We Are All Marsh Dwellers Now

We are at the very beginning of the great give-back; the relinquishment of those lands pilfered over the ages from ocean, wetland and river. Viz: New York City, late October, 2012. Without prodigous feats of engineering, great political will and huge amounts of State and Federal treasure, it is now likely that swathes of the poorer boroughs will be given over to the rising waters in the next decades.

Lower Manhattan, it can be presumed, will be preserved for the foreseeable future as a bastion of late capitalism (No Soft Landing). Super Storm Sandy, however, wreaked real and symbolic damage on these drained riverlands.The museum beneath 9/11 Plaza, which houses the most precious relics from the provocative skirmish at the very beginning of this century's great asymmetrical war of North versus South, was disastrously flooded - fully submerging the iconic fire truck used by Engine Company 21 and the truck on which Ladder Company 3 arrived during the aerial attack on the twin towers.

The memorial to the 3,000 victims of 9/11 has become inextricably enmeshed in the unfolding of a potentially far greater human tragedy: anthropogenic global warming. Michael Arad's twin reflecting pools placed in the footprint of the World Trade Center towers are each flanked, on their four sides, by walls of perpetually cascading water neatly symbolizing the inundation precipitated by Sandy's storm surge. This minimalist gesture may now be commandeered by our imaginings of a future water world, where the Financial District is regularly besieged by storm surges, rising sea levels and hurricanes pushed over the area by the meteorological impacts of Greenland's melting ice-cap. It is often the fate of memorials to be 're-interpreted' as events shape our view of the past. Rarely, if ever, has such a dramatic shift in meaning been instantiated prior to a memorial's official opening.

A little over two years ago, MoMA and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center jointly developed an exhibit, Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront. It featured the work of five interdisciplinary teams who were tasked with "re-envisioning the coastlines of New York and New Jersey around New York Harbor and to imagine ways to occupy the harbor itself with adaptive “soft” infrastructures sympathetic to the needs of an ecology that encompassed the sea-level rise resulting from global climate change". At around the same time, Vision 2020, New York's comprehensive plan for its waterfront, was released. Currently, the New York City Economic Development Corporation is seeking proposals for innovative and cost-saving solutions for completing marine construction projects in New York City.

While Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has made the re-imagination and reactivation of New York’s “6th Borough” – the Waterfront – a central economic development priority, Sandy's storm surge has heightened awareness of its fragility. Post-storm it is evident that the city's 565 miles of waterfront is a frontier that must be defended, or strategically ceded, in an increasingly aqueous world. The shoreline can no longer be defined by traditional, fixed locational matrices (such as grounded buildings and transportation infrastructure) but must be conceived of as a buffer zone alternately firm and fluid. One of the Rising Currents submissions presciently showed how farming oysters in New York Harbor could occupy that zone. Mussels, eels, fish, and crabs offer similar opportunities whereby our urban shorelines could revert to their pre-industrial state and support twenty first century, locavore, coastal tideland collectors.

All creatures impact their environment: there is no static, edenic state of grace to which we can revert. We are part of a highly dynamic system. From oak gall, spider-web and gopher hole to megalopolis we are all opportunistic users and abusers, biologically defined by self-interest. Bloomberg imagines (and is currently creating) parks, running paths, recreational boat-slips, riverside dining emporia and retail quays that will bring new economic life to his city's moribund waterfront: but he is projecting this vision within an environment that is in a heightened state of flux and not necessarily supportive of fixed boundaries between land and water.

Similar imaginings, on a smaller scale, are currently fueling the attempts to re-naturalise the Los Angles river. Personally, I have great affection for the megastructure that channelizes L.A.'s terrestrial hydrologic system that in past times varied from a trickle in the desert to waters rampaging over a vast flood-plain and was never anyone's idea of an archetypal river. However, given the City's acknowledged shortage of green spaces, it may make sense to impose an old-world, Europeanized, park-like vision on the 'river': it remains ironic, however, that its location, arbitrarily defined by the heroic efforts of W.P.A. laborers, will now be further immobilized by efforts to make it recreation-user-friendly and even navigable, both intentions that fundamentally misunderstand the mutable, chimeric character of this sometimes water-course.

The creation of a static boundary for an inherently amorphous system is, of course, doomed to fail. Locally, development is sufficiently sparse and agriculturally oriented that our mighty local rivers, the Ventura and the Santa Clara have some room to move. The re-wilding of the Ventura River, remains a plausible project but the Santa Clara's usually sluggish passage across the agri-business plains of Oxnard is likely to continue to be constrained by the concrete embattlements of economic interest. The containment of these rivers will undoubtedly be stressed by the increased volatility of our Pacific weather systems but it is perhaps the rising ocean that is the greater threat to our developmental infrastructure.

It is a characteristic of successful civilizations that they internalize mechanisms to deal with environmental stresses. The decision of the Chumash and their ancestral cultural congeries not to pursue agriculture (although they were undoubtedly aware of its basic precepts) but to rely instead on the nutritional bounty of the indigenous eco-systems may have enabled them to survive for 13,000 years during which sea levels rose a total of over 300 feet (sometimes at the rate of 24" in a century). We, by contrast, are flummoxed by the prospect of a few inches rise in the Pacific and scared witless by the prospect of the geoid effect whereby the gravitational forces at the earth's surface would be radically impacted by the loss of mass at the poles and thus shift the global displacement of water several meters here or there; or a reversal of the prevailing winds over the Pacific that currently push water levels up to two feet higher in Asia that could swiftly inundate the U.S. west coast.

Disaster scenarios abound, but all are predicated on the unknowable instability likely initiated by the planet's ever thickening carbon blanket. We have drained our coastal wetlands and have paved over our dune successions so that the natural absorptive systems at the continent's fluid edge are inoperative - we have caused our soft edges to atrophy. Protection of the commons has been sacrificed on the altar of narrow self-interests: now we begin to pay for our misaligned attention at the crumbling edges of our continent.

One small, but widely reported installment was rendered in New York City by superstorm Sandy. Another less heralded give-back occurred on Long Island's North Fork, where a year ago I attended a wedding at the Galley-Ho!......

".......a hundred year old scallop-packing shed, latterly converted to a restaurant (long-failed) and currently owned by a local non-profit preservation group. Amidst a century's turmoil, its various owners had neglected to provide either heating or insulation but its prime water-front location was sufficient compensation. It was a beautiful ceremony which I watched while keeping a weather eye on the rising ocean which seemingly threatened to engulf the fragile building; and what began as rain lashing the single paned windows that lined the seaward side of the structure changed texture right about the time that vows were exchanged .....and assumed the soft granulations of wet snow. But the seas failed in their efforts, as they have for five score years, to wash away the scallop shed........" (Waterland)

Until, that is, October 29th 2012, when the building was destroyed by the storm surge.