View from the Target Parking Lot in Marble Hill, watercolor by Noel Hefele

10. View from the Target parking lot

I painted from the rooftop parking lot of a Target.

Standing atop ‘River Plaza’—once an industrial site transformed into a commercial hub—I reflected on its layers of history and change. The complex was built on the site of a former industrial site with a large warehouse housing New York Presbyterian Hospital medical records from 2002 to 2005. After razing that warehouse, the developers found that the site’s soil was soggy and the water table was only 14 feet.To attempt to stabilize the soil, “developers drove 1,500 steel piles capped with concrete deep into the soil to reinforce the still-soggy former riverbed.” (NYT 9/15/04). The project cost 90 million dollars.

  “Architects said they were especially determined not to block the panorama from the roof, which includes the stanchions of the George Washington Bridge and, farther off, the spire of the Empire State Building.”

  They did not block the view, but they certainly did nothing to integrate with the river.

In 2004, estimated tax revenue for the city was said to be 12 million annually from this development.

  I would guess that that figure is lower now.

  Property Tax was listed on a commercial property database website $105,940 in 2021 – with an assessed value of $4,284,000.  This seemed low, some houses around here are easily that price. I searched for another confirmation but could not find it. I checked another comparable mall property in the area and it is valued at 67 million, with 800K in property taxes. I found a reference to a 17 million dollar exemption at this site for a living wage law with any development that utilizes 1 million of public funds or more.

I found this view, following the tip from “T” at Siren Slope, who told me to paint around here. I wasn’t exactly sure where he meant, but after a bit of walking I found the panorama.  It’s a striking view in the far corner of a 600 car parking lot. It’s not pedestrian friendly to get here. I was able to use the concrete rail as an easel.  It was a bit windy and I considered a panorama painting but couldn’t risk the loose paper flying away.

Thoughts begin in landscape, and by this I mean the unified experience of human-moving-through-environment.

Landscape is how we see that experience.

  I immediately processed the view through a Brooklyn real estate logic lens. Why am I not in a shoddily constructed overpriced loft with stainless steel appliances? But this is the Bronx, with a different timeline of spatial contestation.

  The Broadway bridge is off to my right and marks the spot of the channelization of the Harlem River.

A guy parks his car close and comes over to look. “Oh that’s great, you are painting the river! That’s going to be a million dollars one day” – pointing to the watercolor paper…. Or perhaps the view.  

I laughed and said “maybe after I’m gone!” and he doubled down “you never know! It could be, it could be.”

I’m standing in the former waterway of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Straightened out and filled in about 100 years ago to make shipping easier.

My father’s grandparents lived in the Bronx around that time. My grandfather might have been about a toddler. I recently inherited a family heirloom that I’m looking at while writing this – a converted crystal oil lamp that came from their house in the Bronx. The lamp is intact and cherished, and the former watercourses are largely forgotten.

Spuyten Duyvil is Dutch, and some translations put it as “spitting devil” or “in spite of the devil” After this painting session, I look at the name with a new respect on how weather may shape land. It was the windiest time I’ve had yet. Several times the paper came up in the wind, even knocking my glasses off once. I had to secure the brushes from falling off the ledge. At one point the wind splashed my cup full of brush washing water in my face, soaking my sweatshirt and dotting my glasses.

The air was crisp and the wind was strong

A passerby laughed seeing I was struggling and said “It is a nice view though.” Another was happy to take a flyer about Tibbetts and thought it was a cool idea.

In the distance it was clear it was raining. I had to make a quick decision to pack up or tough it out, and it looked like it would be quick. I decided to stick it out, thinking it was sort of cool that I’m thinking about water and rain is a part of this process. I’ll get some rain marks on the paper, it will be great.

The rain continues to get worse. The paper is soaked now and suddenly puddles of pigment are clearly lifting up again.

Uh oh. The painting is running away. Just as I was really getting into it.

I folded the cover over, packed up and took shelter at the top of the Target Elevators. The heat was on, the doors were open, and the escalators were constantly running. I was able to place the painting down to dry for about 20 minutes, and use Wi-Fi to see the storm cloud was indeed tiny and now gone. A few people said nice things and joked “what did you get caught in the rain?”

I used the restroom, walking through Target with easel and painting (several smiles and thumbs up along the way). I bought a coffee to warm up at Starbucks.

The sun had returned and I went back to finish up. I allow for as close to exactly the same amount of time for each painting and I wasn’t quite done yet.

“In spite of the devil”

Was this small squall a shred of a memory of the landscape that once produced the name “Spuyten Duyvil?” If there is a mischievous spirit in this area, I felt it throw water in my face. This Plaza with Target and Marshalls will encounter this spirit eventually.

A 2017 NYC flood plain projection for 2080 shows that the waterways are expected to comeback in ways that are existential for this place. Building this mall here feels impossibly stupid, but here we are.  

The river should be for public use in this day and age, it is a public good, an asset. For most of the afternoon, I was the only person within a wide area taking the river view in. I spotted a few recreational boats but not many at all.

 The metro north passes along the banks along a functioning railway.

The tail end of the Putnam Corridor is off to the left of the view, the last small stretch being used almost like storage. We hope Van Cortlandt Park can connect all the way down here along the Putnam Rail right of way.

Target and River Plaza have a vested interest in Daylighting Tibbetts Brook, a clear project that can only help their bottom line. If they are not supporting it now with political and monetary backing, they should be soon.

If the people who straightened out the Spuyten Duyvil over 100 years ago knew most of the trade traffic would be occurring in trucks in a cramped parking lot behind a national retail store along the banks of the water, I think they would throw their hands in the air.

 I put a few #DaylightTibbettsBrook flyers under some windshield wipers as I walked out of the parking lot.