This week I’m starting a new residency on Governors Island, at the LMCC Arts Center on the island. It is my second time doing a residency there, and I am thrilled to be returning to Governors Island. I will be working with the volunteer plants on the island, making handmade paper and inks with foraged weeds, researching urban farming and foraging, and developing the next pamphlet, which is soon to come.
But most importantly, I want to invite you to walk with me on the island this fall. I will be on the island most weekends this fall, as well as Tuesday afternoons, and I want you to come take a walk with me. This will be an opportunity to have an intimate, one-on-one conversation about a very specific bit of land and its history, and to think about the future of the island and NY harbor. I will be walking with friends, strangers, and pamphlet subscribers, and I am looking forward to what will come about. I plan on making some kind of publications to commemorate the walks, but I mostly look forward to being outside in one of my favorite places.
Come visit me starting this weekend, September 24-25. Email me here to let me know that you are coming and we can make a date.
In front of Queens Borough Hall, all of the highways that ever existed meet in a tangled mass of highway spaghetti. There’s a bench to the eastern side of this mess that you can sit on to watch the traffic go by. This is the beginning of the final leg of our walk. From here on out we get more and more suburban; the streets are lined with single family homes, a lot of them in brick. Queens is a borough of houses, a prime example of what suburbs within city limits can look like. The subway ends about halfway through the borough, not far from here, and past that point you either take the bus or drive a car.
I really love the brick houses, and the occasional alleys, and the different kinds of front yards.
Architect/artist Rafael Herrin-Ferri has an ongoing photography project documenting the wide diversity of homes in Queens; I love this project and the book that was published last year. You can find that here.
Sign spotted above in Jamaica Hills, the northern hilly section of the old colonial town of Jamaica. The Jamaica Hills Community Association, the internet has told me, was started in 1974, an era in which this part of Queens was almost entirely white, and many of its residents had moved out here from neighborhoods that were progressively becoming less white. The passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 meant that developers could no longer explicitly ban black and brown people from new housing. The emphasis on patrol cars here reminds me of the way in which white ethnic enclaves in the city would patrol their borders to keep non-white neighbors out; in the eighties this kind of behavior would lead to several highly publicized lynchings in Queens and Brooklyn.
Over the next several decades this neighborhood would completely change and become home to vibrant Guyanese, Bangladeshi, Haitian, South American, and Chinese communities, the epitome of a middle class Queens neighborhood. The previous generation moved further out to the suburban counties of Nassau and Suffolk or passed away.
Parsons Boulevard was named for Samuel Bowne Parsons Sr., noted nineteenth century horticulturalist who ran a nursery within Kissena Park in Flushing. Part of this road linked together Jamaica and Flushing in the colonial era.
I was a little worried someone would run out of their house and shoot me for taking a picture of this car.
Utopia Parkway, named for the Utopia Land Company, which tried and failed to build a cooperative community for Jewish immigrants to get out of the crowded Lower East Side in Manhattan. Also known as the home of Joseph Cornell.
As you get further out there are fewer barriers to keep pedestrians out of the highways, presumably because there are fewer pedestrians out here. Here the barriers really just consist of some trees. This is close to where the sidewalks disappear completely.
Still a few sidewalks here. Find the cat in this photo.
What I was really excited to explore, and specifically explore by bike, was this, the Vanderbilt Motor Parkway, once the expensive private highway built by William Kissam Vanderbilt II, so that he and his wealthy friends could race their brand spanking new motor cars out to their mansions on the North Shore of Long Island. It opened in 1908 and was the first roadway built just for cars in the US. A section of it still stands and is now a greenway that runs between Cunningham Park and Alley Pond Park here in Eastern Queens.
