Wednesday, September 3, 2008

“Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass.” (Inartful Clues to New York City Government?)

“Bad for glass!”
“Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass.”

It was a subtly dropped clue to the mystery at the beginning of “Chinatown.” (Robert Towne/Roman Polanksi, 1974) The exchange was between the Mulwray's gardener speaking in heavy Japanese accent, and the Jake Gittes detective character played by Jack Nicholson.

Later in the film the phrase is translated and amplified: “Salt water is not good for grass!”

Clued-in or Clueless?

Salt is certainly not good for a lot of growing plants. It’s why we don’t water crops with saltwater. When Rome destroyed Carthage at the end of the Punic Wars the Romans are supposed to have sowed the ground with salt so that Carthage would never be able to recover by growing crops again. (This may never have happened. It would have been expensive: Salt was used as money at the time. The word “salary” comes from salt because Roman soldiers were once paid with it.)

It turns out that the four giant salt-waterfalls that have been referred to as the brainchild of Danish artist Olafur Eliasson are “bad for the grass,” trees and other plants that are around them. “The New York City Waterfalls” which were initially intended to be in place for three months from mid-July to mid-October are, among other effects, stressing and perhaps killing trees on Brooklyn Heights Promenade and those by the River Café under the Brooklyn Bridge. A swath of trees and vegetation on the Promenade has lost leaves and may be dying. The Brooklyn Heights Association has called for the art installation to be shut down early. (The falls have been running since June 26th since the inaugural start date was moved up from mid-July.) The ill effects of the installation started showing up just weeks after the Waterfalls were turned on. The most recent news is that the Waterfalls will be turned off half of the time starting next week(Victory! Taps tightened on tree-killing ‘Waterfalls’ By Gersh Kuntzman, August 31, 2008).


I clearly remember another time city trees were severely stressed by salt-shock. It was the spring of 1996 after “the snowiest winter on record.” Every month from November through April there was at least one storm that delivered nine inches or more of snow. Then there was the spring that started to come and, if you were noticing, went away. I remember this because I was noticing and because, based on what I was noticing, I was instrumental in causing an article to appear in the New York Times: City Asks Tree Lovers To Fill Their Buckets, by Thomas J. Lueck, Published: June 8, 1996. (A picture from the Times article is at Trees New York.). The article in the Times was followed up three days later by an editorial in the New York Times calling for action: S O S for the City's Trees, Published: June 11, 1996. Eagerly I had awaited the spring that year. I saw the city’s trees bud and then I noticed that all over the city the buds had shriveled, leaving the trees barren and spring unheralded. What was needed for the trees to recover was for the excessive side-walk de-icing salt that had been piled onto the trees over the winter to be flushed out with large amounts of water.

I had to point the problem out to people. You had to look up. And then you had to see what wasn’t there. Noticing what isn’t there is a difficult talent for most people to master. There is a tendency to see what is there to be seen and a tendency not to see what is missing.

I contacted the Times reporter who wrote the story. I contacted Trees New York. I brought in a friend, neighbor, fellow greenery-lover and tree- preservationist who lived in my building to be the focal point of the story. I was in the government and acting only in my purely personal capacity as a citizen so I didn’t want to be in the story. I wanted to stay behind the scenes. My friend, Geoffrey Keller, an actor who uses the stage name Geoffrey Wade, was a good focus for the story. Among other things, he had earned a tree-pruning licence through a program of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, something that I had not.

I put everyone in touch with everyone else and the article appeared, followed by the New York Times editorial. I don’t know if you have noticed that the New York Times tends to do a sort of two-step when it runs editorials: first it runs an article, then a couple of days after the article runs, when the subject is `digested,’ the Times runs its official “opinion” on selected important stories. Here is something else you may not have noticed about Times editorials: In 1996 it was not a surprise for the Times to run an editorial about a local issue like saving trees from salt-shock but these days, the Times has positioned itself as more of a national paper and would be a lot less likely to run an editorial of such local interest. Would the Times now opine what should happen with the Waterfalls?

