Building and Bubbling

By Paloma McGregor

It felt overwhelming in July to reflect on our work, because so much happened. But now I feel more equipped.

In July, 10 artists – writers, musicians, dancers, interdisciplinary performers and a photographer – spent a week walking, mapping, playing, learning, interacting and making. It was a great way to test the creative potentials in the concepts and practices that Damian, Becky and I have been developing. Among the group were two Bronx residents, including Charles, our beloved photographer/philosopher/grandfather, who brought his grandson one of the days and wrote the following in an email at the end of the week: “I don’t have the language arts skill to adequately express the awesomeness of last week’s experience, just loved the group, loved the experience, learned a lot & I’m left with a great sense of hope for the future.” Wow.

Among our activities that week:
- Walking from the River to the top of the Watershed
- Developing ways to measure spaces using our bodies and everyday things (units of measurement included: leapfrogs, cartwheels, iPhones, butt cheeks!)
- Visiting two community gardens and eating veggies we picked ourselves
- Going canoeing on the Bronx River
- Inviting passersby to use sidewalk chalk to amplify and reflect green spaces
- Creating movement structures based on landscapes and personal histories
- Performing some of our choreographic discoveries at two shows at WOW Cafe Theatre on the Lower East Side
- Creating an 2-hour interactive culminating performance at River Park to coincide with a canoe trip that would be passing by
From this, we are now in conversations about doing workshops with community groups. Developing creative workshops and testing the structures will help the core team in its goal to develop an interdisciplinary curriculum.

Among the most striking community engagement aspects of our work this week:

AMPLIFYING WHAT IS THERE

We got passersby – from toddlers to grandparents – to stop and use sidewalk chalk to map and amplify the micro-ecologies creeping through sidewalks outside the Hispanos Unidos Garden, a thriving community garden that sits between the top of the watershed and the Bronx River. More than half of the people walking by stopped to join us, some even coming back and one teen emailing me to say how much she enjoyed it and wanting to know when she could work with us again. The shift that happened in all of our bodies – both in terms of level and speed, as well as in terms of delight and play – was significant; my favorite example: a father was barking “walk” at the younger of his two boys, who was trailing behind him, as he approached our drawing. I asked if the boy wanted to join, then eventually we encouraged the older brother and dad to draw (he drew a great cartoon face). When they walked away less than 10 minutes later, the dad was holding the boy’s hand and his pace had slowed to accommodate the child. Perhaps as we continue collaborating, we can begin mapping the area in such a way, block-by-block, with the communities that live there.

PRACTICING AGENCY IN THE BODY AND LANDSCAPE

It was a delight to further explore what it means to use the body to measure public space (i.e. measuring the width of a sidewalk using leapfrogs, cartwheels, the sound of a voice). It is an idea rooted in one of our first walks in East Tremont, when Damian commented that a sidewalk that was 16 feet wide could be converted into a sidewalk-green space-bike path (I immediately translated the measurement into terms I could understand with the body: three adults standing fingertip to fingertip). So the group spent a half-hour measuring the wide sidewalk on the busy intersection in the shadow of the elevated subway at Boston Road. We remarked that changing our sense of how we can move in public spaces was empowering, and we wondered aloud how changing our movement, collectively, could be transformative in other ways. Even as I observed, I noticed how passersby shifted their pace, focus and carriage because of what we were doing. We had transformed the space for that moment, and perhaps some who witnessed us will never walk down that sidewalk again without remembering that feeling. The agency implicit in deciding how a space could be perceived, captured and reflected brought up ideas about the practice of shaping our own perspectives and perceptions of the spaces we move through.

MOVING TOWARD CONNECTIONS

There was the threat of rain when we arrived at 9 a.m. Saturday to prepare for our work at River Park. But that was shortlived. And the steady stream of families arriving at the park gave me confidence that things would clear up. They also taught me a very interesting lesson in mapping and boundaries in our daily practice. As the park filled, families who were having gatherings found makeshift ways to cordon off sections of the park as their own, using masking tape and chairs, spools of twine and party streamers. It was a fascinating example of the compulsion to measure, define and claim spaces as our own, one I am looking forward to considering more in my artistic and engagement work. It is strikingly juxtaposed with the human need to connect, one that became clear as we gathered, a bit like Pied Pipers, a collection of youth and adults to walk the park with us to consider its landscape, ask questions, measure, talk and move together. By the end of our loop, it was amazing to see the ways people engaged – two men who began leaning in as a dancer performed on the bench between them, a young girl who learned the choreography and began performing with us, and a senior who stood slowly to echo the movement in her own way.

