Landscape Orientation

<i>Silty Loam</i>, 2023. Image courtesy of Sarah Nicholls
Silty Loam, 2023. Image courtesy of Sarah Nicholls

Weeds are a little bit beautiful and a little bit trash. The Brooklyn coastline is a little bit land and a little bit water. A parkway is a little bit nature preserve and a little bit smog-spewing thoroughfare. All of these are subjects of Sarah Nicholls’ handmade pamphlets, which are a little bit pocket guide and a little bit objet d’art. Since 2010, the artist has been hand-setting moveable type,  hand-carving and printing from linoleum blocks, and hand-binding each edition of her pamphlet series Brain Washing from Phone Towers. She mails them out to subscribers and friends. In recent years, the annual sets of three issues have focused on New York City landscapes and the elements that compose and connect them. Nicholls investigates her chosen sites through walks and talks, close observation and photography. The research process bears fruit in an informational missive, its pages unfolding in ways as unusual and idiosyncratic as the city’s landscape itself. Below, Sarah Nicholls recalls an exploration of the Grand Central Parkway and the things you might notice in the city if you only pay attention.

There is a long, skinny sign attached to a rusty beam on the pedestrian path next to the FDR Drive, right before you reach the bridge to Wards Island. At the top, it says “MEET THE FISH OF THE EAST RIVER.” Below this, on a pale blue background, is a line of color illustrations: the American Eel, Blackfish, Bluefish, Gizzard Shad, Needlefish, each labeled with its name in white type. When I encountered the sign, there were no fishermen in sight, nor any explanation of how old this sign is, or how up to date its inventory of East River fish. The illustrations reminded me of picture books I read as a child. I took a photo and continued on my walk.

I found this sign as I was conducting research on the Grand Central Parkway and the neighborhoods that line it. The way that I primarily wanted to research my subject was by walking, because I wanted to know what it was like to experience a highway at the pace of the human body. One thing I wanted to do was to start by walking over the Triborough Bridge, right before the Parkway starts in Queens, because it seemed like it would give me the complete experience. I wanted to start at the very beginning. The pedestrian path starts on Randall’s and Wards Islands in the middle of the East River, and I was on my way to meet my walking companion.

Walking slows down the details. It is a time-based medium, one that unscrolls at the rate that your body moves through space. I think about it as similar to reading, a process where you travel through the landscape of a book. The inner reading voice in your head tells you a story that changes and develops as you turn each page. This can be a slow or quick process, depending on the text and your style of reading, and the process can be repeated with books that you particularly love. When I’m walking, the story of the place I’m trying to learn about changes and develops along the path. Some things I will pay attention to right away, some I may miss until a second or third visit. Different details will call out to me depending on the day and time.

<i>Fresh Creek</i>, 2019
Fresh Creek, 2019

Since about 2017, I’ve been publishing a series of pamphlets that explore landscape, history, and urban nature in New York City and distributing them through the mail to subscribers. The individual elements that make up a landscape come into focus through language and attention. I print the pamphlets from hand carved blocks and handset metal type, two processes that are slow and laborious, and that set up a series of constraints. The constraint is productive; it forces me to only say what I need to say and to cut out everything else. I set each word by hand, letter by letter, individual characters arranged to form words, lines, and paragraphs. Each detail builds on the next. The time that it takes to produce them is palpable in the final product. The images retain the marks made by my hand as I carved away material. The sheets unfold in surprising ways as you interact with them. The assembled blocks of type are physically pressed into the paper, a tactile impression that tells your hands that this is something to pay attention to.

Handset type in Nicholls’ studio
Handset type in Nicholls’ studio

I can hear the type in my head as I set, and the way type sounds in your head is how the authority of print is constructed. I think about the ways that simple words like beach or tree can contain countless variations on that idea, and your idea of what a beach or a tree is isn’t necessarily the same as mine.

<i>Place Without Shadows</i>, 2020
Place Without Shadows, 2020
“The beach at the beginning of the twentieth century in New York was often the beachfront property of the Gilded Age families on the North Shore of Long Island. The word beach for those folks was a place that you own, that you had to yourself, that was fenced off from outsiders. The beach in my mind was built by Robert Moses, and was the opposite of the beachfront carnival at Coney Island, which he hated. He controlled the businesses allowed to sell concessions in his bath houses and landscaped the dunes. Any of the other entertainment options that Coney Island is known for were forbidden. The people he built these beaches for were a public but not the public, as he made sure to build his beaches off a highway system, not a transit system. You didn’t take public transportation to his beaches, and the overpasses on his highways were famously too low for public buses to fit under, so people who lived in the city, or anyone who couldn’t afford to drive, were kept out by default."

Place Without Shadows

My idea of what a bridge can be turned out to be different from my walking companions, as we discovered in the middle of the Triborough Bridge pedestrian path. The view is amazing from here: one side contains two levels of highway traffic, the other gives you a completely unobstructed view of the river. Unlike other East River crossings, theres no real barrier between you and the view — no fencing, just a metal wall about waist high. I thought it was gorgeous and amazing and I was thrilled to be there. My companion, on the other hand, suddenly speeded up and raced to the end of the path. Even though I called out his name, he didn’t turn around until we finally reached Queens. He told me that in the middle of the bridge he had been overcome with vertigo and the thought of falling over the ledge into the river, and needed to get off that horrifying bridge as fast as he could. I promised him I would never make him walk over the Triborough ever again and that the rest of the way would be on solid ground.

