Painting 3

Yesterday, I painted from a wall under sporadic shade of a black locust tree on w 233street adjacent to Crescent Park. Clear blue sky—sun a bit too hot—luckily this location had shade and was unencumbered by the fence. The #daylightingtibbetts corridor is directly across the Major Deegan from this vantage point.

This stretch has a bunches of trees of moderate height, growing higher the farther the decommissioning of the rail line fades into the past. It was hard to identify many of the trees from afar, but I spotted 2 London plane, a handful of tree-of-heaven’s, many mulberries, and one Paulownia tomentosa, or “Princess Tree,” native to China. The soft lightweight seeds were commonly used as a packing material by Chinese Porcelain exporters in the 19th century and packages would often leak or burst open in transit, scattering seeds along rail tracks. I wondered if this tree got here from that lineage. There are also a few “snags” in this stretch, which is the term for a standing dead tree, valuable habitat and relatively unusual in NYC. There are random refrigerators strewn behind the buildings and the ground floor businesses deal with frequent flooding.

Crescent park is a tiny city park with many benches. Someone is always sitting on a bench in this park, and I thought I was sure to attract curiosity, yet those folks kept to themselves, occasionally talking with someone familiar passing by, either coming from or going to the broadway shops. The park seems to function as a micro-neighborhood public square. 

A majority of those passing seemed to be spanish speaking, and I got a handful of “thumbs up” and smiles by passersby, and the occasional “it’s beautiful.” Many folks came and went to cars parked along the street directly behind me.

Crescent park is named after the nearby Albany Crescent, a curious curved artifact of the Albany post road, used for mail delivery, following the original Wickquasgeck Trail. When the Major Deegan was built, this Albany Crescent was kept, extending above the highway— you can see an indication of it in the left hand side of the painting. Albany Crescent was once an important junction, where Albany Post Road and Boston Post Road interesected.

One young girl of about 10 walked past and said “I like your painting, Mister.”

Another family smiled with a thumbs up as they passed, the woman with the stroller stopped and pointed. I walked closer toward her misunderstanding the gesture, only for us all to laugh when I realized her partner had approached from the other side and was admiring my painting up close. “Wow you painted the street, I appreciate you! Congratulations!” With an approving sideways pat on the shoulder.

I am still in surprise how no one has questioned the decision to paint facing the highway and vacant rail corridor, which is highlighting my assumptions.

An older man with matching red glasses, shirt, and shopping cart stopped to share that he likes to paint and makes abstract work. He knew about the Daylighting project, recounting fairly detailed knowledge about the watershed. We both agreed it would be a great thing for the area. We introduced ourselves with a laugh – he is “Neil” and I am “Noel.” “Are you from the area or are you from Riverdale?” I told him “Van Cortlandt Village” and he seemed pleased. Neil was perhaps in his mid 70s. Tibbetts Brook was buried only about 100 years ago.

I found a map from the late 1800s that shows a tributary of tibbetts intersecting with the rail corridor around where I was painting.

Land has a way of maintaining its expression. The water of Tibbetts Brook, the travel corridor along the north south direction

I had a ten minute conversation with Francesca, a woman from the Dominican Republic who barely spoke English. I barely speak Spanish, yet we exchanged phone numbers and she told me to call her if I visit the DR. She paints a bit herself, and comes to The Bronx to visit her brother who lives in the area. I was wondering if I was “done”- Francesca declared on her own, “Finito, it’s beautiful.” After she left, I saw her a block away stop to take some artful photographs of a few pigeons.

That moment in particular felt like a small foothold for the concept of a new park / daylighted stream in this landscape. In that moment, that abandoned rail corridor produced an aesthetic experience and a neighborly conversation across languages and countries, a preview of possibilities. Inviting this stream ecosystem into this land will also, by necessity, bring with it a slew of unexpected cultural ecosystem services, turning forgotten land into essential local fabric.

Painting 2

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 found a location in a strange parking lot, quiet, behind a cubesmart storage facility, with an unobstructed view of the Daylighting Tibbetts corridor over a small guardrail. I set up with my new sign and QR code to invite people to sign petitions and contact the mayor.

The parking lot has a few random police cruisers, a couple cars with busted windows, and one that looks like it is being lived in, complete with a permission note in the window. It’s unclear exactly what the parking lot is for. A few folks came and parked, stayed in the car for 15-20 minutes, then got out appearing as if they were going to work. It looks like free parking with an unused gate at the entrance and plenty of empty parking spots in an area that is notoriously difficult to park in. At one point, I felt mildly unsafe as a guy wandered around, watching me but not interacting despite a few feeble attempts from me.