THE POWER OF BEING THERE

Finally, our time reinforced the value of simply spending time getting to know a place and community. Because of the investment of time, Hispanos Unidos Garden invited us to come anytime and to bring groups of people. And, importantly, we were able to reconnect with Mary Mitchell Community Center, which happened to be touring Hispanos Unidos during one of our visits. I connected with the teacher and gave her a postcard about the project, and we were able to hire 2 of the artists who participated in the weeklong intensive to lead 2 workshops for a small group of children. We are building the project as we build community, two things that take time. I am grateful for having the resources from iLAND to spend the time that is needed to deeply engage in collaboration with a community in responsive and responsible ways.

Interactive Embodied Mapping – River Park – July 14

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Interactive Embodied Mapping - River Park - July 14

At the end of a two-hour romp at River Park – playing hopscotch and “I Spy”, considering the natural and man made landscape and measuring spaces with our bodies (How many leapfrogs long is this path?) – a group of artists with Follow the Water Walks and Bronx community members, danced at the river’s edge for passing canoe riders with the Bronx River Alliance.

Catching Up, Branching Out

This photo, taken by Bronx resident Charles Berenguer on a June walk, shows the flow of water from a nearby fire hydrant as it carries trash from the street to the storm water drain.

By Paloma McGregor

So much has happened in the past couple weeks, this will be like a news briefs column with several entries.
Everyone Loves a Parade
In 2005, my first summer in New York, I joined a couple dozen people who marched in the Hunt’s Point Fish Parade. I was there because I was project manager of INSPIRIT dance company’s Project: BECOMING, a pilot coming-of-age program for girls that now has national reach. It was a small, unpretentious affair without much in the way of big presentation.
Seven years later, I found myself back in Hunt’s Point taping blue streamers to a canoe and designing a bumble bee made of a used water bottle. A small, diverse group – from a toddler to a grandfather, black, white, latino – spent a few hours in the shade of a tent cutting out fish to attach to bike helmets and bikes. Josue salvaged some wood from the Parks Department and attached them to a canoe to form huge “legs” and “antennae” for a water bug.
The parade attracted 50 or more folks from several Bronx-based groups, including a school band that played a repertoire of several songs to encourage us along the way. Residents came out onto sidewalks, and peeked their heads out of open windows. I wondered how this parade could become a larger community engaged event, with residents lining the sidewalks in anticipation (like parades back home).
The water-bottle bumble bees were a big hit, and by the time the parade ended, Jessica and I had given ours away and taught several kids – and a couple adults – to make their own. We finished our day on the East River, whose more volatile temperament is influenced by its proximity to an ocean inlet. Small waves lapped toward us, making the ride a little like a gentle roller coaster. Because of that, we just canoed in a small circle. Still, every moment on the water is a shift in feeling.
When “Retreat” Really Means “Move Forward”
The day after the Fish Parade, we gathered with iLAND community to share tools and our work. Our time together felt too short because it was so invigorating. The simple act of zooming out to share the intimate experience of nascent collaboration is at once terrifying, exhilarating, confusing and heartening. Our presentation allowed us each to share some of our practice and thinking, and brought up our strengths and the areas we have yet to explore.
Our project has really begun to root itself in the mapping and making connections in the community we are working in. Now we are grappling with how to add layers such as community members’ stories and embodied research. Will that be a function of the data dictionary? Could low-tech mapping, such as Damian’s exercise where we mapped a special place from age 10, help us find more options.
Some great questions emerged, including “What is the Dance equivalent of a Data Dictionary?” It got me thinking about the following:
-       When mapping a dance, what are the landmarks/characteristics?
-       What could we learn about relationship of body to landscape by mapping a dance or people’s everyday movement through spaces?
-       What data would we try to collect if Movement Mapping?
I’m excited to work with these ideas, observing the way people move in the community we are working with and discovering how that corresponds to the movement of water in those areas.
The retreat not only pushed ideas forward, but also inspired me to revisit what I hoped for at the outset of this work. I see now the opportunity for exploring game structures to reemerge, and am excited to explore that.
Rain, Rain Go Away
We were hoping to explore some of the curiosities that came out of the retreat and our previous research on June 25, when we invited community members to walk a couple blocks with us and do some of the activities we’ve developed.
But it rained. On the one hand, I thought it might be cool to actually “follow the water” while it’s raining.
But we couldn’t invite people out into thunderstorms, and much of our work required dry sidewalks and interactions with folks just sitting outside. So we are postponing that engagement until July and August. I would, however, love to go out there next time it rains as I think that will give another sense of the behavior and infrastructure we want to explore and reflect.

