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


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.



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


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!