It’s so much fun to ride! Parts of it travel on overpasses over local streets, parts pass by the backside of residential houses. It’s super quiet and lovely. As more people had access to cars over time, and as Robert Moses starting building public highways open to everyone, this road became obsolete. The neighborhoods this path travels through are unfriendly to pedestrians, and also cyclists, as they are pretty much completely built around cars, so to have this route available is a real joy. And I ended up close to my final destination:
The Queens County Farm, the largest remaining tract of farmland in NYC. It is one of the oldest continuously farmed pieces of land in NY State, and it exists now as a teaching facility, holding events and providing learning opportunities on farming, biodiversity, urban agriculture and local history.
Late seventeenth century Dutch colonists, having stolen this particular bit of land, built this farmhouse in 1772 and worked the land as a family farm for hundreds of years. Eventually the farm was sold to German immigrants who turned it into a “truck farm”, a farm that raised food to be sold in Manhattan.
Today the farm raises chickens, sheep, goats, and apalca in addition to growing vegetables. I have much more to say about this farm and farming in general in the city, so this was my stopping place. The next pamphlet will be all about urban agriculture and more here will come soon.
Walking into Flushing Meadows Park itself, you kind of have to pass through a highway, no matter which direction you come from. The Grand Central runs along the west side of the park, and the Van Wyck runs along the east side. The Long Island Expressway splits the park in half. You can tell this is a park made by Robert Moses.
This park was built on a salt meadow, land that had been inhabited by the Matinecocks before the arrival of the Dutch in the seventeenth century. By the nineteenth century the land had become a scenic waterfront resort for the wealthy, with views onto Flushing Bay and the river that flowed into Queens from the bay. But then industrialization came to Flushing; the wetlands around Flushing River was filled in with landfill by the end of the nineteenth century and turned into an ash dump for New York City’s household refuse and furnace ashes. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the “valley of ashes” in The Great Gatsby.
“This is the valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”
Robert Moses came into the picture in the 1930’s and started remediating the land into the park we have available to us now. He wanted to bring the World’s Fair to Queens, and built the park around this opportunity, relocating the trash heap and constructing the pathways and fields that make up the park. The park hosted the fair twice, in 1939 and in 1964, and is full of the rusty relics left behind.
The mosaics near the subway stop are some of my favorites:
There’s a tribute to one of Queens’s finest:
The Unisphere is probably the best known of the World’s Fair relics. It sorts of looms in the distance for a while.
Until all of a sudden there it is.
The southern half of the park has two man-made freshwater lakes, Meadow Lake and Willow Lake. They are not the most impressive lakes ever, but you can rent a paddle boat and enjoy them if that’s what you’re into. Nearby are wide flat fields that were full of families barbecuing.
A new thing added to the park, at least I think it’s fairly new, is this misting area near the Unisphere. Small jets are embedded in the walkway and spray mist on you as you walk through. Seriously the best thing ever on a hot day, all parks should get one.
But of course the most refreshing thing about a trip to Flushing Meadows is what you do after you leave the park, which is go get a lemon ice from the Lemon Ice King of Corona and eat it in the little plaza across the street.
So good. If you are done with park life, you can follow the Grand Central south on the outside of the park, along the service road, through Corona, then Forest Hills, where you find a lot of parked trucks and the backsides of co-ops.
This part of Forest Hills faces away from the highway, trying to pretend it’s not there. Apartment buildings give way to larger and larger houses, with more fiberglass awnings that you thought possible.
At the south end you find the backside of the Jamaica train yard, the major train depot for the LIRR in Queens. Remember the wetlands of Flushing? They centered around the Flushing River, the source of which now is supposedly a drainage pipe somewhere in this train yard. The River is now more of a creek, covered over in parts, flowing through lots and parkland and under highways until it gets to Flushing Bay.
Once past the train yard you are almost at Kew Gardens and Queens Borough Hall, in front of which is the largest tangle of highways you’ve ever seen. Which is where we left off for the day, to be continued.
Past St. Michaels we walked through East Elmhurst, the neighborhood that somehow is north of regular Elmhurst. East Elmhurst is the home of my least favorite airport:
La Guardia, named for the former mayor Fiorello, who was super into airports. Before NYC had its own airport within the city limits, he flew into Newark Airport and pitched a fit when it came time to leave the plane. “I bought a ticket to New York City, why are we in New Jersey? Take me to NYC!”. I admire the spirit, but dislike his namesake. We walked over another overpass to get here.
