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The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned

The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Accidental Playground: Brooklyn Waterfront Narratives of the Undesigned and Unplanned
    Book Description:

    Highly illustrated and artfully researched, the book will draw readers into a unique space in one of New York City's most popular boroughs. The Accidental Playground explores the remarkable landscape created by individuals and small groups who occupied and rebuilt an abandoned Brooklyn waterfront. While local residents, activists, garbage haulers, real estate developers, speculators, and two city administrations fought over the fate of the former Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal (BEDT), others simply took to this decaying edge, transforming it into a unique venue for leisure, creative, and everyday practices. These occupiers and do-it-yourself builders created their own waterfront parks and civic spaces absent every resource needed for successful urban development, including plans, designs, capital, professional assistance, consensus, and permission from the waterfront's owners. Amid trash, ruins, weeds, homeless encampments, and the operation of an active garbage transfer station, they inadvertently created the "Brooklyn Riviera" and made this waterfront a destination that offered much more than its panoramic vistas of the Manhattan skyline. The terminal evolved into the home turf for unusual and sometimes spectacular recreational, social, and creative subcultures, including the skateboarders who built a short-lived but nationally renowned skatepark, a twenty-five-piece "public" marching band, fire performance troupes, artists, photographers, and filmmakers. At the same time it served the basic recreational needs of local residents. Collapsing piers became great places to catch fish, sunbathe, or take in the views; the foundation of a demolished warehouse became an ideal place to picnic, practice music, or do an art project; rubble-strewn earth became a compelling setting for film and fashion shoots; a broken bulkhead became a beach; and thick patches of weeds dotted by ailanthus trees became a jungle. These reclamations, all but ignored by city and state governments and property interests that were set to transform this waterfront, momentarily added to the distinctive cultural landscape of the city's most bohemian and rapidly changing neighborhood. Drawing on a rich mix of documentary strategies, including observation, ethnography, photography, and first-person narrative, Daniel Campo probes this accidental playground, allowing those who created it to share and examine their own narratives, perspectives, and conflicts. The multiple constituencies of this waterfront were surprisingly diverse, their stories colorful and provocative. When taken together, Campo argues, they suggest a radical reimagining of urban parks and public spaces, and the practices by which they are created and maintained. The Accidental Playground, which treats readers to an utterly compelling story, is an exciting and distinctive contribution to the growing literature on unplanned spaces and practices in cities today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-5205-3
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

    (pp. 1-8)

    On june 13, 2000, New York Governor George Pataki announced that the state had agreed to purchase seven acres of waterfront property in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where it would build New York’s 160th state park. With its stunning views of midtown Manhattan, the property was part of a vacant waterfront railroad yard on Williamsburg’s Northside known as the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal or BEDT. Closed in 1983, the yard was for more than a century where freight cars were pulled off of and pushed onto barges, connecting Williamsburg factories, refineries, and warehouses with similar terminals on the New...

    (pp. 9-32)

    From the end of the pier at North 6th Street, I looked back toward the landmass of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A section below me was collapsed, forming an irregularly shaped chasm that stretched across the width of the pier. In a shallow puddle at the bottom of this depression lay a series of well-eroded wood beams in layers both along and perpendicular to the length of the pier—the wood cribbing that had provided the pier’s foundation. Several of these beams had been dislodged from the supportive positions in which they were laid untold years earlier. A carpet of weeds covered...

    (pp. 33-66)

    From the street, BEDT might have seemed an unlikely venue for skateboarding, a sport dependent on continuous paved surfaces. But tucked behind the terminal’s only remaining building were two long expanses of concrete, each slightly pitched toward the water. These were the one-time foundations of freight houses into which bulk materials were unloaded from rail cars that ran on flanking tracks. While concrete is the preferred medium for skateboarders, these surfaces were covered with so much garbage, debris, and weeds that they hardly suggested a potential skateboarder’s paradise.¹ But in late 1999, neighborhood skaters organized a cleanup of the north...

