While participating in an artist residency in the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn, NYC, the Red Hook ball fields became a site of particular interest. The ball fields are a large, dedicated sport and recreation area near the public housing and waterfront. Most of the fields have been closed to the public for many years after it was discovered that the soil is severely contaminated with lead. The contamination is a relic of Red Hook’s industrial history and was caused by fumes, dust, smoke, and slag from a nearby secondary level lead smelting facility during the 1920s and 1930s.
With the contaminated fields now contained within high chain-link fences, these off-limit zones take on the appearance of zoo enclosures. The city’s remediation plans have experienced numerous delays, allowing a microcosm of an ecosystem that would otherwise be suppressed by human activity. In ball field #3, young trees have grown so tall that they drop their seeds over the fence onto the running track below. A bounty of pokeweed berries provide important late season food for birds, countless heath aster flowers sustain swarms of flying insects. Pollinators are present in much higher numbers than elsewhere in the neighbourhood, birdsong is noticeably louder. Tracks through the long grass and undergrowth are evidence of squirrels and other small mammals making a safe haven within these areas.
We began to explore the potential of activating the site and devised a simple didactic intervention: Assuming the aesthetic of existing city and park signage, we created vinyl banners that illustrate some of the plants that are present and elaborate on their characteristics, folkloric associations, cultural significance, and medicinal or culinary uses. We installed the banners on the chain-link fence alongside their corresponding plants. We observed people pausing to read the banners while circling the running track.
City officials have stated that the fenced-in areas have been left to grow wild in an effort to repel interest and discourage people frombreaching the fences and using the contaminated fields. Through our intervention, we draw interest back to the site and the plant species that are present.
My participation in the artist-in-residence program at De-Construkt in Brooklyn NY, was made possible through the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the New Brunswick Arts Board, and Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation. Thank you.