East Elmhurst is mostly very low in elevation, as is all the land around the airport, and therefore is at high risk for flooding; it was built on a former marsh that was called Trains Meadow. It’s full of rows of single family homes made of brick or of vinyl siding, with the spectacular awnings I always associate with Queens, and was one of the few neighborhoods where black families were allowed to buy a home. It became known for the musicians, entertainers, and cultural icons who lived there, and made it one of the most stable neighborhoods in NYC. Malcolm X, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie all lived here. While white families poured out of the city, taking advantage of the federal loans available to them, into the suburbs via the Grand Central Parkway, the black homeowners in East Elmhurst stayed put and built a community.
We walked along Ditmars Boulevard for a while, just south of the parkway. There’s a hilly spot called Overlook Park where you can watch the planes take off and land.
Eventually you get to a path that leads to the entrance to the Flushing Bay Promenade:
Which leads you here:
One of my favorite things, a marshy, under-appreciated body of water, this one called Flushing Bay. This bay is of course not as clean as residents would like (support and follow Guardians of Flushing Bay for more info), for the usual reasons: illegal dumping, pollution and runoff from the airport, storm runoff from some of the nearby highways, and of course, raw sewage when it rains, because there are TEN combined sewer outflows that empty into the bay. Combined sewer outflows are places where the pipes that take the rainwater from the streets and the pipes that take sewage from private homes combine, so that when there’s a lot of rain, the combination of the two is more that the sewer system can process, so a good bit of it bypasses the water treatment plant and goes directly into the nearest body of water, out of a pipe called a CSO. In this case, into Flushing Bay.
Horrified? You can look up your sewer shed and download a map of the system. NYC DEP also has an app called Wait… that you can download to remind you to let it mellow and also don’t do your dishes/laundry during a heavy storm:
Back to the walk: we stopped on the promenade for a very delayed lunch of enormous Italian sandwiches and dodged some enthusiastic yellow jackets.
There’s a marina here, built for one of the two World’s Fairs that were held here in the middle of the last century, which is home to some of the dragon boat crews that practice here in Flushing Bay and nearby Flushing Meadows. The annual Dragon Boat Festival is coming up next month, FYI: https://www.hkdbf-ny.org/index.php
Teams have been competing in the man-made lakes in Flushing Meadows park since 1990, alongside traditional Chinese food stalls and performances in one of the largest dragon boat festivals in the US.
There is of course another overpass before you cross into the park, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which we decided to save for the next leg.
The Grand Central Parkway begins at the foot of the Triborough (RFK now, though I can’t remember to call it that) Bridge, overlapping with the BQE for a bit, in Astoria, Queens.
Astoria is quiet and residential and full of low-rise single family homes and brick townhouses. It was named for John Jacob Astor, in order to flatter him enough to convince him to invest in the neighborhood, which he reluctantly did. He never visited, though he could see the village from his summer home in Manhattan. At first it was a sort of a country get-away for the wealthy to relax.
During the late 1800s, there was an increase in factories and industry along the waterfront that brought German immigrants who were furniture and cabinet makers into the neighborhood. The most famous is probably Henry Steinway, the man who founded the Steinway Piano Company in 1853; he also built a sawmill, foundry, and streetcar line. The family created Steinway Village for the workers in their factories.
The approach to the Hell Gate Bridge, which carries passenger and freight trains over the East River, runs through the middle of the neighborhood just north of the GCP, and murals decorate its underpasses. We took our time wandering through Astoria before making our way towards the service road next to the Parkway.
The Grand Central Parkway itself forms a barrier between north and south portions of Astoria.
The GCP’s route mirrors a road called Astoria Boulevard that was obliterated when the highway was constructed, and now the service roads on the north and south sides are called Astoria Boulevard North and Astoria Boulevard South.