In the days prior to the walk, Charles – the grandfather we’ve long wanted to engage in this work – joined us. He is a philosopher and photographer and is strikingly curious and wise. He will be joining us for a weeklong intensive July 9-15, and I am so excited to have him working with us.

 

new map

Hi,

I have been on the road for various meetings and family events. I’m sorry that I will miss the canoe trip and decoration. I am on a tight deadline for a proposal. Unfortunately, getting grants is a major part of my job – hate it, but so it is.

Here is an updated map of what we have done so far. Also, I’m posting a spreadsheet of the tree data we collected. The table of data contains the attributes of the spatial features (trees for here). This is the information we collected with the GPS units. With the attributes, we can now show in a map where the healthy and stressed trees, among other things.

We have talked about refining the data dictionary. How do we want to describe the features around us? What is important? Do we want to standardize our terms? In science, yes. Scientists often categorize objects in mutually exclusive groups, although the groups can be based on best judgement. Or, do we want to capture how we describe and leave things more open ended. We can then explore patterns in how people perceive their surroundings.

Talk with you soon.

Becky

tree_table

Watershed v Sewershed

I had the lucky opportunity to paddle with Eric Sanderson last week, the developer of the Welikia project. We  paddled down the length of the Bronx River in the Bronx with some WCS scientists now studying the river and its life in the context of the larger world, some WCS staff and  some other guests (including Carolyn Hall, about whom I learned a very interesting connection! Mills!). The group was seeking a closer look  at the river as well as a deeper connection with the local history.

As we paddled down the river, sharing information about what each of us knew, including long gone mills and communities and well intentioned restoration efforts that have gone awry,  I shared with the group  the damage that occurs to the river and its population every time there is a rainfall due to the built environment that surrounds it.   In Westchester it is due to the fact that virtually all water that falls on impervious surfaces  enters the nearest local water body, and  how in NYC a certain quantity of rain over a given amount of time  in a sewer shed that causes street and sanitary sewage to enter the river.  As this is our lot in today’s world, I often advocate for teaching about the sewershed ( where all of our  neighborhood sewers combine) as opposed to the watershed ( where, in the natural world, all rainfall in a given area eventually comes together). As city dwellers with a constructed sewer system, we have a direct effect on the water that enters our sewers and the watershed is long gone. So, why not teach that fact and base all further understanding off of that position? I can have an effect on what enters the sewers through my apartment pipes, as well as what physical matter (bottles, cans) may enter the sewers through the street, and feeling some control is a feeling of some power. No?

After exiting the canoes at Hunts Pont Riverside Park, watching the river change from (constructed) natural surroundings to the obvious industrial human impacts, Eric asked me if we shouldn’t teach the watershed as the primary focus. “When the sewers were constructed,” he offered, “we took advantage of natural grades as much as possible, placing sewer pipes in streams and slopes.” I argued that some sewer pipes run counter to the apparent grade of the streets, making the watershed seem obsolete, but his firm position that the major factor in deciding sewer placement was existing watershed grades and make more sense as the first step. Eric also put forth that the water shed is the larger community and, at the same time that it ties us in to the historical landscape, encompasses the entire community that has an effect on the water body discussed: The Bronx River.

