If Only the City Could Speak
Sunswick Creek Walk
Text by Robert Sullivan
This walk follows the path of Sunswick Creek, a paved-over creek that once meandered through Ravenswood but is now channeled through underground pipes that are part of our sewer system. Follow the red and white bands as you trace the course of the old stream bed. Along the way, get a glimpse of neighborhood’s past and reflect on how a natural system continues to shape this neighborhood today. You will also see the line of the creek as it meanders through Socrates Sculpture Park, one of four installations in the Civic Action exhibition.
If you would like to participate in the questionnaire and receive a text message when you are eligible for free admission into the Noguchi Museum, please press 1. If you wish to opt out of the questionnaire please press 2. You will still be able to take the tour and leave voice comments.
This project is the second phase of Ravenswood / City as Living Lab as part of Civic Action, an initiative sponsored by Socrates Sculpture Park and The Noguchi Museum. This project is by Mary Miss in collaboration with Belinda Kanpetch, Elliott Maltby, Simeon Poulin, writer Robert Sullivan and landscape ecologist, Eric Sanderson
Stop 1: 16 Oaks Park
In the park at 37th Avenue and 21st Street, imagine being very near the source of the creek, the place where the creek was, from time to time, out of reach of the tide, a park encircled by 16 oak trees. Use panoramic vision, think wide screen, in order to see bowl of flat land, bounded on the north and east by the ridge along 27th Street, and on the south and west by the East River. Recall that near the oaks a carpet factory was opened, in 1845, by two brothers, Alvin and S.S. Higgins, from Maine, fueled with immigrant workers, running from the Irish famine. Just west on the ridge at 24th Street, Naples-born Franco Scalamandre and Flora Baranzelli, his wife, manufactured silks in their factory for the presidents, starting with John F. Kennedy, until 2004.
Ravenswood has a history of a flourishing and diverse manufacturing center which has helped it to adapt to shifts in the economy. What kinds of innovative manufacturing make sense for the 21st century? How can manufacturers work together to improve their business models, and their relationship to the neighborhood? Press pound to tell us your thoughts.
Ravenswood / City as Living Laboratory is a proposal to build on the neighborhood's rich history of manufacturing and design. It would facilitate collaboration between artists and scientists to explore and implement new ideas for city. Can you imagine Ravenswood becoming a district of innovation?
Press 1 for yes
Press 2 for no
Stop 2 (B)
Consider the richness of the alluvial soil beneath the roads that are now here around the oaks. Consider what, as a result, would grow. Imagine butterflies and birds in the sedges and reeds that grew where now stands Placella Park, named for Anthony Leo Placella, a Long Island City-born soldier, who died days before the end of the World War I. In the 19th Century, a person could walk beyond the cold stream-tickled source of the Sunswick, via an old footpath, to the English Kills, just south of the bridge to Manhattan. Along the way, a creek traveler could imagine rainwater recharged by the creek side soils, or maybe the production of the nutrients vital to nourishing the New York Harbor’s fish—the creek was an ecological power plant.
For a long time, the natural systems of the creek adapted to shifts in the environment. Press pound to tell us what changes you think would help Ravenswood adapt to the changing environment and climate?
The city is funding new ideas for storm water management. Which of the following are you most interested in seeing in your neighborhood?
Press 1 for green roofs
Press 2 for healthy marshes
Press 3 for planted scaffolding
Stop 3 (E)
Imagine standing on what are now the Sanitation Department’s garages, and looking north across a mill pond, then south through the marsh grasses and the village of Newtown. See the canning factory that was washed away by economic tides, and as Astoria develops and grows, see the marshy land of Sunswick Creek take its time, the pond receding, the creek slowly disappearing, former marsh being filled in, by garages, small buildings, along the newly laid out streets. When the bridge to an expanding Manhattan opens, in 1909, the marshland in Ravenswood becomes suddenly valuable as real estate. What remains of the creek itself, a watery run along Twenty-first Avenue, is filed in with ash and municipal waste by 1910, as roads are paved, sewer lines laid.
There are many ways that we can read a city's history, through its architecture, its streets or through the plants that grow there. Press pound to describe how you can show the layers of history in your neighborhood?
Along this walk, red and white stripes on street lights mark the former stream bed. In Socrates Sculpture Park, vertical poles with speech bubbles, convex mirrors and planted grasses indicate where the creek previously ran. Which of these elements would work best as permanent indicators of the buried streambed?