It’s an unclaimed space, seemingly forgotten compared to the bustle of Broadway a block over. 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.

Painting 1

I set up yesterday right on the edge of where Tibbetts Brook may emerge from VCP and flow down the CSX rail line.

The day before, this abandoned rail corridor was a raging river from the Ida rains, now it was calm—still wet, but no longer a river.

The corner is right at a highway entrance to the Major Deegan expressway. It was closed on Thursday, still flooded with approximately 80 cars and silent. But a day later it was open to traffic again. Instead of a river of storm water, there was a continuous flood of traffic behind me turning into the highway. The cars were constant and the traffic was thick.

I got a handful of thumbs up from drivers, a few shouting out the window “Hey that’s cool!” “nice painting!” “Looking good!”

It was a strange place to set up an easel, the corner feels a bit forgotten, scattered with litter.

I found a sleeping baby possum along the wall, underneath a plantain leaf. I was worried she might be hurt, but she just was getting some rest, tired, like I was, from the storm.

Some construction men were working on the retaining wall of the entrance to the highway. “Yeah it’s in danger of falling down.” But not to worry, it would fall into the rail corridor. I asked if it was because of the rains the day before, and he shrugged, “maybe.” I had just started at that point and he told me “I like the colors! Have fun painting!”

I spoke with another man who said he remembers when the rail line was active, lived here all his life and is now 66 years old.
He told me the building in the back right was built after the rail stopped running. I hadn’t noticed that previously but it was obvious after he pointed it out. I told him about the Daylighting Tibbetts Brook idea and he said with a laugh “Not in my lifetime, this is the Bronx!”

I was painting through a tight chain linked fence, which proved difficult in the changing light. It will take practice to train my eyes to see through it.

Another man walking by stopped and said “Let’s see what you’ve got here! Very nice – you should have been here yesterday with all the devastation!”

We talked about the incredible amounts of rain and how it all needs to go somewhere. We talked about how Central Park broke the 1 hour rainfall record twice in the past month. “And they say Climate Change isn’t real” he said with a laugh as he carried on walking.

A young woman walking by herself stopped and apologized, wide-eyed “I’m sorry, can I take a picture? This is so beautiful. How long did it take you? You are very talented.”

A kid on his bicycle road up and pointed saying “look mom! Look!” with a smile. His mom smiled as she passed and said “that looks very nice”

A woman walking with her family stopped to take a picture as well, as did a groups of 3 older women.

One woman thanked me for sharing the news about the Daylighting Tibbetts Brook idea, she had never heard of it and thought the idea was interesting. No men took a photo, and only older men stopped to talk. Younger men occasionally gave thumbs up, or a “looks good man” as they walked by not breaking stride.

This is a car dominated space but people still use it regularly on foot – 3 cars jumped the curb to make the turn behind me when I was there, as if to underline the non-pedestrian friendly vibe. It felt good to hold the space and paint there for several hours.

Nobody asked directly why I chose that spot to paint, which was somewhat unexpected.

Getting into details about the Daylighting concept with passersby is difficult unless they stop to chat. Many people are in the middle of going somewhere.

I’m working on the small handout for that purpose and this session gave me ideas on how to finalize that.

Upcoming show…

18" x 24"
oil on canvas

I will have 4 recently finished paintings in the THANK YOU show at Dorsey Gallery, opening May 16th.

This painting above, as well as 3 others, will be available for purchase.

I hope to attend the COVID safe opening. It will be the first art opening I’ve been to in a long time!

@dorseyartgallery “Thank You Show” May 16 2021~
553 Rogers Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11225

Show announcement Dorsey Art Gallery Brooklyn

Voices of Lefferts

One bright spot of this year for me has been writing. One of my quarantine journal entries was published in the Voices of Lefferts community writing journal, available at the Flatbush @greenlightbklyn store and on the greenlight website.

VOL is a great collaborative project spearheaded by Deborah Mutnick. I am in good company in the pages of this issue. It was comforting to participate from our new Bronx location and made the year feel slightly less alien. You can take the guy out of PLG, but you can’t take PLG out of the guy. ?

Voices of Lefferts: The Flatbush-PLG Community Writing Journal is a biannual collection of writing and artwork that tell the neighborhood’s stories in the voices of the people who live here. Each issue contains the narratives written by participants of our writing workshops, plus artwork and documentary photography. The journal is designed and produced locally, and can be bought for $6 at Greenlight Bookstore at 632 Flatbush Avenue. The journal is archived in the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library.