  4. CHAPTER 3 MARCH AND BURN: Practice, Performance, and Leisure without a Plan
    (pp. 67-100)

    The skateboarders were not the only creative constituency that made regular use of the Slab. The dynamic conditions of this building foundation—expansiveness, relative flatness, and a lack of obstructions—also lent itself to a number of other practices, performances, and events. Many of these activities occurred on an ad hoc basis, and practitioners appropriated as much concrete as they needed. But the waterfront did have its “resident” performers—a punk rock marching band and a troupe of fire performers—who exploited the lack of rules and supervision, and BEDT’s relative remoteness, to serially remake this platform into a semi-public...

  5. CHAPTER 4 OUTSIDE ART: Exploring Wildness and Reclamation at the Water’s Edge
    (pp. 101-132)

    On the first day of december 2001—a Saturday—dozens of people enjoyed unusually temperate conditions at BEDT. In the fading afternoon light, warm air prevailed and the many who remained—some still in short sleeves—were momentarily distracted from their leisure pursuits when an old beat-up truck with Massachusetts plates rumbled onto the terminal, entering from the usually locked North 7th Street gate. Stopping seventy-five yards in, the truck had already drawn a small crowd of admirers. BEDT’s primitive conditions and lack of access made it unusual to see any functioning motor vehicle, let alone a 1948 Ford pickup....

  6. CHAPTER 5 LOCAL TALES: Hanging Out and Observing Life on the Waterfront
    (pp. 133-158)

    Aside from those living there, BEDT’s most regular constituency was a group of middle-aged working-class men from the immediate neighborhoods who came in good weather and bad, on weekdays and weekends, in the day, evening, and sometimes at night. These men—the “locals,” as I will call them—made BEDT their informal social club, spending many hours hanging out, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and an occasional joint, reading, listening to music, and enjoying the scenery at this waterfront spot. Sometimes they barbecued, and in the cold weather they kept a fire going—burning scrap wood in a rusted fifty-five-gallon oil...

  7. CHAPTER 6 RESIDENTIAL LIFE: Hardship and Resiliency on the Waterfront
    (pp. 159-184)

    While the neighborhood locals were probably the longest-tenured recreators of the North Brooklyn waterfront, they were not the constituency that spent the most time at the Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal. As the locals and others socialized, sunbathed, fished, or pursued art or sport, a group of homeless men carried on with the mundane activities of life, often just feet away. Each night somewhere between three and three dozen people slept at BEDT (although usually the number was under twelve) in improvised or store-bought tents or in shanties assembled from construction debris and other found materials.

    Many of these men lived...

  8. CHAPTER 7 NEIGHBORS AGAINST GARBAGE: Activism and Uneasy Alliances on the Waterfront
    (pp. 185-216)

    Many of the insurgent agents that appropriated BEDT for recreative and other purposes were largely unaware of or unconcerned about the broader conflict over the future redevelopment of the Williamsburg waterfront. As the 1990s progressed, more people began to discover and use the Northside waterfront for more activities, more of the time. And by the turn of the millennium, the sheer volume of users and the regularity of their activities surely suggested, as a few told me, that this was “the people’s waterfront.” Only part of this circumstance was accidental. Behind the scenes a group of local residents had been...

  9. CHAPTER 8 UNPLANNED POSTSCRIPT: Dogs, Sunsets, Rock Bands, and the Governance of a Waterfront Park
    (pp. 217-240)

    In early 2005, I received an unexpected e-mail from Chip Place, the recently hired director of Capital Facilities and Planning for the New York City Regional Office of State Parks. He had inherited the BEDT park project and was interested in my research. Now that the NYU partnership was dead, he wanted to discuss ideas for the design and program of the terminal, particularly those involving interim use. I had been pursuing State Parks for more than three years at that point; my numerous requests for interviews and planning documents were all declined, unanswered, or passed along to another party...

    (pp. 241-264)

    Hanging out with the Hungry March Band one afternoon in 2001, I asked one of the saxophone players, Emily, how she felt about letting her nine-year-old son, Sam, run around BEDT as they practiced. Was she worried about broken glass, rusty or sharp edges, hard surfaces, or something more unsavory lurking in the margins? “You must think that I am a terrible mom,” she replied, somewhat defensively. After thinking about it some more she said, “I’m concerned about rats—I’ve never seen them but I know they are there.” As with many vacant places in the city, particularly those along...