water color painting of the major degan and the old putnam right of way by Noel Hefele

2. Confluence of Elements: The Quiet Parking Lot

I returned to the site of the historic Major Deegan flooding and painted the largest watercolor I’ve done in some time. #DaylightingTibbetts is about inviting water in and it felt necessary to think in watercolors. The highway is also a river, but of oil. Oil and water don’t mix, but coexist, articulate in expressing their own boundaries. We need to listen to the water.

I discovered a peculiarly tranquil spot in a parking lot, nestled behind a CubeSmart storage facility. Here, I found an unobstructed vista of the Daylighting Tibbetts corridor, just beyond a modest guardrail. My setup included a new sign and a QR code, inviting passersby to engage with the project and even sign petitions.

In this lot, an array of vehicles resided – random police cruisers, some cars with shattered windows, and even one that seemed inhabited, evidenced by a note of permission on its window. The lot’s purpose remained ambiguous. Several individuals arrived, lingered in their cars for about 15-20 minutes, then departed, seemingly off to work. Despite the unused gate at the entrance, the abundance of vacant spots hinted at free parking – a rarity in this notoriously parking-scarce area.

At one point, I felt mildly unsafe as a guy wandered around, watching me but not interacting despite a few feeble attempts from me.

This space felt unclaimed, almost forgotten, especially when contrasted with the bustling Broadway just a block away.

The thousands of people streaming past in cars feel distant and the highway sounds almost like the ocean. One woman took a picture of me painting from a distance, but nobody held a conversation. The unusual quietness of the space put most of us on guard. Looking at the satellite map, I see this parking lot is actually Putnam Ave W, but it had been blocked off by the shopping center built in 2018 between the location of this painting and the last. That site formerly housed a Stella D’oro Biscuit Company factory, demolished in 2012 after what seems like a bitter protracted union labor dispute. Connecticut-based private-equity firm Brynwood Partners shut down the 77-year-old Stella D’Oro bakery to move production to Ohio. When building the current mall, they pushed right to the border of the rail corridor in an expression that clearly declares that side worthless.

But in our built environments, we must look for opportunity in whatever spaces we can find. Daylighting Tibbetts Brook is a fantastic opportunity.

Bringing a stream and public greenspace to this land beside the highway will change the landscapes connected to it. A stream of recreational use along the greenway will awaken this unclaimed space and turn it into a “place.” This cut off parking lot can become an asset in conversation with the Daylighted Tibbetts Brook in a way that will benefit the community and make the cold big box obstruction of Riverdale Crossing look short sighted. There is space here to keep the parking currently in use, but also add features connected to the Daylighted corridor, such as benches, vendor space, shade— perhaps even a constructed stormwater tributary to feed the brook.

I’m convinced that this Daylighting project must also integrate into the local fabric and not just cut through it in a sharp line. Be like the watershed.