Last Thursday, I returned to Albany Crescent, this time to paint directly above the highway. There, I was acutely aware of the fiery essence of this scene – a river-like flow of combustion engines, a stream of vehicles consuming oil.
I spotted this particular parcel on livinglotsnyc.org.
It is labeled Bronx block 2, lot 10, at 5920 square feet, and the entry has a comment from 2016:
It’s a strip of land over a bridge over the Major Deegan. I believe parks owned it and if i remember correctly there used to be a sign. It may be forgotten as most maps don’t list it as existing and its over a highway. The City does occasionally come and clean it, but mostly it gets used for dog poop and garbage.”
There are hexagonal tiles on the expanse, and a minor meadow growing in between the cracks, with a few fleabane flowers among the grasses, a pioneer native pollinator species that likes full sun, To underline that, a bee of some sort lazily landed on my glasses while I was painting.
The space is forgotten, yet also declared massively important, for some reason, built out above the Major Deegan in 1956 and not obliterated. It’s almost as if Robert Moses may have envisioned viewing platforms to drink in the wonders of this futuristic highway. 65 years later, chain link fences, intended to prevent bowling balls and bricks from landing on the cars below, obstruct the views.
Today, the Major Deegan is often the subject of frustration and curses, a far cry from any futuristic vision it might have once inspired.
But from this vantage point, you have a unique view of the proposed Tibbetts Brook Path.
I chose a view behind a mall with a TJ Maxx, a dead end road and the elevated broadway subway tracks in the distance. Two sleeping bags are positioned in the lower left corner, recently utilized. A UPS truck parked for hours, unloading what seemed to be the whole truck into a service bay behind the box mall.
The mall, built about 6 years ago, has turned its back to the highway as a featureless box, except for signs highlighting the tenants and a feeble deceptive attempt of Mondrian-esque grey squares.
The rail corridor threads in-between like an emerald necklace, in a world of grey polygons.
This dead end will provide an easy access point to the trail when the stream is uncovered. No longer dead.
Along with my painting gear, I carried flyers detailing the Daylighting proposal, bilingual in nature – half in English, half translated into Spanish via Google.
A supermarket worker was the first person to talk to me, and said the painting was beautiful. I gave him a Spanish flyer and spoke a broken Spanish to him until he kindly said “I speak English too.”
A younger woman stopped to look at the painting shortly after. I gave her a flyer in English and over explained the project a bit. She listened a bit then went on her way with a polite “thank you.”
New Yorker’s are understandably wary about people on the street trying to sell something.
Henderson stopped next, in a bright blue sweater, about 12 years old. “Wow mister, you draw really good! I try to draw but every time it comes out terrible, not like this! You even got the double XX in TJ Maxx!”
I confided in him that I’ve been doing this for quite a long time with many terrible drawings myself, and he should keep practicing. “Try to make the next one just a little bit better than the last.” He seemed happy to hear this.
Alex (and his dog “diddy”) told me “Watercolor is hard man. I do portraits” and went on to explain his method for realistically rendering hair, clearly a bit unimpressed with my efforts. We talked about how much you can learn from the master Bob Ross. We talked about Tibbetts Brook and he shrugged with that classic ny cynicism, “They need to do something here.” – pointing to the strange vacant open space we were standing on.
Alcan and I talked for over 15 minutes, him only knowing a little English and me only a little Spanish. He showed me his artwork on his phone, beautifully rendered fruit still life paintings and ornately constructed 3d sculpture fountains, complete with live fish! He said he hasn’t painted in 6 months, partly due to construction work, but also just not inspired. He started telling me where I needed to work more on the painting. We exchanged phone numbers and I will let him know the next time I am painting in the area, he would like to come join.
Mike asked if I had an instagram and said he would tag me. He took a short video of me and the painting and did so, saying it was dope.
Two other younger guys took a picture and gave me a fist bump.
Just as I was finishing up for the day, a couple and their dog approached to ask if they could see the painting. They had been watching from their apartment window while I was painting and saw I was about to leave. They have lived in this apartment for the past ten years, saw the mall being built, and are now looking to buy a house, perhaps in Philadelphia. We talked about the Tibbetts Daylighting project and the petition they eagerly said they would sign. They joked that the TJ Maxx sign can light up their living room at night. I had stumbled into painting their view and they asked if it was for sale. One quick Venmo transaction later, I signed the watercolor painting and handed it to them as they talked about where it might hang. He gave me his card for his therapy practice in case I knew anyone looking.
I headed back home, feeling newly integrated into this landscape myself.
I’m realizing this is not necessarily about advocacy for Tibbetts Brook, this is plein air painting as an expression of the land and the daylighting idea around the land, expanding outward like a branch, to see how it may unfold. Inviting this dormant land back into minds.