Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Misdirected Flow by Edmund Mooney

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Edmund Mooney was in residence on Governors Island from July 9-22, 2018.

Duration: 9 minutes
Materials: Video

Artist Statement: Misdirected Flow is a meditation on the industrialization of a natural resource and the effects of its environmental degradation, rippling out into the surrounding community, upsetting the natural order and causing or inspiring a multitude of injuries and deaths. The Gowanus Creek was a salt marsh of great renown that the Canarsee tribe fished, hunted, and lived on. The Dutch settled there because it reminded them of their native land and they immediately set about taming the waters for their own benefit. The oysters and clams and fish and game pulled from its waters were known the world over as exceptional. Soon after the canalization was completed in the 1840s, people and animals started dying there. Converting the tidal creek into a canal fundamentally changed contact with the water, from the gently sloping banks formed in the last ice age to an abrupt edge dropping off to a a uniform depth well over 10 feet. The resulting cognitive dissonance was deadly: people who couldn’t swim (most everyone in those days) would enter the canal where they used to go wading, only to find that they couldn’t get out.  

We don’t look at the Gowanus and think of a rainforest, but it once teemed with nearly as much biodiversity. Salt marshes are the 2nd most productive and bio-diverse biomes on earth, behind only the rainforest. When the tidal creek was  converted to a canal, it was done on the cheap. Self-cleaning measures were foregone, and the canal became a viaduct for combined sewer and storm drain outflows, a cost-saving shortcut for sewage, rather than taking it all the way to the bay. The canal was designed to become incredibly polluted very quickly and it did just that.  

The canalification of this tidal salt marsh began with the Dutch and increased after an 1826 state decree allowing all land up to 400 feet beyond the low water mark to be developed. My work since 2010 has been more and more focused on the environmental effects of policies like this, on the impact of urban “progress.” In my historical obsessiveness, I see the city as palimpsests or erasures. Each erasure takes a toll on historical reality until no one can really remember what used to be there, and more importantly, how it was to be there. My explorations are an attempt to get back to the ground truth—or the water truth. This piece is the third in a series of meditations on loss of natural resources in the larger Brooklyn/Queens watershed, from the Hunters Point South/Newtown Creek area, to the Flushing River, and now the Gowanus Creek/Canal. The underwater sound and video recordings are my attempt to enter the unswimmable waters and imagine the final resting place of all the people and animals lost. The newspaper clippings anchor the aqueous recordings with their matter-of-fact descriptions. The tragedy of loss is quietly illustrated in the photojournalists’ crumpled images.

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