Block By Block: New York Street Historians

On Sunday, November 20th, 2011, I curated an event titled "Block By Block: New York Street Historians" at UnionDocs, the documentary collaborative in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The event was a panel discussion with several "street historians" who are creatively exploring and documenting the city - author Kevin Walsh of Forgotten New York, location scout Nick Carr of Scouting New York, urban explorer Moses Gates of All City New York, and tour guide Cindy VandenBosch of Urban Oyster. "Block by Block" was featured in the Wall Street Journal, Urban Omnibus, and the Brooklyn Paper, and in an article I wrote for PBS 13 WNET's website, MetroFocus. The event was part of a series of UnionDocs panels I am curating - the first, from April 2011, was "Down the Road: Modern New York Street Photographers." More information can be seen at the UnionDocs website.

The following is from my description of "Block By Block":

"In a city as vast as New York, there is always a story waiting to be told, a block waiting to be walked, a building with an unwritten history. Over the past decade, many New Yorkers have been creatively documenting the changing streets of the city on websites and blogs. Often, these modern day storytellers are not historians or authors by training. Their work is part of a tradition of “unofficial,” “informal,” “underground,” and “alternative” histories of New York City. However, after walking through the city block by block, a better title for their work could be “street history.”

The modern New York City street historian can be traced back to George G. Foster, a reporter who explored 1800′s New York as it grew from a town into a modern metropolis. His seminal work, “New York By Gas Light” (1850), is considered a groundbreaking example of urban non-fiction, and presented “the under-ground story – of life in New York,” with portraits of “the festivities of prostitution, the orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder, the scenes of drunkenness and beastly debauch.”

Foster’s candid explorations of New York’s streetscapes directly influenced the work of many writers in the 1900′s, including Joseph Mitchell – The New Yorker magazine’s “poet of the waterfront,” Herbert Asbury – a reporter who penned a series of “informal” New York histories including “The Gangs of New York,” and Meyer Berger – a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and “incurable New Yorker” whose colorful New York portraits were published in several collections.

In the same era, several New York street historians physically embraced the challenge of exploring modern New York. For his magnum opus, “History in Asphalt” (1978), amateur historian John McNamara walked, biked or canoed every street in the Bronx, creating an exhaustive encyclopedia of street and place names. His peers include Commander Thomas J. Keane, who completed his walk of every street on Manhattan Island in 1954. Unfortunately, Keane did not keep a diary, but in the next century, Robert Jay Kaufman did, writing “Blockology: An Offbeat Walking Guide to Lower Manhattan” (2005), after walking the 1,544 blocks below 14th Street, a distance of about 300 miles.

Today’s panel brings together four active New York City street historians – a guide, an author, an urban explorer, and a location scout – who are tirelessly exploring the 21st century city, block by block, on their own unique paths - Nathan Kensinger, curator"

Announcing The Newtown Creek Armada

On November 8th, 2011, The North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition (nbART) announced the selection of its sixth public art project, The Newtown Creek Armada, an interactive installation in which a model boat pond will be created on the Newtown Creek, one of America's most polluted waterways. The Newtown Creek Armada is a collaboration between myself and two other Brooklyn artists - Laura Chipley and Sarah Nelson Wright - whose work also explores industry, ecology, and change in urban spaces. The project was created in response to nbECO 2012, an open call seeking environmentally and sustainability conscious art installations.

The Newtown Creek Armada will be launched in Fall 2012, when visitors will be invited to pilot a fleet of artist-created, miniature, radio-controlled boats along the Newtown Creek's surface, while at the same time documenting the world hidden beneath the water. Each boat in The Armada will be equipped with a waterproof camera, allowing participants to record a unique voyage on and under the creek. Video from these underwater explorations will be on view at the creek, giving visitors a chance to virtually immerse themselves in the toxic waters of this Superfund site. In 2013, the archive of voyages from The Armada will be presented in an immersive gallery installation.

The Newtown Creek has been a neglected toxic waste zone for more than a century, and has been described as "the bleeding edge of an environmental disaster, one of the largest oil spills in the world," by Mother Jones Magazine. I have been photographing the polluted banks of the Newtown Creek for several years, as part of my explorations of New York City's industrial edges. Photo essays on this website about aspects of life along the creek include Newtown Creek: Brooklyn Shores (2011), Secret Parties (2009), The Dutch Kills (2008) and Linden Hill Tracks (2007). In 2010, the Newtown Creek was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a massive cleanup effort is now underway. The Newtown Creek Armada will engage the long history of the creek while inviting the public to explore the potential of its polluted waters.

For more information on The Newtown Creek Armada, please visit the project's website: