Painting 9

I painted at “Siren Slope” – a small, overlooked hillside on the edge of Albany Crescent, next to a fire station. This is an official NYC Park, .28 acres in size, right near entrance and exit ramps for the Deegan. As a community member put it – “I didn’t know that spot had a name other than ‘that thing by the Deegan”

The park was founded in 1950.  It has a 3.6 star rating out of 5 reviews on google.
“Okay not great”

The most popular time according to google appears to be Friday morning about 7am – and it’s “not that busy”  It seems as if it is mostly used as a dog park. There is a memorial to a 9/11 fallen firefighter and a fire hydrant painted like the USA flag.

I set up under 2 well formed pin oak trees.  An oak was recently cut down and part of the trunk was convieniently available to use as a seat.

The first time I walked past this small triangle of green, I did not know it was a public park and thought it was a part of the fire station. I wonder how broadly known the name “Siren Slope” is, and what the effect of naming land has on it.

I’ve noticed I’ve been struggling with what to call the land where we hope to daylight Tibbetts brook.

-“Location of Tibbetts Brook in the future” – awkward.
– Former Putnam rail right of way – could be confused with current Putnam bike trail.

The best consensus I have seen in researching this question is “Southern extension of the Putnam right of way” — This is pretty good, but there is no mention of the brook.

 “Tibbetts Brook Extension” lays a claim to the land that invites the water in.

 The Local Lenape people called it “Moshulu” – meaning “smooth stones” or “small stones.” That name was given the nearby Moshulu parkway.

 Can Moshulu Brook Extension work?  We already have Moshulu Ave, Moshulu Parkway the highway, Moshulu Parkway the green space.

 Something about using names from people forcibly removed from this land does not sit well with me, but also why keep the Tibbetts name, from George Tippetts, land owner and likely owner of enslaved people?

 As spaces change use, names provide consistency but the need for new names also arises. What names do we choose? What stories do they tell?

Maybe we don’t call it a brook anymore but a bridge – going through the “kingsbridge” near the now buried lost site of one of the first toll bridges in America.  
  “Moshulu Water Bridge”

 “Let the water take control”

 Wise advice from local retired art-teacher Jerry when I ran into him again today. He stopped to talk for about a half an hour, giving countless pointers with an infectious enthusiasm. I told him I bring a spray bottle and a sponge with me when I go out, and it has improved my painting, thanks to his advice. He seemed to be aware he was potentially overloading me, but was happy to give more tips. I told him I liked “Let the water take control” – especially because it applies to the Daylighting Tibbetts Project.
 He was on his way back from the dentist.

 T and his dog, a black lab “Hector,” came by to talk, offering advice to go to the next bridge and you “can see everything from there, the water, everything, it’s beautiful.” I told him I will go there for my next painting and asked if you can see the rail right of way. He said yes and that he remembered hitching free rides for free to Yonkers on the back of the trains.
 He told me that his mother was an artist and she did everything, sold work up in riverdale, all kinds of oils, pastels, watercolors. He said “she was real good” with a kind of smile that indicated it really made him happy. I asked if he has any of her work still and unfortunately he told me “the in-laws took everything.” I told him that I hoped some of her work would come back to him someday soon.

Painting in this location overlaps with T’s walk, unexpectedly bringing to mind fond memories of his mother and her creativity during his walk and thoughts are always tied to the land they occur.

 It’s a small generative moment that originates from this emergent “Moshulu Water Bridge” strip of land or whatever we are going to call it.

 T returned a bit later with his dog again for a walk.

Painting 8

Online, it appeared as if Tibbetts Avenue was free of cars as a part of the NYC open streets program. Tibbetts Avenue overlays the original path of the buried stream.  I headed out intending to paint from the middle of the car free road. I felt the need to go looking for the lost stream to see what I find.

Unfortunately, the open streets label on Google and NYC DOT website were no longer accurate. Cars were traveling freely down this Tibbetts Avenue stretch I was targeting.

I continued to walk the length of the tree lined avenue, noting the flatness of the old floodplain. The stream was buried by about 1895 – I’ve found maps on the Kingsbridge Historical Society website touting the new street grid dated in 1900. The logic of the manhattan grid was extended into the Bronx at that time.

  The stream had a leisurely meander, with accompanying wetlands spanning about 2-3 blocks of this area. (Will this penchant for a meander be a problem along the linear rail road right of way? I’m not sure).

