Artists Address Brooklyn’s Environmental Blight

Newtown Creek’s dirty history and restoration inspires art.

When it comes to finding creative solutions to environmental problems, who better than an artist to highlight persistent issues in unique and engaging ways? From plotting routes for rowboat water taxis to creating installations along the shoreline, artists each have unique approaches to how they respond to the rhythm and geography of polluted waterways. Over the past 20 years, North Brooklyn has seen wave after wave of artists devote their creative problem solving strategies to enact change, bringing urban blight to light for city residents in engaging ways.

One specific New York City urban zone continuing to battle pollution is Newtown Creek: a body of water spanning eastward from the East River and separating Queens from Brooklyn. Not only was the creek the site of New York City’s – and the United States’ – worst oil spill ever, it is a designated federal EPA Superfund site that lies adjacent to many exhibition venues, not to mention artists’ studios and homes. Where creative people live, interesting solutions will arise as artists seek out ways to improve living conditions for residents — human and otherwise — living by the creek. 

Yet when artists discuss innovative approaches to protesting environmental blight, what impact can truly be exerted as a result of ongoing performances, sculptures, installations – or even operas? We chatted with NYC-based artists to learn more about how a creek that contains so much debris can serve as a source of ongoing inspiration, and ever offer opportunities for citizens to make a difference in environmental policy.

Our journey through the creek’s artistic side begins with two boat-based initiatives: first, the Frieze Art Fair-featured artistic intervention, Tide and Current Taxi. This project by renowned New York-based artist Marie Lorenz rests on a moving rowboat. The artist commands the craft, which follows tidal changes over the course of the day to ferry visitors to rarely seen parts of the city’s riverbanks. Second is the notable and now-archived artistic project known as the Newtown Creek Armada: an initiative by artists Laura Chipley, Nathan Kensinger and Sarah Nelson Wright. The armada featured nine boats that spotlighted areas of the creek rarely visited by people through three remote video “portholes” offering viewers a look at hidden aspects of Newtown Creek. In revealing these remote areas, the artists sought to form new connections between the visceral impact the creek has on New York City residents. Both projects take as their focus the natural rhythm of New York’s waterways as they arise within the ecosystem supported by Newtown Creek. While Lorenz has focused on personal journeys across New York’s waterways with individuals, calculating the best time for rowboat journeys according to tidal charts and plotting these over the years from 2005 to present on the project’s website, the Newtown Creek Armada has emphasized the pageantry and participatory sensibility of a boat parade in their artistic approach to life along the creek. 

When it comes to a waterway that crosses an area of such diverse demographics, artistic approaches to creating a more equitable future can also offer the chance to make art that includes a wide range of voices. Artist Ray Jordan Achan creates these very opportunities in his artistic interventions along the public-facing Newtown Creek Nature Walk. Achan shares his perspective as a second-generation New Yorker to tell the stories of Guyanese immigrants who would play along the creek’s shoreline. “[These immigrants] who used the waterfront to play Cricket [formed] important community bonds with each other and the water,” reflects the artist. He showcases images that depict the creek’s place of importance along the walk, spotlighting how the creek was a site for generations of New Yorkers of diverse backgrounds to gather for recreation. “As I move forward with my site-specific work,” Achan notes, “I am interested in bringing more communities of color to the creek and building awareness around the urgency to remediate the Creek as quickly as possible.” As New York residents from these communities see themselves increasingly reflected in artistic projects around the creek, the hope is that  residents of all backgrounds will feel empowered to join in activist measures for climate justice and to demand firmer commitment from administrative bodies to create a safer Newtown Creek. 

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Sites of environmental destruction have over time been reclaimed by the city through a range of important design and civic engagement projects, and there’s no reason this same effect can’t improve the quality of life along Newtown Creek. The Meatpacking district on Manhattan’s West side was placed along the Hudson River for ease of shipping and transport, and historically it was served by an elevated railway that has since been transformed into The High Line, a world class tourist site. Another grassroots project focused on cleaning New York’s waterways has transformed the health of the city’s aquatic ecosystems. The Billion Oyster Project is an ongoing initiative to reintroduce oysters to the city’s waterways, and it has already made an impact in water quality in and around New York City. 

Hopes are high that artistic approaches to social and environmental justice can also evoke real improvement for Newtown Creek. Artist Marie Lorenz and her collaborators certainly believe so, and they have taken a novel approach to revitalizing the creek this summer. The team plans to literally singing its praises in Newtown Odyssey: an opera set to premier in September 2023. Lorenz and fellow collaborators, musician Kurt Rohde and writer Dana Spiotta, have created a moving experience in more ways than one, as the audiences will move past a floating barge of performers while they traverse the creek in boats. The opera itself follows five main characters whose words offer insights into environmental studies done along the creek and interviews with activists. The end result? A novel approach to contemporary opera, filled with material that appeals to arts lovers and environmental justice seekers alike. 

This opera is a culmination of long-standing work that Lorenz and Rohde have been doing along Newtown Creek, a site that Lorenz observes is, “a microcosm of everything that’s wrong with urban development and waterfront development.” One aspect of why the opera is being set along the creek is the waterway’s secretive and remote nature. “Newtown Creek has very few visual access points… [as there are] so many utilities and…private properties that makes it inaccessible for people,” states Lorenz. Many artists share this awareness of how hidden the creek remains from view, and a visceral sense of how strongly this impacts its relative lack of environmental improvements. One sign of the changing nature of the creek’s visibility is the work that the Newtown Creek Alliance and North Brooklyn Community Boathouse – both acknowledged by Lorenz as positive influences – have done in bringing community voices to impact policy around how the creek is revitalized. Citizen advocacy groups have done much to amplify local residents’ opinions on creekbed improvement, including emphasizing the need to participate in ongoing public comment and hearings being held around the Army Corps’ Coastal Storm Risk Management plan. This plan will directly impacts development strategies along Newtown Creek in the near future. These groups also owe a debt of gratitude to the artists who continue to serve as an integral force in spreading the word around the healthier futures possible for New York City’s waterways. Artist Ray Jordan Achan keenly recognizes the potential power of this impact. “Artistic interventions do the important task of bringing people to the Creek, exposing them to the beauty…[and] educating them on the history of environmental violence…as people make contact with the creek, artistic interventions can utilize the natural environment to tell stories, acknowledge the past and imagine new futures.” Artists may offer potential new perspectives on the creek’s future, but it’s up to all of us to follow the siren call toward a better and brighter future for all of us living along Newtown Creek.

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Audra Lambert
Audra Lambert
Audra Lambert is a writer who has covered arts and cultural policy for over eight years. She has written for, Huffpost Arts & Culture, The Culture Trip, Untapped New York, Art Nerd New York, and many other publications covering cultural topics across the US. She is based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
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