Press 1 for red and white bands
Press 2 for Plants
Press 3 for Speech Bubbles
Stop 4 (H)
Just in from the East River, people came to live in the Ravenswood Houses, the public housing in the heart of the little valley of Sunswick Creek: 31 buildings and 40 acres, twice the acreage of the White House. In 1951, when the complex was created, it was Italian- and Jewish Americans who migrated in, and, slowly, more and more African-American residents. A couple moving in in 1951 paid $38 a month in rent, went roller skating at the gymnasium at the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood settlement house, and ate dinner with neighbors, white and black. Said Frances Smith, a resident at the time: “We visited one another, we were each other’s godparents. We would sit outside on the benches for hours and could leave our doors wide open.” Drugs moved in in the 1970s, but people stayed. At a recent fair at the settlement house, there was soul food, as well as foods from Mexico and Bangladesh. The settlement house is like the rich soil of the old creek: safe ground for older growth, a place to encourage new plantings, a future-for-the city niche, cultivated locally.
Innovative agriculture is a part of Ravenswood history. Press pound to tell us in what ways you think food production can help transform open spaces within public complexes?
What kind of food would you like to see more of in Ravenswood?
Press 1 for fresh produce
Press 2 for food carts
Press 3 for Gourmet / organic food
Press 4 for ice cream and hot dog stands
What is the most important aspect when you are deciding where to purchase food?
Press 1 for quality of food
Press 2 for price of food
Press 3 for proximity of establishment to your house
What kinds of food related events would you like to see in Ravenswood?
Press 1 for artisanal food fare
Press 2 for food truck or food cart park
Press 3 for weekend local food fare
Press 4 for public grills in the park
Press 5 for a music and food festival like The Great Hooga Mooga in Prospect Park
Stop 5 (K)
Rather than work backwards to when Sunswick Creek was likely free of humans, rather than imagine a time when centuries of glaciers were moving away from the harbor, work forward in your mind, past Leni-Lenapes who are digging for roots and herbs for medicine, as their ancestors had, most likely in the banks of the creek. Think past the colonial ferry to Manhattan that started in 1774, leaving from near the mouth of Sunswick Creek. Think of when Hallet’s Cove was the sight of a battlement for the War of 1812. See the suburb’s fine houses just prior to the Civil War. The Horticulturalist writes, “Ravenswood is one of the most elegant of the suburbs of New York…” See a munitions factory explode, in 1853, the death of dozens of workers—immigrant children, Irish living in Astoria. See the mansions slowly close up, some converted into to summer hotels, about which the Newtown Register says: “Such is change, such is life.” See boat clubs near Hallet’s Cover open near the turn of the Nineteenth century, then by the 1940s begin to close and, very recently, open again.
In 1883 the Steinway and Hunters Point Railway ran a ferry from Ravenswood to Manhattan. Press pound to tell us what other modes of transportation would benefit or thrive in Ravenswood.
Would you use a ferry service to and from Ravenswood?
Press 1 for Yes
Press 2 for No
Stop 6 (O)
See larger businesses move away in the 1950s, and small businesses set up in the Sunswick Creek’s once marshy interior. See artists set up studios, like Isamu Noguchi, in the early 1960s, near the edge of what once was the old mill pond. Fast forward to 1986, when some artists looked at an illegal dump and saw a beautiful place. Like it or not, a dump is human activity, signs of life, and in 1986, with more artists were moving into a place that was quiet in some ways, through still fertile, active, and busy, the dump that sat on Sunswick Creek’s mouth became a park.
Are you a member of a local community group or civic organization? If so, press pound to tell us which ones and what impact you hope to have on your neighborhood.
Many community groups are developing innovative ways to improve their neighborhoods. Which of the following ideas for transforming vacant lots would most benefit your community?
Press 1 for an outdoor theater
press 2 for community garden
press 3 for a solar field
Stop 7 (R)
Walk backwards now, upstream, away from the East River, and back up a creek that is invisible, except for its shadows, and it’s still-present shape, we see perhaps that the creek was damned, in 1679, to make a mill pond, an idea brought here from Holland. We see the pond, clear at first, then as industry surrounding it increased, a stink. On the edges are fields of flowers, nurseries, graperies, greenhouses, an experimental orchard—all supplying the city markets until the 20th Century. We see Irish laborers, in the wave of immigration that began in the 1840, in a factory on the fields of meadows that ran up to the ridge along today’s Crescent Street in Astoria—climb the ridge today! Look down on the lost marshes!
How would you describe the Ravenswood section of Long Island City to someone who has never been here? Press pound to describe the character of Ravenswood as you experience it.
We propose to renames this area, reintroducing the old name, Ravenswood.
Press 1 if you use this name now.
Press 2 if you've never heard this name.