Apparently the residents had Malaria concerns with all that water, valid or not. There also appeared to be aesthetic concerns – local residents and landowners thought the marshlands to be “unsightly and unsanitary”

  The houses along Tibbetts Avenue are beautiful, but the entire area is labeled an “extreme flood risk” according to  Assuming a house “value” of approx 900k, 2 stories with a basement, this website estimates 300K worth of flood damage over the next 15 years.
 “Flood insurance recommended” – indeed.

With no plan B, and no open street, I had to think of where I was going to paint.

  Tibbetts Ave terminates with a dead end, at 230th street – going down a hill into what was once Spuyten Duyvil creek, a former tidal estuary, the name perhaps meaning “spinning or sprouting devil.” The Lenape people who lived here previously had a different relationship to the area in their names. Shorackhappok – “The sitting down place” or “the place between the ridges” – or Paparinemo – the “place where the stream is shut.”

This creek was straightened into a modern shipping canal. The Marble Hill Section was completed in 1895, resulting in the oddity of a small part of Manhattan being attached to the Bronx. The Wikipedia states that there is little evidence the building of this shipping canal enhanced commerce in the city.

Marble Hill projects is at this location. A 2018 report put this neighborhood at the highest street flooding complaints per square mile: 143 per square mile. The 2nd highest is at a distant 56 per square mile.  

The creek cut through right where I was at 230th street.  In 1914 it was filled in with the rock excavated from the Grand Central Station construction.

I had walked to the end of the historical Tibbetts Brook. I must have looked a bit crazy, staring into the distance envisioning the old watercourse in this land, looking for signs of it, interpreting subtle grade shifts – noticing all the impervious surface cover.

Was the end of Tibbetts Ave the true end of the brook? Or did it connect with the Spuyten Duyvil elsewhere? I pulled up an 1874 map on my phone to check – It would appear that Tibbetts Crossed under 230th street about a half block closer to the Hudson.

It’s an astonishing feeling, looking into the distant landscape while walking through the current form.

Referencing the map, I felt like I saw the exact spot of where Tibbetts crossed 230th – and sure enough there was a lone puddle at the curb.

That puddle transformed into a shard of the historical brook for me in that moment, like the traces of graphite that remain when you try to erase a drawing.

  That puddle had a presence.

  I set up on a staircase a few flights up to try for a view of that area.  230th turns into a few long staircases to climb the ridge.

The painting went by quickly, I had a handful of quick interactions with passersby – many nice complements.  The stairs seemed to discourage people from stopping to talk long.

A young boy with his mother kept turning around to wave to me as he walked down the stairs. She had told him “he is painting the view” – and the boy asked “Why is he painting the view?” Several times.

I laughed, expecting this question since the beginning of project, and finally got it from a three year old.

As the day progressed the shadow of the building overlapped with the location of the historical brook in the middle of the composition.  I considered making it bright blue but wavered.  

I’m still practicing with watercolor. I haven’t used it before this project for nearly 20 years.  I’m still practicing to listen to the water.

A daylighting of my own, perhaps.

Painting 7

I painted on a bench in Van Cortlandt Park upon the damn next to the recently renamed waterbody, Hester and Piero’s Mill Pond. This waterbody was created in 1699, when Van Cortlandt had his enslaved people dam Tibbetts Brook in order to power saw and grist mills. Piero was an expert miller of grain and his wife Hester was a domestic servant. They were enslaved people on the Van Cortlandt Plantation. To the left of this view, the water is buried, diverted into the brick broadway sewer, a combined sewer system. This was a decision implemented in 1907 by people with power at that time, and now sends over 5 million gallons of freshwater to the sewage treatment plant each and every day. During wet weather events, combined sewer sewage treatment plants dump raw sewage into the rivers because they exceed capacity. During IDA, this pipe exceeded carrying capacity, leading to Hester and Piero’s Mill Pond overflowing the dam. In regular times, the strainer in front of the gate needs to be cleaned a few times a month to keep it from clogging and overflowing the damn. Looking at the city’s own planning documents for flood projections, it is clear that the water is coming back on it’s own, and we have the choice of ignoring it or inviting it. 114 years after burying the stream, we now want to see it unearthed and routed along the old Putnam railroad right of way.

I sat on a bench with a plaque dedicated to the life of Michael Zamm, an environmentalist and educator, undoubtedly a beloved and important figure in the local landscape. There are relatively few of these in Van Cortlandt Park, especially compared to Central Park; they are expensive. This bench has one of the best “views” in the park, definitely of the lake itself.

