Meet the River Heads

NANCY NOWACEK: BUILDING A FOOTBRIDGE FROM BROOKLYN TO GOVERNORS ISLAND

Nancy Nowacek, the installation artist, wants you to walk on water. Literally

By LAUREN LIPTON

Back in the day, the quarter mile-wide waterway between Brooklyn and Governors Island was shallow enough to be walkable during low tide. “…Even so late as the Revolutionary War,” the poet and journalist Walt Whitman wrote in 1861, “cattle were driven across from Brooklyn, over what is now Buttermilk Channel, to Governor’s Island….” By the time Whitman was writing, the channel had been cut deeper to allow ships to pass through, putting an end to public walks to the island, now accessible only by ferry.

A Brooklyn artist wants to give Governors Island back to the people — for a day or two. Nancy Nowacek, whose large-scale installations explore the relationship between the manmade and natural environments, hopes to temporarily bridge Buttermilk Channel in 2018 with a structure she calls Citizen Bridge, allowing people to stroll across the water, via a floating platform. Nowacek has been working on the project for almost five years and took a big step earlier this year with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $25,000. She used the money to test a prototype of the platform pieces, made from a styrofoam-like material, but the results didn’t satisfy. Next step for Nowacek: another test of a different material, hopefully this fall.   

UrbanCoast.nyc: Where did this idea come from?

Nowacek: About five years ago, I was living in Red Hook and realized for the first time that we are surrounded by water, and all that water is a public space. I read Whitman’s description of people walking across to Governors Island and the artist in me went, “Wait; we used to be able to walk over there? I want to make that happen.”

UrbanCoast: How do you go from having that thought to making it a reality?  

Nowacek: At the time I didn’t know anything about physics, marine engineering, or tides and currents. But I went out and asked people. I talked to architects, sailors, and any engineer I could meet. I talked to a bridge engineer who was working on the Verrazano Bridge. I talked to an educator who teaches people how to build boats. I’ve also spoken to environmentalists, former government officials, and really anyone with an interest or relationship to either bridges or water.

UrbanCoast: You’ve imagined Citizen Bridge as being on the water, not over the water. What will it be made of?

Nowacek: It will be a series of connected floating platforms. I don’t have the exact number of how many it will be at this point—but, you know, enough to get people across. The goal is for everyone to be able to stand in the middle of the harbor and reconnect with the fact that we’re surrounded by water.

UrbanCoast: What do you hope people will take away from that experience?

Nowacek: I hope the public will get the water back in their lives. The water is what made New York City, and at one time every New Yorker had access to it and the knowledge and skills to interact with it. Over the past 80 years we’ve really lost that relationship. The city turned its back on the water. Industry made it dirty and uninhabitable, so it was viewed as a liability, a threat, and a place of toxicity. Who would want to interact with that?

UrbanCoast: What will this walk be like?

Nowacek: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about strategies to allow the greatest number of people the most intimate experience possible. Our goal is to make the walk feel like a Saturday morning in your neighborhood rather than a Saturday afternoon in Soho.

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