On the north side of Astoria Boulevard are some scrap metal shops, then a glorious diner called the Jackson Hole, with the most wonderful preserved sign. We enjoyed the sign, and then crossed over to Astoria Boulevard South, following the highway east towards Jackson Heights.
Along the northern edge of St. Michael’s Cemetery we walked on a narrow not-quite-a-sidewalk next to the access road that gradually disappeared, until we reached an entrance.
St. Michael’s is one of many cemeteries in Queens; there’s more than five million people buried in Queens, more than double the living population of the borough. St. Michael’s is one of the oldest in the city, dating back to 1852, one of a number that were opened after the state passed the Rural Cemetery Act, a law that encouraged the city of New York to bury its dead in areas outside of Manhattan, on undeveloped land.
Rev. Thomas McClure Peters purchased the land to start this cemetery in order to provide a resting place for the poor and working classes in the city, and the names on the plots tell a story about the different waves of immigrants who have arrived in New York City over the past 170 years, from German to Italian and Greek, then Chinese, Korean and Hindu family names.
I’ve been working on the last pamphlet of three in a series on parkways. This past fall I started researching/walking the Grand Central Parkway, a 14.61-mile highway that starts at the Triborough/ RFK Bridge on the western edge of Queens and runs all the way through to the Queens/ Nassau County border. This is the kind of project I needed to break up into smaller parts, since you can’t really walk the entire length of the parkway in one go. I decided to start at the beginning, the bridge that leads into Queens and feeds into the parkway.
There’s a pedestrian bridge from the east side of Manhattan that gives access to Randalls and Wards Islands, two bits of land that used to be separate but are now joined together by landfill.
There’s all kinds of exciting things to see here, marshes and parkland and an urban farm, sports fields, music festivals in the summertime, a waste water treatment plant, and a maximum security psychiatric facility, all of the various things you might find on one of the minor islands of the New York City archipelago.
We tried to walk to the former headquarters of Robert Moses, the urban planner who built the RFK bridge and the Grand Central Parkway, the head of the Triborough Bridge Authority, whose toll plaza gathered the funds that drove development throughout the city.
Walking there proved to be difficult. Which is fitting, really.
Eventually we avoided the highway and got there.
Then from the south end of Wards Island there is a pedestrian access path to the RFK Bridge, which leads into Astoria, Queens.
The pedestrian path is relatively less well known and traveled over than other bridge paths over the East River. It has these expansive views of Astoria, Randall’s Island ball fields, the East River and the nearby Hellgate railway bridge. But there’s no fencing for most of it, just a low four-foot railing, which means anyone prone to vertigo should probably avoid it.
If you enjoy that edge of terror and excitement you get to see something beautiful you wouldn’t see otherwise. Infrastructure nerds will love it.
Towards the end of the path on the Queens side is a suicide prevention emergency phone; four people since 2015 have jumped to their deaths here. There’s a staircase at the end of the path that takes you to the base of the bridge.
In Astoria the bridge feeds into the BQE and the Grand Central Parkway, which overlap for a bit before splitting into two separate highways. We stopped our walk here for the day and planned to start again on the next section the following week.
Paths to the Shore is a solo exhibition that explores the ways that history, infrastructure, and nature interact on the Brooklyn waterfront. This body of work includes a series of waterfront-focused pamphlets, video, and large-scale maps produced using letterpress, relief printing, and handmade paper. The resulting exhibition offers documentation of Brooklyn’s marshland, landfills, industrial pollution, public housing projects, rezoned neighborhoods, public parks, and areas under threat in an era shaped by climate change.
I’ll be giving a talk about the exhibition via zoom on Monday, January 31st at 6pm; info and registration link for that is here.
CBA is open Monday–Thursday from 11am–6pm and Friday & Saturday from 11am–5pm. Admission is free with a suggested donation.
All visitors are required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination upon arrival and wear a mask covering their nose and mouth at all times while on-site.