It is a long and composed view, central for park goers in this area. It was windy, cold, and grey, and I was a bit underdressed. Sitting on the bench was more uncomfortable than I’d like. The day before was a bit too hot and humid. It’s that time of year. The stone grey water continuously rippled and Canada Geese and mallards ate some peanut butter filled pretzels and processed bread that they’ve come to expect from humans. I filled my cup with water from the lake to facilitate the watercolor painting and scooped up a spent water chestnut seed. I had worked on this lake this summer removing water chestnut to help the ecology of the lake. We made a small dent. IDA, the storm, removed nearly all of it as the lake overspilled it’s shoreline. But the water chestnut had already dropped it’s seed. IDA earlier in the summer would have been very effective invasive species control. A bench further along this dam was toppled by the flood waters of IDA as the lake spilled over. The park was buzzing with people for a cross country invitational meet.

Many people observed passing by: a handful of smiles and several nods. Constant traffic to and from the nearby restroom provided a steady stream of people all day.

As I was getting into the painting, Jerry, a retired art teacher I’ve seen teaching groups in the park before, sat with me to offer pointers.

“Where is your spray bottle?” – Good point, I said. “You have to use a lot of water.” — this stuck with me the most, as I notice I draw with the watercolor brush and I could invite more flow. “Block in the shapes” “Develop your darks” “Don’t just use greens because it can get too boring” and so on. He was obviously well versed in teaching, and I was happy to have him use the brush for a bit to show me some examples. We had met before in passing but I don’t think he remembered. There is a kindness in painting with a stranger’s brush as a true teacher where some may see hubris.

Some friend’s of his approached and said with a laugh, “You giving him some pointers Jerry?”

They said they would be back to check on my progress. The benches to my left at times hosted a young family with a toddler feeding the ducks, a woman and her elderly mothers, a solitary biker stopping for a pensive bite to eat, A man smoking a cigar watching a tv show and grinning. Different walks of life all brought themselves to meet this view, creating meaning. One couple asked to have their photograph taken in front of the lake with their dog. “Here we are, our backs to this beautiful scenery posing for you the viewer, we are here.” Another fellow during his daily swan tracking efforts asked if I had seen the swans. “They just flew from mid-lake about 30 minutes ago.” He happily decided they must have gone to the other spot he knows that they like to go. Yoshiko kindly brought me a sweatshirt so I could make it through the painting session. A long line of people approached noisily, with drums, signs, trumpets and chants. A group of Bronx activists had organized a march up the Tibbetts Brook corridor, with signs like “Protect the water.” And “Water is life.” They stopped for a ceremony on the rail bridge over the lake, directly to the left of the view of my painting. They played some drums, spoke about the Lenape people who lived here, and dropped a bouquet of herbs into the water for environmental justice enveloping land, water, and people.

My friend Bennie, one of the top citizen scientists in the park was walking with them. I stood with him and held my cardboard “DAYLIGHTING TIBBETTS BROOK” sign for a bit and listened.

I was struck by the chance encounter.
The water is with us, and we are with the water.
Forgotten relationships and collective agreements, still in process of being discovered.

Painting 6

I set up the easel on a small dead end street, Verveelen Place, directly across the proposed Tibbetts Path from the Albany Crescent. A parking lot for the big box mall with the TJ Maxx was to my right. An unidentifiable parking lot is across the street. There are a handful of unmarked doors, some look like service bays. The street feels like an afterthought. There is one address. 195.

But the street is busy, cars stream in and out of the parking lot directly behind me. A few cars turn around at the dead end, one awkwardly parks right in front of my easel; the driver watched me for about 15 minutes.

There are 2 “END” signs and chain link fence, newly put up to discourage people from walking onto the Old Putnam railroad right of way.
A medium sized Black locust grows just beyond the fence. I spotted some enchanters nightshade, low smartweed, Japanese knotweed, tree-of-heaven, among others. A sign declaring “Area protected by 24 hour video surveillance” was posted on the fence, and I counted 6 cameras along the walls on the short street, yet none of them pointed directly at the fenced in railroad right of way.

When Tibbetts Brook is rerouted and this area is a new park, this dead end would make a natural access point, one easily connected to the broadway commercial corridor a block away.

The grade is flat, and I noticed a little bit of erosion from the street into the the right-of-way behind the fence. I imagine this street was flooded during the IDA rains.

