Mar 2, 2011

Greenpoint Community Meeting

The Greenpoint Community Meeting is a conversation between community advocates who have spent most of their lives fighting for North Brooklyn, area artists whose work is deeply connected to sense of place and transformation of space but who rarely attend advocacy and political meetings, and professionals in design, architecture and landscape architecture whose work integrally engages and serves communities. The meeting was organized by Stephen Zacks as an initiative of the Institute for Applied Reporting and Urbanism with support from Susannah Drake of Dland Studio, at Greenpoint View, a gallery at 82 Oak Street owned by sculptor Stephen Balamut and run by Sascha Asher, an interior designer specializing in textiles.

Greenpoint View gallery

The discussion started with a salute to the heroes of Greenpoint who have been advocating for issues of public concern since long before I ever heard of the place, and a few words about the desire to introduce innovative thinking that I've reported on at Metropolis and other magazines and to collaborate on a vision for the neighborhood that would help projects achieve multiple purposes and maximize their cumulative effect. 

Newtown Creek Nature Walk

I asked Christine Holowacz, one of the longest-serving and most well-respected community leaders, to begin by talking about her activities and priorities. It was a huge honor to have her there, a resident who emigrated from Poland as a teenager and has worked as a community advocate for more than 30 years. I first met Christine at a meeting of the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee in 2001, where she works as a community representative and helped lead a fantastic renovation of the sewage treatment plant by Polshek Parnership, featuring a waterside nature walk by George Trakas and a sculptural installation by Vito Acconci. She expressed a preference for projects that would improve waterfront access, in particular rebuilding the bulkhead at the mouth of Newtown Creek to create a boathouse next to the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center at the end of Manhattan Avenue.

Bulkhead now and drawing after rebuilding

A central concern for the past several months in Greenpoint has been how to create a process to make the best use of a $7 million environmental-benefits agreement from the Department of Environmental Conservation and a $19.5 million community-benefits settlement won from ExxonMobil as part of its compensation for the massive 17-30 million gallon underground oil spill discovered by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1978. We were lucky to have Phillip Musegaas of Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization for New York's waterways that was the driving force behind the lawsuit against ExxonMobil, in attendance to speak about the process.

Musegaas emphasized that the lawsuit puts no cap on the amount of money the company is required to spend to clean up the oil spill; the environmental-benefits-projects compensation is a separate fund that will be used however the community decides, through a process that is just beginning. The first step is the selection of a consultant to develop a grant-proposal framework to administer the money according to priorities that will be determined in community meetings. The rest of the conversation was recorded and can be listened to here in sections or downloaded.

Musegaas responds to my question about Riverkeeper's priorities, his own personal wishes regarding the use of the ExxonMobil funds, encourages people to get involved with the Newtown Creek Alliance community organization (you can sign up to receive email updates), and talks about the declaration of Newtown Creek as a Superfund site, a separate process that will bring revenue from the federal government for environmental cleanup. Christine Holowacz clarifies the relationship between different aspects of the Newtown Creek. Musegaas expresses a preference for projects that will remediate stormwater overflows into the water and points out that there's an application process open for grants, with a deadline extended to the end of April.

We were also thrilled to have another neighborhood hero, Stephanie Thayer, director of the Open Space Alliance of North Brooklyn and administrator for the Parks Department, in attendance to say a few words about her work and how waterfront parks under development and arts programs she helps facilitate figure into the vision for the future of Greenpoint's ecological infrastructure. She points out that the new city guidelines for high performance park design in the 21st century already is pushing for projects to incorporate features such as stormwater remediation in waterfront projects.

Christine Holowacz (middle) and Laura Hofmann (right)

Laura Hofmann, a stalwart activist in the community who has lived in Greenpoint her whole life and is a member of nearly every neighborhood advocacy group, another true hero, also graced us with her presence and gave her perspective on what kinds of projects she would like to see funded. She points out that the 197a plan led by the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning, passed by the Community Board in the late 90s and approved by the City Planning Commission in 2002, which she was heavily involved in producing, already describes a broader vision for the neighborhood and it's just a matter of actively implementing the guidelines. The only way to really do that and find interconnections between the projects is by going to all of the various meetings. She expressed a preference for parks projects and waterfront access that would have specific environmental benefits and provide additional programming space for the arts.

The Hylozoica (Newtown Creek) Study 5 (detail) 11.15.10 Ethan Pettit

Brooklyn artist and hipster pioneer Ethan Pettit, whose history of cultural activity in the neighborhood goes back to the first groups that began reclaiming postindustrial spaces and producing ad hoc public art in the post-fiscal crisis period, spoke up in defense of a broader role for art in shaping the landscape and questioned how these activities--a key to the revival of the area--would be incorporated into funding for community and environmental projects. This became a great entree into a discussion about the relationship between the arts community and community activists in Greenpoint, and whether there could be a better collaboration outside the normal channels of advocacy meetings already tied into political allegiances and ongoing turf battles. Katie Denny, director of special projects for the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and head of the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition, talked about how these funding priorities would be incorporated into the guidelines during community meetings. A real take-away of this question is the need for artists to be actively involved in these meetings to make sure that programming and support for the arts community gets incorporated into the framing ideas and guidelines.

