and serenity. Along with the quality of being by this calm waterfront, there’s something about the junkiness and the disrepair in it that makes me feel like we have kind of a right to be there. If I walk into a cathedral in Rome, I can be there for a certain amount of time; I have access to it because it’s public. But I’m not Catholic and I’m not praying. So is this really my place? I can admire the beauty of it, but I’m also sort of on the clock. There’s a certain amount of time that I have to absorb that beauty. But at the Newtown Creek, at Plank Road, I can stand there for as long as I want, or as long as I can stand it. I can be enveloped by this thing that is just open. It’s like a cathedral. You can appreciate the profound work of mankind, and also the horror of the environmental impact, but also just the beauty of the sunset, all folded in, and it really is yours. It really is.
Since we started this conversation around this planned boat trip to Freshkills, I’m going to begin there. I know you grew up in Staten Island.
Right, in St. George.
Did you know about, or did you ever think about Freshkills? Was it present in your early life?
It definitely was. The mall was across the street. I thought that was so wild. It was baffling to me that both of those elements of a city — the old and the new, the reviled and the desired — would be right next door to each other so that you couldn’t go to the mall without being intensely aware of it. You couldn’t even say it was subconscious. It smelled really bad. You had to consciously put it out of your mind. Why would they build a mall across the street from the landfill? I guess that was the best place for the mall. Who knows? But it’s just as disorienting to think of the mall next to the park as it is to think of the mall next to the landfill. Now, I am glad that they’re putting a park there, because in the future, that will be better for the mental health of people who live on Staten Island. But this transitional period is weird, and what it is fixing was weird from the beginning.
It’s definitely a weird, weird place! And the timeline is really wild for the future park. It’s still wide open in terms of what will be built there, how public it will be, how it will be funded, and how much will be preserved for nature and non-human interactions, like the birds who have come to make their homes in the grasslands there. It’s already moved so far away from the master plan and into some new emergent space. Then there’s the 9/11 memorial site there, and the conflict around that space, which is effectively a cemetery.
But it’s also really interesting to me that parks were so often built on cemeteries in the past. I’m thinking specifically of the history of Central Park. I remember reading at some point in my 20s that Central Park was made because so many buildings were going up in the city, and they realized that if they didn’t preserve this one place for nature, all of the residents of the city would go crazy. And then, 10 or 15 years after that, to learn that no, that actually was somebody’s oasis. There were people thriving there. Black people thriving in New York City, on this continent — despite this continent — and determined to be undesirable life forms, weeds.
That kind of terminology — or terming a group of people as undesirable or unworthy of consideration or care — is just so horrifying.
Or the way weeds may be called “invasive.” But the term “invasive species” is not sitting well with more and more people every day.
I was also thinking about what it means to clean something up, and what it means to be tracking toxicity. I don’t think that I’m pure of mind and vision, that I’m the arbiter of what gets to be cleaned or not cleaned. I’m from the same society. I was born in a police state. I was born in the merchant capital of the police state. I was born in the cultural capital of the police state, and I was also born at the start of this hyper-capitalist moment. Being born in New York City, in 1980, to parents who were first-generation Black Caribbean immigrants — who were both at the time moving away from their working-class roots and towards middle class affluence — I feel profoundly able to speak to the toxicity of this place. I’m not interested in cleaning anything or purifying anything because I’m pure and I want things to be pure around me. I am scared of how much narcissism I see in care, and how pervasive that is through all levels of society: from the home, to school, to romantic relationships, to professional relationships, to making new families. The double consciousness of being an American and a Black American feels parallel to what we all are beset with in the 21st century, which is knowing that we are being constantly lied to and yet also needing to process information all day long.
Tell me about the genesis of The Florxal Review.
Florxal Review is an editorial platform which is also an attempt to see the world — and move through the world — less from a human-centered point of view, and more from a plant-prioritizing point of view. In some distinct ways, this has emerged from reckoning with how clear I was about the hard-stop unacceptableness of state violence from the police. This feeling started back in 2014 and 2015, when I was having conversations where I was really shocked at how much people needed to debate what should or should not be happening. Actually, I related to it at some level, because I didn’t quite realize the degree of danger that we were living alongside — that, in particular, I was living alongside — which was really clarified to an acute degree with the murder of Sandra Bland. I do everything I can now to make sure that I don’t really talk to the police, even if I need something. I’m really fastidious with avoiding small infractions out in the world. Now that I know more about the pervasiveness of their violence, I also have a really fearful contempt for that aspect of the organization. I imagine that it would be really hard for me to speak to them the way they want to be spoken to. That’s my sense of what happened with Sandra Bland, that she was just being herself. She was like, “This is fucking stupid.” And it was. But you know, they can’t hear that. That was a huge wake up call for me, because growing up, the subtext was that if you are a good kid, you’re not going to have problems with law enforcement, and being a good kid meant being in school. I felt protected by my college degree, my class consciousness. But that very identity meant that I definitely had a sense of my entanglement with state violence when she was killed.