Cities and nature are a pair of ideas that push and pull against each other, in a relationship that lasts over time. The unplanned parts of nature that thrive in urban environments-think pigeons, squirrels, weeds- are often viewed as nuisances, eyesores, pests, or invasive. Or they become almost invisible to us; we have trained ourselves to just not notice the plants that push up through the cracks in the pavement.
Weeds are defined by their context. Weeds grow where you would prefer other plants to grow, or where no plants are intended to be at all. A weed is a plant out of place, that place being defined by the humans cultivating the land. How and why and where we define a plant’s proper place is part of a narrative we write that draws boundaries between nature and culture, between wildness and domestication, and weeds are the plants that blur these boundaries. People often expect landscapes to be moral, and the narratives we write about plants are how we decide what moral questions plants answer.
The plants we call weeds flourish in the company of humans. They’ve followed us around the earth, growing where we clear the forests, taking advantage of our transportation networks, enjoying the way we have disrupted settled ecosystems. Weeds benefit from disturbed land, empty lots, and neglected buildings, and they often grow back healthier after we cut them down. Weeds are patient, often waiting dormant for years until conditions are right. Weeds in urban areas are hardy enough to survive in harsh environments, and are often a main form of urban nature.
Some of the plants we call weeds in New York City are originally from elsewhere, carried here on purpose by people from elsewhere, or imported as a crop, or a commodity. Some of the plants we call weeds are native here; we sometimes use the word invasive to describe plants that have been here longer than we have. But some of the plants that live here came here accidentally, as a by-product of global trade, as stowaways. Ballast weeds is a term that describes these plants, especially ones that arrived as the waterfront in Brooklyn was industrializing in the nineteenth century. Ballast is one of the main ways humans have reconfigured the earth’s biome, shuffling the earth’s species at will. Ships ballast is extra weight carried below deck to provide stability. These days that is usually weight carried in the form of water; in the nineteenth century it would be whatever was at hand, including soil and rocks taken from one landscape, carried across an ocean to another. Erie Basin, the official terminus for the grain barges traveling through the Erie Canal, opened in 1864 on the southern edge of Red Hook, built by William Beard. Beard built this man-made extension of the harbor on landfill made up of ships ballast. Ships coming from Europe would dump their ballast in the harbor, then fill up with cargo and sail to their destination, literally transplanting one part of the earth to another, over and over again.
A few years ago there was an installation at Parsons School of Design, right across from a class that I was teaching, by the Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves. In the center of the room were small black bags filled with plants, all species classified as urban weeds. They were examples of plants that came to New York Harbor as seeds buried in amongst the ballast of shipping vessels, then dumped along the shoreline. Alves is interested in ballast flora as a living record of colonization, the transatlantic slave trade, and the economic foundations that the port of New York were built on. New Yorkers have been remaking the shoreline for hundreds of years, often by creating real estate where there was only water, through landfill, including ballast material. Ballast weeds are a remnant of that history.
Weeds in New York City offer a wide range of benefits, from helping to absorb excess rainfall, providing cooling in hot weather, to absorbing carbon, removing heavy metals from soil, and producing food and shelter for other species. Some of these benefits are especially important to communities vulnerable to climate change; green spaces can absorb water and slow down floodwaters. Volunteer trees like the Tree of Heaven provide shade in aging industrial places, and can help lower the temperature in the summer.
Invasiveness is a quality lots of urban plants have; people often think that only plants from other places are invasive, and use the words interchangeably. A plant that is invasive is one that spreads prolifically, and can dominate a plot of land. Native plants are understood to be the good kind of plants, and invasive ones, the ones from elsewhere, come in and take over and destroy a landscape. Xenophobia is trendy in gardening groups. In an urban landscape, it’s all about what can survive in the cracks, what can grow in soil that has had chemicals dumped on it, what can take advantage of what is left. Sometimes that means native plants, sometimes that means plants from other places. Sometimes these plants are the only ones that can survive, and by growing there, they are improving the soil to the point that eventually something else can join them.