Artist Phyllis Yampolsky, another neighborhood hero, led the effort to preserve McCarren Park Pool (now on track to reopen in the summer of 2012) when it was going to be demolished in the 1980s. Known as the Joan of Arc of McCarren Park, Yampolsky made a wonderful pitch for reviving the historic scenic beauty of the neighborhood, turning it into a leader in sustainability, and issued a poetic call to "make Greenpoint green."

Susannah Drake, a leader of landscape architecture and ecological urbanism in New York City and key advocate for the role of design in transforming the city's quality of life and sustainability, picked up on the question of coordinating a larger vision for the neighborhood and tying together projects, based on her experience putting together the Sponge Park project in Gowanus.

By appealing to various agencies, constituencies and interest groups, and understanding the ways that projects can tap into multiple existing needs and programs, she put together a project  for which there was no single adequate source of funding. This steadfast work of building consensus and creating alliances between agencies is over-theorized in the field of architecture but sometimes under-put-into-practice.

Alleyway of From the Source gallery during Bring to Light festival

I was also heartened by the presence of Chris Lenard, who works at the furniture company From the Source on Franklin and Oak Streets. From the Source has been holding down the fort manufacturing in the Greenpoint Terminal Market building for more than a decade, and was a big supporter and key component of the Bring to Light art festival I co-produced last fall on the edge of the waterfront. Lenard brought in the perspective of a newcomer to community meetings, frustrated with how long it's taking for Greenpoint to get a piece of the promised stretch of waterfront greenway that appears in all of the planning and zoning maps of the district. That brought lots of knowing laughter.

Drawing of future Bushwick Inlet Park

Stephen Whitehouse from Starr Whitehouse Landscape Architects, former chief of planning for the Parks Department in the 80s and 90s and a designer, with Kiss + Cathcart, of the Bushwick Inlet Park--another park underway in North Brooklyn that's underfunded and hasn't quite reached the Greenpoint side of the area--told a great anecdote about the bizarre reasons why otherwise impossible things sometimes get funded in the city. He recalled how back in the day he took the then Parks Department chief of operations to the site of Transmitter Park--due to be completed next winter--to push for the site to be converted into a waterfront park. The site contained a radio tower for WNYC and the chief liked the idea of having a transmission tower for Parks Department radios, so he allocated the funds. Twenty years later, the technology completely outmoded, it's nearing completion.

Another professional in the field of design who does community-based projects to engage neighborhoods in discussions and activities to think about the ecology of the city and works in the Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia University, Janette Kim put together a sketch of the intersection of various interest groups and how they relate to different kinds of projects as a way of illustrating both how complicated it can be to create consensus around an issue and as a map of different ways it can be achieved.

Installation by Rosa Valado 

Beth Goldowitz, a found-object sculptor and partner in the Greenpoint View gallery, called for a more participatory process that would enable artists to be more involved in the conversation. Whatever consultant is chosen to administer the environmental settlements needs to be particularly adept at creating an inclusive conversation that allows everyone to feel that their voice is being heard. And Rosa Valado, a long-time Greenpoint-based installation artist and organizer of the nonprofit Woven Spaces, which does public art programs in North Brooklyn, took a break from installing her work for an exhibition in Dumbo to attend the meeting. She waited until nearly the end of the discussion to make a beautifully articulated plea for the struggling artists in the neighborhood, the importance of supporting them, and called for us to really start collaborating on a vision for the neighborhood together that would include the arts community.

Finally, we talked about ways of spurring production of open spaces on the waterfront in the absence of market forces and setting the stage for better quality design of the highrises than were built Williamsburg and Long Island City once the market returns. Another neighborhood activist asked how we can create buildings that are more responsive and connected to the community and how to design them so that they attract new residents willing to participate in the existing culture of Greenpoint. We talked about mapping all of the projects planned or underway to get a better picture of how they all fit together into a vision for the future of Greenpoint. These are all projects for the days, weeks, months and years ahead. -STEPHEN ZACKS


  1. Has this happened already? If not when is it happening?

  2. This meeting took place on Feb. 28th. The most straightforward message from the neighborhood advocates at the meeting was, on the one hand, you have to attend all of the regular political and advocacy meetings to have your voice heard, and on the other, pushing your agenda at meetings and through political actions and events does make a difference. In my experience, however, younger people and artists in the neighborhood are not readily acknowledged as legitimate voices in the regular community meetings, while the input of professional designers and architects is largely employed in the service of existing projects and agendas. My thought is that they could better serve the community by coalescing ideas and coordinating projects to serve multiple interests and functions. So I hope to organize more of these types of meetings outside the regular political and community organizational channels, with input and participation from long-time advocates and political leaders, to put forward alternative approaches to achieving consensus and having more voices represented. If you want to be included in future discussions, for now please contact me through the email in my profile.

  3. Excellent presentation here, Stephen. Thank you. The system is complicated, it involves navigating a dozen agencies and funding sources. And then you need to produce and present a design. Now to open the process out to the community, to engage many voices. This puts a whole new strata of activism into the process. I look forward to the Town Hall on the 22nd.