Public Lab Research note

Mapping a Human Scaled World

by eymund | February 20, 2014 17:54 20 Feb 17:54 | #10050 | #10050

In February 2014, Alberto Minujin at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy (The New School) convened a panel to discuss community, political and technical lessons learned from ongoing cleanup of the Gowanus Canal Superfund Site, and what lessons could be applied to a similar program of cleaning the Matanza-Riachuelo River, a polluted area in Greater Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Christos Tsiamis, United States Environmental Protection Agency, David Briggs, Gowanus by Design, Hans Hesselein, Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Owen Foote, Gowanus Dredgers and Ron Weissbard, from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection all gave insightful presentations on challenges of reconciling sometimes conflicting priorities of City versus State cleanup programs, and the role of local community advocacy groups in keeping the cleanup process moving forward.

I had to talk about the role of the community pioneers - the artists who recolonized and rebuilt many of the abandoned industrial spaces.


2007 - Gowanus Street Art: Amara looking at New Orleans Katrina flood art at Union and Nevins Street, 5 years before this area would be underwater itself.

In particular I spoke the role of Proteus Gowanus, a local cultural arts group that helps deepen the community’s sense of context and connection.

This "connectivity" was done in part by making accessible more micro scale data about our neighborhood through a digital resource archive including a comprehensive historical library, and an archive of the thousands of individual aerial photos taken by GLAM over the last three years.

To illustrate the value of the Citizen Generated mapping data, I used the story of the human scaled map by the Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges, called "On Exactitude in Science" (Del Rigor en La Scienca) from his Universal History of Infamy:

"…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography."

The Public Lab aerial photography had been used by the Gowanus Canal Conservancy to do rational scientific analysis of vegetation and urban ecology, pollution patterns, and identifying buried historic streams.

Proteus artists decided they wanted to use balloon aerial photography to capture the lighter matter of dreams - the "tattered ruins of that map" - the fragments of community memory.

The "Brouwer's Pillow Memorial Art Project" - a 10 minute long art happening - explored the Public Lab idea that the highest resolution possible in photography is reality itself, seen through the prism of local knowledge. We just needed to find a way of capturing that unseen reality - the one that had been buried and forgotten. The project we focused on was the ghost sleeping underneath our feet.

Adam Brouwer was the very first European settler to build a tidal mill on what was then Gowanus Creek. Around 1650, he built dams and created several large mill ponds flooding the tidal marshes between 4th Avenue and Bond Street with water. He was also infamous for having been a mercenary hired by the Dutch West Indies Company to massacre local Indians during Kiefts War (1643-1645). Legend has it that he was part of the group of soldiers that used severed Indian heads to play football on Bowling Green in lower Manhattan.


1692 - Last Will and Testament of Adam Brouwer's with his "mark" (he couldn't sign his name) where he disinherits some of his children for being "disobedient".

By studying the 1766 Ratzer map we figured out that Adam Brouwer's bedroom had been where the Hall of the Gowanus is today.


To excavate this community memory, we decided to recreate the sleeping location of Adam Brouwer, the Gowanus Indian War mercenary whose bedroom used to be in the Proteus courtyard. Lado Pochkua and myself used the GLAM balloon that was being stored overnight at Proteus to capture some dream aerials.

In this photograph, the shadows of the Proteus building roughly follow the foundations of the 1655 soldier's house. The body indicates the site of the proposed Dream Pillow.



2012, 9 July - Lado Pochkua, holding the balloon used in the Brouwers Pillow Kiefts War Memorial Art Project Balloon, photo by Eymund



The human figure captures the scale of where Adam would have slept some 360 years ago.



Over time, the concrete will be further cracked to create dream waves of self seeding plants (plantain, or white mans foot) radiating from the Dream Pillow.


The double string system, where the balloon camera is controlled by two people, allows for the fragile balloon to be navigated safely in confined spaces such as industrial alleyways filled with rusty nails. With heavy winds a third string can be added, allowing for a triangulated stability.

In the balloon aerial, we capture the "crack ecology" of Pauwlonia tomentosa trees emerging in Proteus courtyard grates. Left alone, these would eventually become a successional urban forest. These Pauwlonia, or Empress Tree leaves are ghost remnants of the global commerce that resulted in the Indian's annihilation: the seed pods of the tree were used by the Dutch West Indies company to pack delicate china porcelain in crates during the 1600's. We can imagine the seeds falling off Adam's crates when he first unpacked in 1645.


Proteus used Grassroots aerials to map out the actual footprints of historical buildings, and have been painting their ghost shadows on the ground again. This created the Human Scaled Map, where children can again explore the gateways to their past, by stepping through painted doorways.


We also pulled GLAM aerial photographs from the Human Scaled Map archive to look at the Gowanus Canal waters immediately adjacent to the Proteus building.


2012 8 July, Balloon photography aerial of the spot that made America.

Joseph Alexiou, in a recent TEDx talk entitled "Without Gowanus, there would be no America", describes the Battle of Brooklyn, and the critical role the Brouwer's Mill Bridge played in allowing America's soldiers to retreat and win the 1776 War of Independence.


2012 8 July - This balloon aerial captures the spot on the Gowanus Canal at Sackett Street, where we would like to see a Underwater Revolutionary War Memorial built as part of the Superfund Cleanup Plan. The Brouwer's Bridge Revolutionary Battle Site is now marked by a sewer overflows scum floatables control barrier.

The old creek's banks have been sheathed with concrete and its waters are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Government. It is an urban cesspool which local residents sometimes call, in the blackest of humor, “Lavender Lake”.

Men fought and died here as part of our American Revolution.

To date, we have honored them with our sewage.

We can as a nation do better than that and I sincerely hope that this subcommittee will give serious consideration to including at least a few hundred acres of land around the former creek bed in the Gateway National Recreational Area”

John H. Lindenbush, executive director, Long Island Historical Society, 1972

at the Hearings before the Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives 92nd Congress, First Session on H.R. 1370 and H.R. 1121 and Related Bills (1972, p. 160)

The Dream Pillow project made this American Revolution restoration idea come back to life as a revitalized concept, and is now part of Community Advisory Group discussions.

As the Superfund cleanup proceeds - an underwater memorial bridge should be built on the bottom of the Canal, so that the shadow of history becomes visible again through the transparency of the now clean waters.


2020 Vision - The Battle of Brooklyn Underwater Memorial - Photo by Daniel Barry for the New York Times, 2005

For those wanting to explore the Gowanus Canal's history further:

Lado Pochkua, will be leading a ZONE A WORKSHOP to continue exploring more of these neighborhood themes:

Drawing the Gowanus A workshop for parents and children (8 – 16 years old) Instructor: Lado Pochkhua Saturdays 10 am – 12 pm Four Sessions: March 1, 8, 15, 22 (Participants can attend one or more workshops) Price per workshop: Parent and child: $75, Individual (child or adult) $40 Price for four sessions: Parent and child: $250, Individual child or adult: $160 Register:

An introduction to drawing techniques, including charcoal, graphite, pen and ink and collage. Participants will explore the post-industrial landscape and artifacts of the Gowanus Canal. The workshop will include a stroll along the Gowanus and a tour of the Hall of the Gowanus, a mini-museum of the canal at Proteus Gowanus. The class will review drawing techniques utilized by a variety of artists throughout history. Lado Pochkhua was born in Sukhumi, Georgia. An accomplished, classically trained artist, Pochkhua graduated from the Sukhumi College of Art in 1994 and the Tbilisi Academy of Art in 2001. He has exhibited internationally in Georgia, Russia, Hungary and the United States. In 2013, he had a solo exhibit at the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi, Georgia.,


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