Verveelen sounded Dutch. The historical figure, first name Johannes, attempted to run a ferry service in the 1600s to 125th street in Manhattan from the Bronx. He was successful in setting up an inn somewhere near this location, on a hill that was sometimes an island surrounded by water. It’s flat now, perhaps regraded 100 years ago when the waterways were filled in. One of the first toll bridges in the US was near this location, over a waterway that is no longer there. I read that the inn served oysters.

Nearby “Fordham” suddenly makes sense in a new way. Water was all around here.

There is a person sized hole cut in the fence on the left hand side. Someone took a hacksaw to the fence post at the door on the right hand side.
The door remains padlocked, but because of the cut above, a person can easily push the door to create a space to fit through. I did not see that access route right away, it was nicely hidden in plain sight.

The sleeping bags I saw from across the highway are most likely still there right around the corner out of view.

The first hour is quiet and I can’t tell if people respond to painting or more abstracted activations of place. It’s as if it takes some time for the vibe to warm up. The painting is mostly horizontal, so it’s hard to see how far along I am from afar.

A Yellowjacket landed on my palette, like several other times I had been out—this time I got a picture.

Art follows a pollinator model in some ways. Seeding new connections of growth, opening up possibility. Aesthetic functioning. Painting rooted in land culturally pollinates.

An older stylish man named Joe with oversized glasses and a can was the first to approach. “I’m an artist too you know.”

He told me how he has work in the Bronx Museum now. We had a wide ranging conversation, from the perils of social media “It’s leading to war” to his experience working as a gang mediator. He wants to get into carving wood because there is so much free wood around here, but his wife is worried about the space in the apartment. He told me about a painting he is working on—about a big waterfall, and the title had something to do with god or divinity. I told him about the Daylighting Tibbetts project and he gave the cynical New Yorker response. “Yeah well” – like “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

He lives in Marble Hill, the area with the most complaints about street flooding per square mile in NYC.

I gave him my card and he told me he would call me, only after he left I remembered I don’t have my number on my card anymore and he said “I’m not too good with computers.”

Another man approached with a suitcase on wheels, asking from a distance if it was okay if he looked. I said sure and asked him if he was an artist, as it seems like many folks are.

“Nah, I just appreciate the finer things in life – which apparently you do too”

He asked “How long will this take you to finish? 6 months? By then the leaves will have fallen, snow on the ground, might be tough!”
“I can see what you are doing, but you have your work cut out for you” – not impressed with my progress so far.

I asked him his name “They call me shorty!” gesturing at his height, ”I’ll see you around!”

At a certain point I was aware that someone was watching from inside the parking garage. He asked me if he could see the painting in Spanish, and it took me a second to understand.

I held it up and he said “watercolors are hard.” I asked him if he was an artist – “I paint a little bit.”

An hour or so later he is standing behind me again and says “oh it looks much better now!’ and proceeds to share his work with me from his phone. He paints watermelons, but in blue, not red. I asked why and he responded “Why not? It’s art you can do anything you want!”

The paintings looked very well done. He gave me a fist bump after we talked for a while and I felt like I earned his respect.

A security guard walked by a few times, on the job. He smiled and said “Oh you are drawing the street! I like it!”

Two younger guys came by saying “We saw you down here and wanted to see what you are doing. That’s really good bro!”

An older man with a cane parked his car and went behind a dumpster to pee.

The traffic started to congeal on the Major Deegan as the afternoon went on, half of it underneath the structure propping up the Albany crescent.

The painting was a bit wet as I made bigger moves at the end of the day trying to get the painting into shape. I walked with it uncovered on the way home.

On Orloff Avenue another artist named Adam stopped me to have a look and we had a great chat. He’s lived in the area most of his life.
We traded instagram handles and YouTube artist recommendations. I gave him a flyer about Daylighting Tibbetts. He had not heard of the project but thought it was a good idea for the area. It turns out we live about a block or so away from each other and plan to meet up again. He said “it’s good to see another artist in the area.”

It got me thinking that perhaps we should also be thinking about Daylighting Artists. There seem to be many beneath the surface.

Painting 5

For this painting, I returned to the Van Cortlandt Park South bridge, but instead of painting from on top, I was under it and in the direct path followed by the raging floodwaters of IDA, where we hope to Daylight Tibbetts Brook.

I’m painting a landscape that is technically fenced off.

But there are a few spots where you can access it if you really wanted to. I felt the need to get into the path of the water itself, not to observe from the side banks.