As a hard head, I kept up my argument, but the walks through the neighborhood, especially Thursday’s walk, have bent me quite a bit. The encounter with the incongruous willow, Josue’s comment of a possible historic stream and a closer look at the surrounding geography; gentle slopes and valleys, point to that watershed and the  sewer shed that follows it below our view.  It may vary depending on the neighborhood, it is necessary to keep it in mind. I am still not sure if there should be a given order to the explanation, but they should be in tandem.

We also had an interesting conversation about relative history and how most of us, upon arrival somewhere, see history beginning at that time. Might make for a nice discussion and a need to layer maps through personal perspective. Eric wants to come along on some part of our walks so I will keep him informed of our planned meetings.

Damian Griffin

Hitting Our Stride

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By Paloma McGregor

We met at our usual spot yesterday, at the top of the watershed. While I appreciate the slow and steady way meeting there has helped us deepen our relationships with one another and the mapping process, I expressed a need to move more in the direction of the river.

So, we went to the farthest point we’d mapped so far, the far corner of the Quarry Fields, and decided to each take a turn as the choreographers of a walk, giving a particular task that we all follow. I went first, and asked that we each pick one of the four roads radiating from the intersection and map one block, traveling up one side and back on the other, then regroup.

I also asked that if we mapped something that is at a low level – a cement tree pit, for example – we keep our gaze low until we got to the next green landmark. Same for other levels, high or eye-level. But I quickly lost focus on that task, as I met three guys from a biker club called the Ching-A-Lings and they told me about their group, encouraged me to take a photo on their bike and let me know that the trees in front of the nearby apartment complex were planted 20 years ago. Another man, who was sitting under one of the trees, said there were similar plantings all along 180th Street two decades ago, but kids climbed them and many of them didn’t make it. That’s why the tree he was under had a hip-high metal gate around it, he said. It will be interesting to try to track that history and see what else we can find out about the history of tree-planting projects in this neighborhood.

When we met again, Damian shared that on the shady block he mapped, a woman said the trees are a big safety concern for her. There is only one streetlight on her side of the long block, and the big tree canopies – which we had remarked were beautiful – block the light and make her concerned about walking at night. It’s interesting to be learning the complex layers of people’s relationships to their green spaces.

One significant thing about yesterday’s walks are that we are beginning to develop some simple ways of deepening a physical understanding of the spaces we’re mapping. When Josue, Damian and Becky began talking about mapping wide sidewalks (which we’d decided to map as potential green spaces), Damian shared that in certain greening plans, a sidewalk 16 feet wide offered enough space for a bike path, trees and walkway. A-ha! I asked Becky to stretch her fingertips to the wall of the playground we were standing in front of, then had Damian and Josue join her, fingertip to fingertip. It was a clear and powerful way to understand the space’s potential using our bodies. How many ways could people configure themselves to measure a sidewalk’s potential to be greener? (The experience has actually changed the way I see the sidewalks I’ve walked down since.)

Another idea that kept emerging was the size of the cement tree pits and the way they can constrict the roots of a tree and stop it from reaching its full potential. We played a bit as a group with our body’s dimensions and then with boxing one another in with our bodies to get an embodied sense of what the tree experiences.

Josue pointed out an area that was likely a stream, because of its incline, flow and the presence of a huge willow tree. (I am hoping he writes about that.) Our arrival at the willow made me reflect on the course we’d charted so far and potential landmarks/stories along the way: the GI site at the top of the watershed (our starting point), the 20-year-old trees missing from 180th st, the wide sidewalk, the willow.

By the time we map our way to the river, we will have more than enough landmarks to take a walk that represents a range of physical experiences, environments and histories. On the walk back to the train on 179th St, Becky and I came across two vibrant community gardens, and an empty lot that had the potential for gardens. I would love to connect with the keepers of those gardens in order to understand their history and the community that organizes around them. I think they could be great landmarks for the walks. (Maybe we could even eat some freshly picked salads there!) I will likely do some of that work on my own in mid-June, as my apparent gift for talking to anyone is showing itself to be a useful way of learning about this community. Looking forward!

Here are your maps!

Hi,

It was great to start mapping the area last week for the first time. Any comments on how to improve the data dictionary would be greatly appreciated. This is an iterative process that we will perfect as we learn how to describe and categorize the features we see. I downloaded the data each collected and made quick maps. Take a look! These will only get better with time.

See you tomorrow.

Becky