In your work, you are also exposing the intentional lack of empathy given toward certain living things, whether they’re humans or plants or animals — beings that are cut out of that equation of what merits care. It’s deeply moving and compelling. How did you arrive here?
There’s a huge resistance to wondering about or investigating pain felt by plant life because our Judeo-Christian society in the West is not set up to accommodate concern for materials that we view as a resource. At the time of Sandra Bland’s killing, I couldn’t actually bear to have these conversations, I was feeling that I would happily lose these friends who are wasting their time and my time on Facebook. Still, this lingering feeling was actually just about how much trouble we’re in because, as a society, we really can’t tell who is human. We don’t have clarity about that. And I realized that this same society, which is unclear about the humanness of Black people, is also certain that plant life is not at the same level of importance as human life. Some really distinct language that came to the fore for me was the way that some vegans, and particularly young vegans, will say things like, “I don’t eat anything that has parents” or “I don’t eat anything that has a face,” which is a problematic kind of empathy. It’s a narcissistic empathy. Are you 100 percent certain that the broccoli and the kale and the chickpeas don’t feel pain? What do we know? What don’t we know? What are we willing to research?
When I was in undergrad at Trinity College, a professor named Allison Findlay was teaching in the religion department, and she had just finished a book about meditation and plant consciousness. I realized that the same resistance to thinking about the needs and autonomy of the floral material that we rely on to live is present in dismissing the needs and autonomy of humans that are seen as a resource for other humans. I can’t have a conversation about “is this or isn’t this a police state,” but I can drill down and dig into the political implications of how we view plant life. And the way that I’m inclined to go about it is through language.
The structure of the language in The Florxal Review is formal, and the setup, the naming structures, almost sound Victorian, like it’s resurfacing from some earlier era. What is “the floral,” and what’s being reviewed?
I knew that this plant-centered research is probably going to take a literary criticism mode of editorial expression, and the kind of veil of that world for me is the Paris Review. I’ve never actually read anything in the Paris Review. But I’ve seen it referenced a lot. So out of respect for the longevity, intensity, and scariness of something like the Paris Review, I made that sort of underlay for the tracing paper of what I was beginning to shape. I’m interested in breaking those systems. It’s more interesting to me to break something really old, established, and permanent than to create a new thing.
What does the “x” signify? There’s a silent “x” that sits in the middle, that breaks that word up.
The “x” is there to make space for our spirit: the human spirit alongside the plant spirit. The “x” is silent because I do mean for the floral-ness to still be the overarching significant entity, even when we’re involved. I figured out the language for the show at Artists Space, the x in florxal is silent when spoken. It also was inspired by conversations that were happening around me in terms of gender fluidity and how to represent that verbally.
I really want to ask you about the role of beauty in this work, in the poems themselves, but more generally or generically in what we think of as floral beauty. Is art, even about horrible things, supposed to be beautiful? Beauty is a problematic term here, but does this tension factor into aspects of the Florxal Review project?
Beauty is important to garner attention. There are problematic ways through which that is manifested, and there are really useful ways. I’m trying to speak to at least two kinds of beauty at once. I’m not the kind of contemporary intellectual who is anti-beauty. I’m really interested in its power. I don’t even avoid it: when I write things, I’m also designing them, graphically, always. Beauty is a powerful tool that we want in the right hands, and it’s definitely often in very messy hands. But I just want to go on record saying that I am not the sort of critical thinker who believes that beauty is to be avoided in order to be intellectual. Really, I’m on team beauty.
sTo Len, AWAYISAPLACE, commissioned for Freshkills Field R/D, Freshkills Park, 2021.
Can we talk about the genesis of the work that you made for Freshkills Park, AWAYISAPLACE (2021)? The piece is a kind of unofficial virtual tour, and a meditation on the park’s past, present, and future that combines narrative media and different forms of storytelling, including 360° video and drone footage. How was this work shaped by your experience in the Field R/D residency program?
When the opportunity came up, I was so excited to just be able to go there because it seemed unattainable. One couldn’t just go there. It seemed like such a gift to be able to set foot and walk around. From the start I was drawn to what wasn’t there, the monumental aspect of New York’s garbage and all the history buried in there. It’s still hard to wrap my head around it. I was faced with this question of: What am I going to do about it? What kind of art am I going to make? It’s kind of intimidating, actually.
Is it the scale?
Yeah, the scale of it. I remember thinking that perhaps remediation is the best artwork one could do, really. I had been thinking that I would love to do some sort of interactive walking tour; not one that I’m leading, but where the participant is leading themselves. Then I realized that, in the physical realm, there’s not going to be that many people walking through there, at least not anytime soon. It seemed that the best way to get other people to go on some kind of journey would be to do it virtually.
I got into the idea that someone, anywhere, could potentially walk around the park as a virtual space. And then once they are in that world, I wanted to put in some sort of narrative. You’re there and you sort of see the reality, the 3-D scan, which is basically what it looked like when I was there; but then these embedded links take you into my head or maybe someone else’s. I was thinking about making Freshkills a living being, in a way. No one wants to think about landfills necessarily. The park is nicer to think about. But then, is there a way to think about all of those things in a way where you feel like you’re related to it? There’s a familial relationship as well as this site that we’re all responsible for.