There’s a block of Franklin Avenue near where I live that contains the remnants of what used to be a huge brewery complex. More recently part of it was used by a spice importer, and the entire block smelled like cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon. Most of the land is covered in weeds, a vast meadow of spontaneous volunteer plants taking up as much space as they can take from the buildings nearby. In the summertime I like to take that route home on my bike and as I coast downhill I can feel the temperature drop, the plants absorbing the heat radiating off concrete. That land was sold to a developer a while back; the spice factory closed and the block no longer smells of spices. But the weeds are still there for the moment and I plan on enjoying their benefits while I can.
The first thing I usually do when researching a pamphlet is go for a walk.
Sometimes I’m not quite sure where to go or why I am there; sometimes I am a little uncomfortable because I don’t know where I am exactly. Sometimes I’m just walking. I think part of the reason I started writing about neighborhoods was I wanted an excuse to explore different places, and spend time walking and biking in places, and being able to justify it as work.
(Is walking work though? Does everything have to be productive?Maybe I’m wrong about that, maybe walking is just walking.)
I like the pace of walking, slower than biking, much slower than in a car or bus or train. Slowing down time to the pace of a human. I like the unfolding of a path at eye level, the way the path changes as you move, the way your experience in a place gets layered on top of the noise in your head, the thoughts you sort through, the sound of your surroundings. I ruminate while walking, I sort out knots in my head while walking. I like that even in places I walk through on an almost daily basis, my perception of the landscape changes each time I walk through it.
Walking in green spaces is something many of us are doing more of this year; it might be the only good thing about our apocalyptic reality. Many people have been finding new routes or times of day when they like to walk, and exploring new parks they haven’t been to before. Nerdy hobbies like birding are more popular where I live this year; people are spending more time paying attention to the details. Birding is about paying attention, usually while staying still, and listening. Walking is about paying attention in motion, slow motion. One leads to another quite naturally.
I walk to think, and to calm my brain, and to see what has changed and what is the same and because it is soothing. I write in my head before I type it out, and walking is part of the process. (So is running. So is biking. Writing is easier in motion).
In this way walking is like reading, like the lapses in time that reading creates, the landscape passing in time and space, the thoughts in your head passing in a parallel way. You can dip in and out back and forth between these two modes, being present in a landscape, being caught up in your thoughts. Time passes without you noticing, until the light begins to fade or the temperature dips and you realize it’s time to go.
I’m working on a new pamphlet that I hope to have mostly wound up by the end of the year; it’s on Canarsie, and the pier and the parks and the single-family mid-century housing and the marshes of Jamaica Bay and all of the shifts that have happened over the last three hundred years. So in doing that, I’ve been walking in Canarsie Park and the nearby pier. That’s where these videos are from. I like to think about those layers when walking in a place, in the back and forth between the present and the past, between the nature and the culture.
Earlier this year I decided that the walks I have been doing for subscribers in person were going to have to be online due to the pandemic. (Are you tired of that phrase due to the pandemic? I am). This spring in New York City, it just didn’t seen right to gather in person, even outdoors. Over the summer it seemed like outdoors was safer than we thought at first, and I think I could have done in-person walks at this point, but the problem that then occurred to me was that the places I wanted to walk in were relatively far from the beaten path, at the end of the subway line, and far from the neighborhoods where most people who would come to the walk live. Which meant taking transit, something that most people were/are nervous about. I didn’t want to ask people to do something they were uncomfortable with to join me on something that’s supposed to make us feel better.
Was that the right choice? At this point I think so, and in any case what I’m doing instead is creating a record of walks, which people can enjoy at a distance, and which can engage way more people in all likelihood than would be willing to come with me out to Canarsie on a November afternoon. More people can see what this place looks like. It was warm this Saturday and a beautiful day. While I was walking in Canarsie many others walked in the neighborhood parks and green spaces. Others walked to do errands and pick up groceries. My walks mirror all the other walks people are taking.