There is an unofficial path leading through bushes behind a storage container into this man-made valley.
once called the Putnam railroad, or “The Old Put.”

Part of my grandfather’s commute to West 4th in Manhattan was along this line. He died 3 years before I was born. 
My uncle took this railroad from Yonkers to attend Manhattan College as a student. He married my aunt sometime in the 60s at the now boarded up Parish Hall a stone’s throw away across the street.
I didn’t know any of this before I moved here in 2020. 

60 years later, I’m right down the block under a bridge with the other holy water.

These landscapes influenced my youth without me knowing.
To know that my grandfather most surely uttered the words “The Old Put,” forms new vibrant connections.

This embankment is steep and scattered with litter.
There are puddles at the bottom framed by burnt umber colored terrain that paints my shoes and pant cuffs.

There are tall wrought iron gate at both edges of the bridge with a NYC parks logo on top. I think they are kind of new.

The gate is open, so I go under the bridge.

“Is this safe?”

The graffiti artwork all across both walls assured me. Many people paint here, unbothered enough to create elaborate works—I am not the first.

I was slightly concerned by the dozens of neon orange bridge inspector markings on the ceiling, calling attention to cracks of various shapes and sizes. I looked around for evidence of the ceiling falling and didn’t see much, so I took my chances.

The ground under the bridge had a few rail ties, sporadic puddles, and plenty of wet mud with millions of raccoon paw prints and no obvious human tracks whatsoever.

Pigeons occupied the spaces up above, rather vocally. Was I disturbing them?

There was a segment of unattached chain link fence standing up in the middle of the the underpass, with dried muddy decaying leaves caught in the wiring all the way up to the top. A month ago, a deep river moved through here for about a day, with currents fast enough to be dangerous. The fence was a clear sign that the water had been well above my head.

On the other side of the opposite fence, there is an explosion of vegetative greens as the rail right of way opens out into sunlight, impassible to the casual explorer, with large bodies of standing water, patches of light yellow green duckweed and thick stands of blue-green phragmites. Those plants seem to be doing rather well, with no hesitations about embracing the aquatic expressions of this land.

The door on this gate is blocked with a pile of muddy wooden railroad ties.
At first I thought humans piled the wood there to discourage trespassers, but I wonder if it was the flood water?
I tried lifting one. It was quite heavy.

I wanted to paint this threshold between Van Cortlandt Park and what we hope becomes a new public park. I imagine this passage under the bridge from dark to light might be quite dramatic if handled well. There is staging capacity here, this moment before it opens up into the expansive skies adjacent to Major Deegan. Will this space still read as a boundary? It is a marsh boundary in old maps.

Geographic boundaries for water are watersheds. Municipal boundaries don’t follow that same logic.

The bridge, the park, the rail line, all fall under different agencies and overlap in this location. Will Van Cortlandt Park annex this rail corridor? Or will a new organization emerge? Humans complicate. Water flows.

There is a rail trail on the northern border of Van Cortlandt Park along this rail line. NYC Parks clears the snow in the winter, and Westchester county does not. There is a sharp line at the border with frustrated cross country skiers and/ or walkers.

This area is marked on the May 2021 NYC Stormwater analysis maps as having significant “deep and contiguous flooding of 1 foot or greater” during any rainfall where 3.5 inches of rain falls in 1 hour. In august we broke the record for 1 hour rainfall, measured in Central park at 1.91 inches in 1 hour Two weeks later we broke the record again. This time 3.15 inches in 1 hour.

One inch of rain falling on 1 acre of land weighs about 113 tons, approximately the weight of a 1 story house, or the Anish Kapoor “Bean” public sculpture in Chicago. Boom.

The May 2021 map states this extreme rainfall event is considered a 100 year storm, with a 1% chance of happening any given year. How many of those will we have by 2080, when some aggressive sea level rise predictions are as high as 4 feet?

The painting session was quiet and reflective. Besides the pigeons, I was visited by a yellow jacket and several birds out in the mashland. I suspect the raccoons may have been watching.

There was very little vegetation under the bridge, a few puddles speckled with Seurat-like dots of duckweed contrasted against swirls of red iron oxide, mimicking the fluid gestures and saturated colors of the graffiti on the walls, mimicking the wind of the pigeons.

I hope this space retains it’s painterly expressions when the stream is official invited back in.

I noticed a pile of human feces as I climbed up the embankment; the noises of the busy city becoming present again.