This is similar to what the researcher Max Liboiron is speaking to when they say that “plastic is kin.” This trash is a part of us, almost like an estranged family relationship. But I also love this idea of extending to the site this status of something like personhood. Freshkills has something in its complexity that seems almost like it is of us. I was curious about your own voice in the piece. Is that you? Is it kind of like an invented character? Is it “all of us?”
It’s a little bit of an invented character, in the sense that I hadn’t necessarily had a history with the site, but the character is also speaking as New York City, perhaps — as if New York City was one entity. I think it was somewhere in between me and all of us, like a collective voice of sorrow, and of a kind of wonderment.
Along with that, the wonderment, I’ve been really moved by your capturing beauty in that site, and I’m thinking of some of the images you shared of the Freshkills leachate plant in particular. Leachate is “garbage water,” and there’s obviously so much leachate that Freshkills has its own water treatment plant to process it all so it can be safely discharged. There’s something powerful in that wonderment and in the joy of finding beauty around these kinds of horrible facts of society. How does this factor into your approach?
It’s funny, I was on a small tour of the plant with the New York City Department of Sanitation, and I definitely stopped for a while to admire the beauty of what the water had been doing to the cement and to the landscape. It’s a wilderness, but it’s also completely controlled and engineered. At the plant, there is just a constant waterfall of leachate, which never stops. It’s rainwater and run-off, filtered through the landfill like coffee, through all our trash that’s buried and that’s not really decomposing at this point.
Can you talk about the way you use abstraction in your work and where that kind of visual language of abstraction comes into something like environmental concern for you?
I’m always conscious of trying not to make disaster porn. I never want to exploit a situation or a place that’s heavily polluted. But as artists, we want to communicate things and we want people to not be scared away. So I always think about how to seduce the audience to get their nose up into something without knowing necessarily what it is immediately. If you just show people a bunch of trash, usually people are just not there. They don’t want to look at that. There is a shock value, but I don’t know if that’s really shocking anymore. People are very aware of waste issues. So how do you still talk about it? And so I gravitated towards making abstract things. I think that’s just what I like to look at anyways: aesthetically pleasing things taken out of context that are super zoomed-in on little micro-moments that people might miss.
People have a relationship to natural forms, inherently, and if they can understand where that is and what they’re looking at, you can begin to create some kind of dialogue. It can be a communication tool. I didn’t always used to think this, but nowadays I’m always thinking: How can I make beautiful things from the least likely places?
I wonder if you can talk a bit about the sonic elements in your work, specifically. Does sound open up another dimension to our understanding of place?
Sound is such a huge communicator. I did field recordings at Freshkills, and then sampled those recordings to make beats and layer different sounds together. I remember during my work at the wastewater treatment facility Alexandria, VA, that people working there were like, “You want to record this room?” It was all this clanking and it sounded so musical, like an industrial band. I really like picking out things that other people maybe wouldn’t think about, finding the beauty in those sounds. Freshkills was so peaceful and the sonics there were a really cool addition to what you’re seeing.
sTo Len, Field Notes: Flushing Creek Walk 1, 2021.
More recently, you’ve been taking trips to, and making prints around, the Flushing Creek, and organized a site-specific performance event there. What is it that brought you in contact with that site, and what are you doing out there?
I love these kinds of spots. I’ve lived here for 21 years and still there’s so much I don’t know, or places I’ve never really hung out at and explored. I live in Queens, and during the pandemic, I just started hanging out in Queens way more. One day I followed the water from Flushing Meadows Park where they have these lakes, Meadow Lake and Willow Lake, which basically connect to Flushing Creek. I love the neighborhood of Flushing, and I always go to Chinatown there, so I started trying to get to the water. It’s a similar situation to Newtown Creek; there’s actually not that many spots for the public to access. I always take that as a challenge. There have got to be some secret places: like there’s this horrible waterfront esplanade that was built behind Skyview Mall. It’s not that great of a park. I was looking for other ways to get down there and then I started finding a few, but not many.
I started hanging out down there and then eventually meeting other folks, like Cody Herrmann, who grew up in Flushing. She’s been a major steward and someone who’s working on art in relation to the creek. We started hanging out down there and I met the Guardians of Flushing Bay, who were super active in that zone and take a lot of people boating on the creek. This is also an area that is going to be highly developed, on the Flushing side. There was a redevelopment plan that got the green light during COVID. But on the other side of the creek, it’s still, as far as I know, pretty much a free space at this point. There’s a 40-year-old forest there that is being knocked down. It’s a pretty amazing little forest, and there are all these prayer flags inside the forest that someone has put up. The more I hang out there, the more I just really like the energy of that spot. There’s a little bit of trespassing involved, but I think it’s all in good fun.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.
An exploration of what it means to live in, build on, and design for a city of pervasive toxicity.