Does recording while walking change how I walk? I think it does, I think I am more present than usual, though I spend too much time paying attention to the camera more that the landscape, thinking about the recording of the landscape instead of losing myself in it. And I walk much, much slower than usual, trying not to bump the camera too much, looking around me for what is visual, what is interesting. It changes my experience of my walk, but it also makes it possible to bring it to others. Other people I pass on a walk notice me more, and register I am filming, sometimes veer away from me, sometimes nod.
And of course this is all about walking alone. What about with others? Remember walking with others? How to do that? More soon.
I am (finally) finishing up a pamphlet mailing, ready to start the last one for the year. Lockdown delayed everything so I’m about a month and a half behind, but I’m trying not to think about that. This one came out nice, and is about this place:
Which I visited a lot this past summer. This place is Coney Island Creek; I hadn’t been there before and this pamphlet was my reason to explore that southwestern end of Brooklyn. My usual route took me down the bike path on Ocean Parkway, straight through the area the city is now calling the Ocean Parkway Cluster, past women in smocks and old men smoking on the park benches that line the oldest bike route in the country. The Ocean Parkway Greenway is very flat, on the outwash plain of southern Brooklyn, running next to a wide speedway of a road, full of people revving their engines and drag racing on a Friday night. This road has endless stop lights that most cyclists blow through once they get a sense of how the traffic works, but on a busy day with lots of cross traffic it can be slow going.
Getting to Gravesend and the entrance to Calvert Vaux Park, the park I visited most, means biking down from Prospect Park and hanging a right onto Avenue T, through a Syrian Orthodox Jewish community with some very nice large single family houses, across McDonald Avenue into Gravesend, past Stillwell Avenue and onto 26th Avenue, through a neighborhood full identical two story brick houses with their white painted wrought iron gates. There’s an Italian ice shop on the corner of Cropsey Avenue that’s nice to stop at on the way home. Follow 26th ave to the end, where there’s a new protected two way bike lane on the service road next to the Belt Parkway; after a left it’s only a block to the entrance to Calvert Vaux.
Calvert Vaux is my favorite of the three parks that line the mouth of Coney Island Creek. It has several sports fields and beautiful waterfront views. All of them are underfunded and neglected; the trash doesn’t get collected regularly enough and the weeds were out of control by August. But I like the sense that you’re out on one of the far corners; I like the weeds taking over the place.
The sky is enormous here and you are far from Manhattan.
There’s a marshy mudflat that is full of shore birds and there’s a lot of good birdwatching to be had. The mouth of the creek is also where several boats have been sunk, and the birds like to use their rusting hulls as perch to look down from for a snack. My usual walk started near the shore opposite the dirt parking lot and went in a circle, parallel to the waterline, out to the end and back up around, facing the Verazzano Bridge in the distance, then back again. You can bushwhack your way through the weeds to the water. People fly drones. Loud barbecues happen on both sides of the shore. It’s a great summertime park.
The park’s named after the park architect Calvert Vaux, who was Frederick Law Omstead’s collaborator on Central and Prospect Parks. He drowned here in Gravesend Bay in 1895. Some say mysteriously? The shoreline at that time was different; most of the park is constructed on landfilled soil and sand excavated for the construction of the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge nearby, so it hasn’t been here for very long, only since the middle of the last century. How much longer will it be here?
It’s strange now to think about this summer, now that it’s dark early. We’re entering a season that people are dreading, between the election and the rising virus tally. I have started carrying my heavy bike gloves with me when I leave the house in case the wind picks up and my hands start to freeze. I remember the feeling of riding back in in twilight, riding fast and enjoying the breeze on my back, and I’m not sure what happened between then and now.
The pamphlet is about this park, and the other two parks, and the creek and where is goes and when it got covered over, and beachfront property and what I think a beach is, and many other things at the same time. I think it turned out quite nice, thank you.
