Oct 1, 2010

Nuit Blanche NY: Illuminating the Greenpoint Waterfront

You might have noticed that this year a huge new park has opened in Brooklyn, designed by the renowned landscape architect Michael Van Valkenberg. I was kind of laughing at its design a few years ago in a commentary about how waterfront parks are all soporific cow-grazing fields envisioned for mothers to push strollers and lonely people to lean over railings as if getting ready to jump, how there's rarely any drinking or eating imagined or incorporated, and nothing I would normally consider to be fun. The Brooklyn Bridge Park turned out beautiful visually. Its tiny cafe has more than a dozen tables. A lot of people lying on the grass. The park is great to look at.

Meanwhile, in Greenpoint, I've been waiting since 1998 for a little glimmer of legal public access to the East River in the neighborhood. Currently the entire Greenpoint stretch of the East River waterfront consists of private property, largely owned by Orthodox and Hasidic property owners, and street ends landscaped with fences and concrete blocks. Our amazing North Brooklyn parks administrator Stephanie Thayer was able to temporarily open the Transmitter Park site at the end of Greenpoint Avenue until the construction documents and money were collected, and it's now under construction for a 2012 opening.

On the Newtown Creek, the first phase of George Trakas's incredible waterfront walkway next to the sewage treatment plant was completed a couple years ago through the good graces of the Percent for Art program, and there's also a kind of parking lot park at the end of Manhattan Avenue. There's another East River park planned in the cove between Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Bushwick Inlet Park, which the city is still assembling parcels for. On the Williamsburg side a soccer field has been built and a community center is nearing construction. Otherwise, the bulk of the parks and waterfront walkways planned for the area are dependent on new construction that may or may not happen as a result of the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning plan approved in 2005.

So a couple of months ago, when Anna Muessig, a curator friend from the Bruce High Quality Foundation University class I participated in last year, sent me a note about a public art event called Bring to Light being planned on Oak Street, within spitting distance from the waterfront and right in front of the Greenpoint Terminal Market, I was curious. It turned out that a group of young public space advocates called DoTank: Brooklyn who met through their work with Project for Public Spaces had been talking to businesses on the block about closing down the street for a Nuit Blanche, an all-night festival of light art and projection, in the manner of similar festivals in Europe and Canada. They had already sent out a call for proposals and received almost 50 submissions. It seemed like a great chance to talk about the waterfront issues in the neighborhood, try to get access to spaces on the river, and program them in a way that imagined a future public use.

I started sending emails to anyone who might be able to help with the process of getting a street activity permit from the city to close down the block and install art. Ken Farmer, one of the DoTank: Brooklyn organizers who led the permitting application process, was told that it was impossible. The local police precinct said it was too late, there were no more permits being issued. The permit office rejected our application, saying we could not close multiple blocks, and we needed to have the participation of a nonprofit organization and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Stephanie Thayer immediately said the Open Space Alliance for North Brooklyn would be our nonprofit sponsor. When we needed a tax-exempt ID, she sent them that. She suggested I call Cathy Peake, the constituent services liaison for 50th district State Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who immediately sent a letter to the Department of Cultural Affairs supporting our efforts. Anna Muessig called Rami Metal, the constituent services liaison to North Brooklyn for our city councilman, Steve Levin, who immediately mobilized dozens of people to call the Department of Community Affairs to ask them to give us a permit. The street permit office quickly relented, on the condition we stop calling. They said they would give us the permit for one block, that we had to choose one of three we applied for, that the event had to end by 9 PM, and there could be no amplified sound.

The process dragged on for another month, we got the support of more local politicians, advocacy groups, and neighborhood businesses. We chose Noble Street as the block to close when the residents of Oak Street expressed doubts about the event. We got in touch with Philip Tuan, one of the owners of From the Source, an Indonesia reclaimed-wood furniture company that has been in the Greenpoint Terminal Market since long before the fire in 2005, and told him about the event. They loved the idea of being a part of it. Penny Emmet shepherded the organizing process with us and Kristin Riccio took over its realization.

Another friend from the BHQFU class, artist and film producer Ethan Vogt and I started discussions with the site manager and agents of Seret Studios, the film production facility that rents out sites in the Greenpoint Terminal Market. We wanted the event to flow inevitably through the warehouse down the alleyway and culminate in a spectacular view of midtown from across the water, with an afterparty in the Seret Studios space. Local residents and community groups deeply mistrust the building owners and told us we should have nothing to do with them, but I believed that if we approached their agents openly and had discussions in good faith about the project, they would see how much it was contributing to the value of the property and the community. They wanted a minimum of $4,000, wanted us to apply for a temporary place of assembly permit from the Department of Buildings, and said we couldn't have alcohol. We tried to raise the money. My architect friend Philip Hesslein came with us to tour the site and advise us on its compliance with the fire code and buildings department regulations. He had serious doubts. There was a tornado.

I called some of the amazing artists I've met or written about over the years, Jenny Holzer, Leo Villareal, George Trakas, Krzysztof Wodiczko, to see if one of their patrons would sponsor an installation in the spectacular alleyway. It was far too late, less than three weeks before the event. We scaled back, tried to persuade them to accept $1,000 to allow us to use just the alleyway and the courtyard, project light on their buildings and get access to the water. They didn't accept. They wanted to prohibit any of their tenants from participating. Bob Fireman, the owner of From the Source, called the landlord and he said as long as they didn't touch any of the property they weren't leasing it was fine. Eventually, the owner reluctantly signed a letter allowing us to project light onto the buildings, which was required for the street activity permit.

This Saturday, October 2nd, it's happening, and in almost as big a way as I would have hoped. Sadly, for me, there will be no public event on the waterfront. But three square blocks of waterfront adjacent buildings, streets, a park, and a ten story water tower will be lit up with projections, beams of light, installations, and various art projects by nearly 80 artists. Our street activity permit for Noble Street is until 11:30 PM, and our park permit is until 1 AM. An event hosted by From the Source with lounging areas, an absinthe bar, Ahasi beer, Original Sin Hard Cider, and food vendors recommended by Joann Kim of the Greenpoint Food Market will provide rare public access to the guts of the 19th century Greenpoint Terminal Market, with its skywalks and courtyards, from 7 to 11:30 PM. Fowler Arts Collective will be having an opening party for its gallery and artist studios on the second floor. Le Gamin will host a $40 preview fundraiser from 6 to 8 in their new restaurant across the street from the festival. Greenpoint Open Studios will be having events and openings in industrial buildings and apartment houses all over the neighborhood all weekend.

My band the Depressionaires will be playing in the American Playground, which will be installed with projections and textiles and stand-alone light art pieces. Please come, and support the scene if you can. We think it will be a beautiful event. - STEPHEN ZACKS