Interviews

The Artist Building a Bridge from Brooklyn to Governors Island

A rendering of "Citizen Bridge" (all images courtesy Nancy Nowacek)
A rendering of “Citizen Bridge” (all images courtesy Nancy Nowacek)

Nancy Nowacek has a dream: she wants to build a pedestrian bridge between Brooklyn and Governors Island. This is not a metaphor, nor is it a crazy, harebrained scheme. It began four years ago as an art project and has since grown into something larger and multiheaded: an experiment in engineering, a test of bureaucracy, a true possibility, a conversation about our relationship to our waterways.

“Citizen Bridge,” as the project is called, sprang from a simple thought: “We should be able to walk there.” This is what Nowacek told herself in 2012, staring out the window of her apartment in Red Hook and seeing, in the not-too-far distance, Governors Island. She soon found a newspaper article by Walt Whitman describing cows crossing Buttermilk Channel — the name for the body of water between the two land masses — and another from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published on August 19, 1900, that confirmed the existence of a sandbar in the channel. “I can see making this walk again,” she told herself. “I’m just going to figure out how.”

Four years later, the “how” has involved — so far — five artist residencies for Nowacek, a team of 22 people (currently including architect Jonathan Marvel, representatives from the civil engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti and marine engineering firm Glosten), the help of two large law firms, and many kinds of insurance. It’s involved building seven prototypes, including the last one, a 32-by-16-foot, fully engineered, floating “superblock” made from modular blocks of styrofoam floats interconnected with decking pieces; tested last September in Gowanus Bay, the block withstood two simultaneous, asymmetrical loads of 3,000 pounds of sand. It will involve a proof of concept in Brooklyn Bridge Park later this year, featuring a larger test bridge constructed with a different floatation element (sectional barges instead of styrofoam) and running somewhere between 120 and 200 feet. It may involve, after that, more tests, until “Citizen Bridge” is ready to safely span Buttermilk Channel’s 1,400 feet.

Nowacek is now Kickstarting the project, hoping to raise $25,000 for the proof of concept later this year. “We’ve done as much design and engineering and regulatory diligence as we can on very little money, and now have to raise money,” she told me when we met at a cafe last week. Nowacek has a surprisingly calm and easy demeanor for someone who’s immersed in trying to pull off a project that sounds basically impossible — likely because it’s been both her passion and her work for the better part of four years. Over cups of tea, we discussed the origin, challenges, and potential future of “Citizen Bridge,” and how “incredibly powerful and incredibly intimate” it is to “just to be standing on a platform completely surrounding by water.”

Nancy Nowacek standing on the "Citizen Bridge" "Superblock Prototype" in Gowanus Bay
Nancy Nowacek standing on the “Citizen Bridge” superblock prototype in Gowanus Bay

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Jillian Steinhauer: You’ve told me that you’re engineering this project for “one of the most difficult waterways in the country.” Why is Buttermilk Channel so difficult?

Nancy Nowacek: Somebody described it as, imagine trying to flush the entirety of the Long Island Sound through a really narrow pipe. The Long Island Sound is huge, and it starts to get funneled down, and when it gets to Buttermilk Channel, there’s a lot of pressure that’s been built up. In addition, there’s the trench and the normal conditions of the rocks that just create a— this is not the most expert description, but it basically creates a super crazy churning current. I think that’s owed to Governors Island’s proximity to Brooklyn. I mean, the East River’s coming like this [hand motion], and then it takes a hard turn, and Governors Island is basically trying to break all that pressure.

Everybody says, “You know, the currents are really tough,” or, “You know, getting insurance is really hard.” It’s one of those things where, rationally, of course this is very hard. But you have no idea what hard means until you’re in the middle of trying to do it.

JS: How could you? I feel like you could never have fathomed all of the things. If you had, you probably wouldn’t have done it — that’s the gift. You have to believe it’s possible.

NN: That is the blessing of being an artist, I think: you have no idea what will lie on the other side, but you can just see it.

JS: We talked a long time ago, but it would be nice to hear you speak again about the inspiration for and the very beginning of the project.