You can get a copy of the new pamphlet here; there’s more to come about Coney Island Creek soon enough. In the meantime, I would like to collect maps from you. Where did you walk this summer? We’ve all been walking outside more than usual this year. What’s your favorite route? What do you like about it? Would you send me a picture and a map? I’ve got an idea. You can send me them at sarah at sarah nicholls dot com. Thank you.
I was going to make three pamphlets, all three having something to do with maps.
These maps would be of the Brooklyn waterfront, present, past and future. I had made some large scale maps last summer, in a residency on Governor’s Island through Works on Water.
I wanted to use the idea of storytelling through mapmaking to talk about the different layers in these maps. I also wanted to continue making these maps, finish the coastline, complete the circle.
I was going to walk along the waterfront with friends, and have events that brought readers to the places I wanted to write about.
I was going to have my act together and send out the spring issue in spring, the summer in summer, etc.
I mean, some good ideas, right? But we all know what happens with well-laid plans. The collapse of society-as-we-knew-it got in the way of getting things out on a schedule, of access to studios, of gathering together in a landscape.
But other things happened as well: people discovered a new love for the post office, of all things. People walked outside, and discovered parks and green spaces near them. People walked and biked and realized that roads could be used for something other than storing private cars and driving.
The city I had been living in was being replaced by a new version and parts of that process have been horrifying and parts are beautiful.
This spring I made my first virtual walk, a video that accompanies the “spring” 2020 informational pamphlet, The Morse Dry Dock Dial, with a map for those who would like to follow along. I realized that a video of a walk could bring more people into the landscapes I was interested in than a live event could, and that the readers who live elsewhere were able to participate in this version of the walk. I got excited.
This fall I am in residence at BRIC, and I started off working on the map of Sunset Park, the neighborhood I walked through in the spring, the neighborhood my mother’s family is from.
These maps are bigger than I usually work, and try to show the past coastline, the future flood zones, the industrially polluted brownfields, the historical markers, the green spaces, the rezoned neighborhoods, the Moses-era highways, and the native pathways that make up the coastline. They are made up of paper, some machine-made, some handmade, from fiber that relates to the coastline, either by history (cotton, imported into Brooklyn warehouses from southern plantations; flax and hemp, grown by colonists) or by ecology (urban plants harvested from the landscape, processed into pulp). Did I mention I was going to learn how to make paper this year? I learned how to make paper this year, in a much more DIY way than originally planned. No studio access, no in-person classes, but I’ve made some paper.
I made another pamphlet. It’s about weeds and people and how both travel around the world together. That’s going to be the basic idea for all the pamphlets this year, in different ways. This first one is about Red Hook.
2. I took some people on a walk in the place the pamphlet was about. We had a perfect day and spotted tons of different species of weeds, and everyone listened patiently as I told them all about landfill and housing and nineteenth century industry. Thank you for coming along!
3. I am learning how to identify the plants that grow between the sidewalk cracks. Right now the weeds here in NYC are BONKERS. My favorite local news source has done multiple stories about spontaneous outcroppings of poison ivy near public thoroughfares. My personal favorite batch of weeds right now is by the Greenway in Red Hook; it’s mostly taken over one of the lanes and gives shelter from the July sun to the assorted cats, pigeons, and people that live there.
4. My plan to spend the summer biking and taking pictures is going swimmingly.
5. I was a resident on Governor’s Island for a month in June in one of the houses in Nolan Park, hosted by the artist collaborative Works on Water and the publishing platform Underwater NY, two organizations that both focus on art based on and with and around water (thanks guys it was great!) Governor’s Island is one of my favorite places to be and see and it was a fabulous time. I worked on maps of the past, present, and possible future Brooklyn coastline. I will maybe make a separate post about them? I think I will continue on in this vein for while, as it stirred up some ideas.
The starting point was to think about a map made in the nineteenth century by Thoreau of the Concord River, and use the map form as a way of mapping historical sites, personal landmarks, and the physical landscape all at once. It grew a bit from there.
My laptop is making my lap sweat so I think I will end this here. Stay cool in whatever way suits you.