The pedestrian walkway along the Triborough Bridge
The pedestrian walkway along the Triborough Bridge

We spent the next several weeks walking through Queens, seeing the different neighborhoods that make up that borough, walking through the in-between bits of land that connect them, the access roads next to the Parkway, the overpasses crossing back and forth over the highway north and south, the neglected spaces next to off-ramps and exits.

At this point I should probably talk about how to walk alongside a highway. For much of its route, the parkway is separate and inaccessible to pedestrians. Sometimes there are pedestrian walkways that cross it high above the road. Sometimes there are overpasses at street level, and the highway runs below; you can peer down over a barrier to see the traffic rushing by below in the sunken roadway. Sometimes there’s simply fencing and trees separating the highway from the rest of the neighborhood. In each case, the highway forms a barrier between two parts of a neighborhood that can be hard to bridge. Sometimes you see news reports of a pedestrian trying to cross right through the parkway, and in those cases the pedestrian has been hit and probably killed by a car. The land right around the highway is often neglected, strewn with trash, abandoned cars, parked trucks. The neighborhood that forms around a highway usually develops in a way that turns its back to the road, as if it’s trying to pretend it isn’t there. For most of my walks along the parkway, we were actually walking adjacent to it, and were only getting brief glimpses of what it looks like.

Where the Sidewalk Ends
<i>Where the Sidewalk Ends</i>, 2022
Where the Sidewalk Ends, 2022

One thing I have learned is that you have to pay attention to the connections: the way one part of the city connects to the next, the way different species connect underground or in the air, the way different parts of a landscape all fit together to form an ecosystem, the way different eras of the city are all built on top of each other. For sixteen years I lived in Flatbush, and in order to get to most places I wanted to get to on my bike I had to climb a hill, and I wondered why. Coming home I would coast down that hill and feel the way the temperature dropped when I passed the remnants of a former brewery, now full of overgrown weeds. Researching the natural history of my home was an intellectual project and an embodied one, a way of explaining the way it feels to travel through a landscape.

<i>Elm Street</i>, 2021
Elm Street, 2021

My favorite kinds of landscapes to walk through are marshlands, places that are part land and part water and where the boundary where they meet shifts. Queens includes several of my favorite highly polluted, underappreciated bodies of water, and during our walk along the Grand Central Parkway we rested and had a sandwich next to one, Flushing Bay, where Dragon Boat teams practice and you can watch planes take off and land at LaGuardia Airport. South of Flushing Bay is where all the roads cross and converge and form a tangled mass of highways in central Queens. There’s a bench near Queens Borough Hall where you can sit and watch the different on-ramps and off-ramps converge and then move apart. It’s the most man-made landscape I can think of. But between these highways are the remnants of a river that used to flow into the Bay, Flushing Creek, and something about that fact is hard to shake, that underneath all of this concrete theres water that remembers where it needs to move towards.

The Grand Central Parkway and an on-ramp
The Grand Central Parkway and an on-ramp

Humans are part of nature and everything we build is part of nature. Avoiding that fact makes it harder to build something that will last. I recently had a student try to talk me into moving to Maine, her home state, since I was so interested in “nature.” I told her that I was specifically interested in the ways that westerners imagine nature as something separate from cities, as if it only exists over there and not right here. I don’t believe that a form of nature kept separate and pristine from humans actually exists. I think we’ve been shaping it all along, and we should make better choices in that process. If spiders and wasps and beavers are all a part of nature, and their webs and nests and dams are part of nature, then so are our highways and apartment buildings and bridges.

<i>Make the Earth Say Beans</i>, 2019
Make the Earth Say Beans, 2019

Once I finish making a pamphlet, I send it through the mail to a changing list of subscribers, friends, and strangers. They arrive in an envelope, hand addressed to each reader, with the hope that the surprise and excitement of receiving something special in the mail will inspire each person who received one to sit down and pay attention to the stories I want to tell. Most of these people do not live in New York City, and I wonder how they receive these publications. Sometimes I meet subscribers and they tell me that when they come to New York they want to visit the places I describe. It pleases me, thinking of visitors wandering around a marsh near the airport. But what I really want them to do is to take a walk around their home, to try and observe the small details in their neighborhood. I want them to ask themselves, who are these plants and animals that live here? Who are my neighbors and where did they come from? What is in the process of disappearing and how will I remember it?

<i>Golden City</I>, 2020
Golden City, 2020
All images courtesy of Sarah Nicholls

Sarah Nicholls is a visual artist and writer whose work combines language, image, visual narrative, and time. She publishes an ongoing series of letterpress pamphlets on climate change, urban history, and urban ecology, and organizes a range of walks and programs around the series. She teaches letterpress and book arts at Pratt Institute, Parsons School of Design, the University of the Arts, and the Center for Book Arts.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.