NN: The project really started because I moved to Red Hook. I grew up swimming. Swimming saved me as a kid.

JS: Where did you grow up?

NN: I grew up in Virginia, but I was a really fat kid, and the only physical activity I was really good at was swimming. Being in a swimming pool was my happy place. That’s the one thing I think I’ll do until I die.

I’ve felt this way when I’ve been out in LA, which is the frustration of being on a beach and not being able to get into the water. I didn’t have that feeling [in New York] until I moved to Red Hook, because everywhere else I lived, the water was a vista in the distance. In Red Hook, it was there in my face every day, and I was like, “I live on an island, and there is a beach, and I can’t get in the water. I’m afraid to get in the water.” When I moved there, I really felt like I’d come home in the city, yet there was this tension. My bedroom window looked out across Buttermilk Channel. I was looking at the water and watching the boats and feeling really disempowered.

Proposed location of "Citizen Bridge" (click to enlarge)
Proposed location of “Citizen Bridge” (click to enlarge)

It was in doing research around Governors Island that everything started coming together. I’ve been equally obsessed with Governors Island — I think it’s like the city’s hidden mystery backyard. When those two things came together and I started learning about them, that’s when the project was born. I was like, “It’s really close. It seems like we should be able to walk there.” Then, [I found] the Walt Whitman piece in the Brooklyn Eagle talking about the sandbar. I was like, “OK, so it’s not just me. This used to be a really accessible public space for the city.” That completely changed the way I think about the waterways, because heretofore they were a backdrop and a surface, but at that point, they became a public space like a park or sidewalk. I was like, “All right. I can see making this walk again. I’m just going to figure out how.”

JS: I feel like my brain would never go there. It’s so awesome that your brain did.

NN: I’m glad it did, but I don’t even know how I really got there. I was like, “We should be able to walk there.” Then I read that Robert Moses had proposed a bridge … and I’d been completely — I don’t even know what the word is, I’ll say “inspired” by Santiago Calatrava’s gondola. It seemed so unlikely. It just left an afterimage on my mind. Neither of those projects got built because they seemed clearly out of scale with Governors Island as a space and a place to get to. But that’s really when the project came together. It was like, “Well, what if we went at it from exactly the other end?”

JS: You’re totally right. You can’t drive to Governors Island because you can’t drive on Governors Island. You would walk there. That would be the thing.

NN: Yeah, and you don’t need like a Roosevelt Island–style gondola to get people and their sodas 1,400 feet. Nobody revealed to me, until after I had been working on this project for eight months, that they thought I was speaking metaphorically.

JS: Ha!

NN: When I started a residency on Governors Island with LMCC, we all had to go around in a circle and say who we were and what we were going to do. I was like, “My name’s Nancy. I’m going to build a bridge.” People were like, “Right on, OK. You’re going to build a bridge.”

JS: When was that?

NN: It was 2012, and I thought it would take me six months. Every project and job experience I’d had until this point, I was working in a cycle of one week, one month, or maybe four to six months for really long projects. That was just as long as I could conceive of anything taking.

What’s kept the project going is the incredible lens it is for living in the city. It is an unbelievable lens to understand how the city is built, how it operates. And to unpack the manifold layers of the waterways. Some people are like, “Why are you so passionate about the waterways?” I’m like, “Because I’ve seen up-close how amazing and important they are to our daily lives, and how we are so disconnected from them.”

What’s so interesting is that this project started as being about reclaiming this walk and the waterways as public space, but it’s really expanded to reconnecting New Yorkers to their waterways. In my mind, the bridge is a catalyst to an even larger set of events that bring together all the people I’ve met doing amazing stuff on the waterways. Citizen Bridge is going to be a daylong experience, but now it’s going to be surrounded by a month of hands-on activities where New Yorkers can spend a month building a boat and getting in the water in it, or learning how to fish, or learning how to build a houseboat — reconnecting with skills from the city’s past and future.

Testing the superblock prototype in September 2015
Testing the superblock prototype in September 2015

JS: So the concept for the project has grown to encompass much more than just the bridge.