Foreseeable Environmental Impact

Could the damaging effect of the art-concept salt-waterfalls have been foreseen? The Brooklyn Eagle tells us that an environmental impact assessment preceded the art project: "‘An Environmental Assessment Study was done, and it was concluded that there would be no lasting impact from the project,” said Rochelle Steiner, director of the Public Art Fund. (Complaints About Waterfall Damage Multiply, Despite City’s Reassurance by Raanan Geberer, published online 08-21-2008)

In theory, Bloomberg himself thought about the environmental impacts of the salt-waterfalls. City Hall issued a June 15, 2008 press release of the Mayor’s statements about the coming art project on WINS 1010: Mayor Bloomberg Discusses the Waterfalls Project in Weekly Radio Address. The Mayor promised “the Waterfalls will have little impact on the environment.” In context, what was clearly most important to the Mayor in making his assessment was what he was considering and not what he was obviously overlooking. Hearkening back to a point I just made, noticing what isn’t there is a difficult talent for people to master. What the Mayor’s complete statement said about environmental impact was: “In addition, the project's design takes steps to protect fish and other aquatic life, which means that for the more than three months they're up, the Waterfalls will have little impact on the environment.” The Mayor was looking down at the water and not looking up. He saw only what was where his attention was directed (underwater) and did not direct his attention to what he needed to see.

Environmentally Green?

That the art project was being promoted as environmentally green was noticed and commented upon by Earth First: New ‘Waterfalls’ Art Installation in NYC Gets Green Spin June 26, 2008. It was noted that “The pumps will be powered by renewable energy sources and the falls will be lit only by low-level lighting at night that Eliasson said would be "not Las Vegas-style." (Artist to build four giant waterfalls in New York).

But the Brooklyn Eagle article makes clear that the issue of the non-submarine hazard was not so unobvious to everyone. According to the Brooklyn Eagle:

The River Café’s longtime gardener, Maureen Andraiese, said these issues came up even before the waterfalls were installed, and that she was given what she considers an unsatisfactory answer.

“As soon as I found that the waterfalls would be pulling up the salt water, I called and said, `This is not going to work,’” she said. “The woman on the other end said, “On, no, the winds are usually northerly, and if anything goes south, the waterfalls will be turned off.”

Apparently, the “turning off”of the Waterfalls is not happening or not working or both. The plan was to turn off the Waterfalls when the wind was a problem. Another factor not taken into consideration, that could have been, was the fluctuating salinity of the New York waters. The Hudson is a tidal estuary as far up as Albany, New York.

Impressive as Public Art?

Before the Waterfalls’ killer effects fully manifested themselves, the plan for the Waterfalls to be turning themselves off caused the observation by cultural critic Claudia La Rocco that the Waterfalls were perhaps too “polite” an artwork. Maybe on balance the overall assessment should be that, as art, the Waterfalls are more of a success than a failure; I thought that the best assessment of the Waterfalls as public art and as a community experience was delivered by Ms. La Rocco in her tempered assessment when she was interviewed by Soterios Johnson on the Brian Lehrer show. A link to the interview is on her WNYC blog the “Culturalist” The interview occurred when the falls had been up for more than a month.

La Rocco commented that the people were largely “not impressed.” She juxtaposed the falls with Christo’s more admired and interactive Central Park Gates, with which the falls are inevitably compared, noting that the falls were not as effective as public art. They were described as weak, anemic, and polite. She observed that the Waterfalls do not shift our experience of the NYC landscape enough. La Rocco also noted that, based on the feedback she was receiving, there was concern that the works were an expensive perhaps superficial appeal for tourist attention and unconnected with New York’s real flavor. (Since the New York City Waterfalls project has reportedly been in planning for two years, one suspects the falls were gestated as an intended follow-up to the well-received Gates of February 2005.)

The assessment that the salt-waterfalls have perhaps only lackluster value as public art needs to be balanced against the environmental damage that was never properly considered beforehand.

Seeing the Other Kind of Green Before the Leaves Fell

Lest we be sidetracked by thinking of the salt-waterfalls merely as “public art for public art’s sake,” an economic analysis promoting the profitable benefit of the falls to the city was offered from the beginning. The Mayor’s early press statement pushed this economic benefit argument: “The project promises to make a big splash in our local economy by attracting thousands of sightseers to town, who will then spend money in our restaurants, hotels and stores. And that money will go straight into the pockets of hard-working New Yorkers.” The tone of these statements must encourage the perception that the falls are a superficial appeal for tourist attention La Rocco reported on. The Mayor also said, “The Waterfalls is going to be one of those special events that allows all of us to be tourists in our own town.

Not long after the radio address, this theme was backed by promulgation of some speculative math reported upon in the New York Times (Calculating the Worth of East River ‘Waterfalls’ By Ken Belson Published: June 28, 2008). The Waterfalls reportedly cost $15.5 million to erect, of which about $2 million was public. The Bloomberg administration projected that project would generate $55 million in economic activity during its run. This is based on guesses from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, about how many people will come from out of town to visit the Waterfalls (10,000 people? 7,500 from the United States? 2,500 from other countries?) and how much they might spend. For comparison’s sake, what value the might the infusion of $2 million in public money into our the native artist communities like Williamsburg have created? Perhaps this is really a sort of “why bother” calculation. The math is pretty speculative. To borrow a few more lines from “Chinatown:” “You may think you know what you're dealing with, but, believe me, you don't.” ("Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown". . . "Go home.")

Not Really So Bad

A project like the Waterfalls may not be as impressive as envisioned, the environmental effects may not have been properly considered, but ideas and endeavors of this sort do make life in New York more interesting. As a Fans For Fair Play post noted (before the salt water harm was noted) “River water tumbling meekly off scaffolds” (for only three and a half months) “isn't nearly the problem that the Atlantic Yards is” . . . and “they're not really hurting anyone.” The art project does provide a small scale microcosm however. Fans For Fair Play mentions that “A lot of people must be whispering `you know, it looked better in the original renderings.’" Clearly, like a lot of projects that get promoted, the project is not exactly a WYSIWYG (“What Your See Is What You Get”) of the original renderings. (See the pictures.) The Mayor said “the Waterfalls really must be seen to be believed.” Well, you had to see them built to appreciate this unsurprising fact of architectural-rendering-life. That is something that Eliasson himself acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal in a pre-Waterfall interview (Niagara's New Rivals -- For a Time, Anyway, By Matthew Gurewitsch, June 25, 2008;).

Digital renderings give a vivid impression of what to expect but, as Mr. Eliasson keeps saying, a waterfall is not a picture. It makes noise. It cools the air. It gives off spray. "It almost doesn't make sense to talk about the waterfalls now," he said. "It's like talking about a painting that hasn't been painted yet. I can't wait to see it.

In the case of the Waterfalls, the renderings may be closer to the realty than most but these lessons are surely best learned with small temporary art projects rather than large permanent fiascos like Atlantic Yards, the Columbia University expansion or the Rudin/St. Vincent’s projects.

A Waterfront to Inspire the Public With Awe?

We see also in this microcosm the tendency to give lip service to ideas and opportunities that are not fully realized. In his radio address Bloomberg spoke grandly about the project as an opportunity to re-discover and experience the awe of the New York Harbor waterfront:

One of the great things about the best public art is that it encourages us to re-discover – even just briefly – some of the parts of our city that we often take for granted. Our waterfront is one of the most magical parts of New York; when the first Dutch settlers sailed into the Harbor centuries ago, they looked at the shoreline and compared it to the Garden of Eden. The Waterfalls project will help bring that sense of awe back to the Harbor, and get more New Yorkers out to enjoy our wonderful parks and open spaces.

There is one place on the all of the city’s waterfront where all four waterfalls can be seen. That is the location of the very slow-in-coming Brooklyn Bridge Park. Indeed, a sliver of this parkland was opened to the public to create the single publicly accessible spot where the falls can be viewed. It was the narrowest possible sliver of all the acres available. The falls can be viewed only at the very tip, (the north-westernmost tip) of the not-so-generous sliver of temporary park afforded to inspire the public’s awe. Awe-inspiring?

Turning Off a Spigot

Were it not for the environmental damage we would probably remember the Waterfalls as mostly more fun than not, worth viewing even if their impact fell short of what was hoped for. The full extent of the environmental damage will still have to be assessed. Hopefully, in future years we will be remember the summer of 2008 as that summer when we had a few months of Waterfalls and not the summer when the Waterfalls killed many decades-old trees, leaving barren and salted earth behind.

So do we view this as just a somewhat mishandled, environmentally destructive, less impressive than anticipated temporary art project? Or does it seem that associated with the flubbed environmental assessment and unanticipated environmental damage there is a troubling obliviousness? Does it seem that too many things seem to be just a little off?

What if we treated this as a mystery? Are there clues embedded here that should be catching everyone’s attention now rather than later; our attention and that of our government officials? Or will we be walking away like Jack Nicholson’s unwitting detective Jake Gittes murmuring “Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass,” not comprehending some major clues we have been handed?

Whether you want to view them as a large scale project or a small one, the Waterfalls are temporary. They might even be viewed as just an experiment and as we see, when they failed environmentally and fell short of expectations they can be turned off early. But we have much more major projects like the Atlantic Yards megdevelopments being propelled along by similar impulses and much less competence. Though the Gehry-branded megadevelopment is being treated cavalierly by the Bloomberg administration almost as if it were just another piece of concept art (Building #1 is currently to take the shape of a stack of discarded pizza boxes), it won’t be temporary and remediation won’t be as simple as turning off a spigot.

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