New York Water Supply

The scenic beauty of the Hudson River Valley, where I moved with my wife in 2011 from New York City, isn't a pristine condition. Much of the forest in the Valley was clear cut before the beginning of the nineteenth century. The indigenous population was decimated. The area is bedeviled by depopulation, poverty and unemployment, and degraded infrastructure.


A 1935 postcard titled "New York City Water Supply" shows a man standing near his parked car, admiring a view of the Ashokan reservoir. The image announces the advent of the New York watershed as a tourist destination. 


Pastoral places city and country in binary opposition, and ignores the territory in between. In fact, their organizational logics are coextensive. For example, the intersection of commercial, academic, media, and military interests culminated in 1956 in passage of the Interstate Highway Act, which transformed rural communities throughout the United States. General Motors, which lobbied for the legislation, had surpassed Ford as the world’s largest manufacturer of automobiles in the twenties by introducing “image-based marketing practices“, such as “dynamic obsolescence”, and streamlined “body styling” in which style overcame function.


The development of the New York water supply transformed both New York City and the Hudson River Valley. Until the completion of the New Croton Aqueduct at the end of the nineteenth century, New York’s water had come from city reservoirs. Residential development in the suburbs, and resistance to filtering and reducing profligate consumption, led to the expansion of the water supply into the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. Thousands of acres were flooded, and entire communities were displaced, to create a network of reservoirs to provide water to New York City's burgeoning population. Strict sanitary protocols were imposed on the work camps and watershed population. “The BWS (Board of Water Supply) fenced most work camps, installing incinerators to burn garbage and fecal matter, and thoroughly treated liquid wastes before discharging them into watercourses. Contractors agreed to supply workers and their families with clean drinking water, and to establish isolation wards to quarantine workers suspected of carrying communicable diseases.” In 1915, the city passed legislation that “outlawed disposal of garbage, manure, and other wastes into watercourses; banned privies, stables, and similar structures from a buffer zone around streams and reservoirs; and prohibited laundry washing and swimming in the reservoirs”.


The geographic and social disruptions Upstate had reciprocal effects in the City. The new water system was concealed underground, along with transportation and electrical infrastructure. Redundant above-ground water resources were demolished or repurposed. The New York Public Library replaced the Croton Reservoir, signaling New York’s wealth and cultural aspirations. Robert Moses exploited BWS ownership of the water system on Long Island to create an extensive system of parks.


My engagement with art and architecture is informed by incongruities between my "modern" training and my rural environment. I have been investigating the potential of found objects, including trees, masonry, cattle panels, pickup truck beds, maps, and plastic culverts, to generate forms in a variety of media, including making furniture by casting voids created by split logs and shattered bricks. Objects are scalable and repeatable, and cast in a variety of materials including bronze. The Gardens reverse the logic of a series of paintings begun 30 years ago. Their execution is serial, and indefinitely extendable.


"Proletarian [art] usually has a suggestion of pastoral, a puzzling form which looks proletarian but isn't. The wider sense of the term includes such folk literature as is by the people, for the people, and about the people. But most fairy stories and ballads, though 'by' and 'for', are not 'about'; whereas pastoral though 'about', is not 'by' or 'for'."

William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral


References:

Martin, Rheinhold. The Organizational Complex. The MIT Press, 2003.

Wallenstein, Sven-Olav. Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture. The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Columbia University, and Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.

Easterling, Keller. Organization Space. The MIT Press, 1999.

Soll, David. Empire of Water. An Environmental and Political History of the New York City Water Supply. Cornell University Press. 2013