NN: We have a much bigger vision that’s modeled on Summer Streets, where the waterways could possibly be closed for alternate uses for half a day or a day. Then, beyond that, this is not the only coastal city in America, the world, that could use a bridge to reconnect to its waterways.

JS: What’s the progression from what you tested last September to what you’re hoping to test this September, i.e. from prototype and proof of concept?

NN: The [prototype] was 32 by 16 feet. For the proof of concept, we’re looking at anywhere from 120 to 200 feet. We’re hoping to keep it up for a week or two to really test its performance — to bring people onto the bridge and learn as much as we can.

JS: Right, if you could keep it up for a while, you could learn more.

NN: The challenge with Buttermilk Channel is we can’t test anything in it, so we’re doing our best to simulate it.

JS: Why not?

NN: We’ll impede navigation. It’s funny, before you got here, I was making a list of all of the meetings we’ve had in the past year, because I just learned that all of the people I was working with at the Coast Guard got reassigned. This is my third group of people at the Coast Guard.

JS: I admire your patience.

NN: Or foolishness. I don’t know. I find it fascinating. This project is a 1,000 tiny bridges between me and everyone I’ve met.

JS: I was going to say, it’s as much engineering as it is navigating bureaucracy. I feel like the feat is as much in that as it is in building the actual bridge.

NN: Yeah, and for me, it’s the thrill. Don’t get me wrong: the real thing is going to be unbelievable. But every single conversation about the project is wonderfully fulfilling, even the new guy at the Coast Guard for the third time. I’m like, “Here’s what we’re trying to do.” There’s the pause. “OK … ” It’s wildly fulfilling to have these conversations and hear the space of possibility expanding in the mind of the person I’m talking to.

JS: And people’s minds will expand even more once they’re on the bridge. What is it supposed to feel like?

The "Citizen Bridge" superblock protoype
The “Citizen Bridge” superblock protoype

NN: It’s supposed to feel like you’re having a catch-up with an old friend, if that friend is the water. That’s what I felt this summer: I could feel the water rolling under and around me, but I also felt like I was standing in conversation with it. If “The Gates” were meant to reframe a walk through Central Park, this is reframing your whole idea of what walking in the city means —your whole idea of what the city is. For us, the city is the sidewalks and asphalt, it’s parkland. But the city is really 528 miles of coastline containing a lot of water that isn’t just a surface, it’s a volume.

JS: Has anyone ever swum the route where you’re planning your bridge? Can you swim across the Buttermilk Channel?

NN: I have never read of anyone doing it successfully. That’s how fast the currents move. There was an artist on LMCC last summer who swam from Manhattan to Governors Island. He’s a writer, and his footage is incredible. He’s a lifelong, long-distance swimmer, and he … I watched him basically dive off one of the ferry slips to Governors Island, and my stomach flip-flopped. I was like, “That is still a terrifying idea to me.”

One of the things that this past summer made me think a lot about is risk, and the current climate of risk we have in the city — how you just mention doing a project that involves people on the water, and 9 out of 10 insurance brokers will walk away.

JS: Is it because of Sandy?

NN: No, it’s because the water is perceived, in this day and age, as inherently dangerous. It’s not a part of our daily lives. One hundred years ago, when the city was at its peak waterway use, water was part and parcel of everyone’s daily experience in one way, shape, or form. When I think about the future of the city that I want this project to help catalyze, it’s a future where every New Yorker learns how to swim — because think about how the idea of what’s dangerous changes if everyone knows how to swim.

And one way to help everyone learn how to swim is to control the sewer overflow. It’s such an interesting set of interconnected issues.

JS: Although when we were using the water, we were also destroying it — so much of the use was industrial, and that’s how we polluted the crap out of it, which is why we’re afraid to swim.

NN: I know. It’s true. We have a ways to go, but the more people that can have an iota of the moment that I’ve had, where it’s just like, “Holy shit” …

JS: You’re right. Once you have a relationship to it, you think about it differently.

Nancy Nowacek’s “Citizen Bridge” is fundraising on Kickstarter through May 20.

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