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Waterfalls in NYC

July 20, 2008

There has been a lot of hoopla over July about the public art installation New York City Waterfalls by artist Olafur Eliasson. There has been much speculation as to the environmental footprint that these waterfalls have, which has been tempered by reassurance from the Public Art Fund that they are powered by renewable energy and do not use gasoline. The materials used in the project, including scaffolding, pumps, and pipes will be reused in other construction projects. All the water is drawn from the East River, which is then returned. The water goes through a filter in intake pools to protect fish and other aquatic life. At night the waterfalls are illuminated by LED lights, which are energy efficient, and all the power usage is closely monitored. This project which runs through October is speculated to generate $55 million- not a bad haul. According to many this is the most ambitious public art project undertaken since The Gates in Central Park, and both are intended to raise issues about human relationship to nature and the urban environment.
While this may be fascinating for some, I prefer to find refuge in the public green spaces that exist in New York. Recently I walked through the Ravine nature trail in Prospect Park in Brooklyn with a friend, and saw the Fallkill, Ambergill, and Binnen Waterfalls for the first time. I then looked up other waterfalls in NYC and found, unsurprisingly that I am not the only one to do this since the public art project opened, and a list of the city’s waterfalls listing was printed in the NY Times. It included everything from other human made waterfalls in parks, to art installations, and just plain leaky pipes.
This list prompted another article in the Times in response to the description of the so called natural looking waterfall in Morningside Park. It describes how the waterfall is in fact not a naturally occuring phenomenon. Colombia University once attempted to build a gym in the park which was protested by community members and students. The project failed and was abandoned, leaving a hole in the rock face. In a renovation in the park in the 80’s the waterfall was constructed to cover up the damage. To me this is an interesting example of how a battle over an attempted privatization of public space and subsequent destruction of the environment was remedied. While I am willing to suspend disbelief as I gaze upon a waterfall, wanting a few moments of relief and beauty, I can’t disregard the reality. We made this thing.


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