The Unregulated Commons

In an urbanized society open space, in the form of parks and plazas, is a vital community asset, but openness is only one of the qualities that make public space important to the health of communities. Some additional facets of public space were among the key themes that emerged from the four artists’ presentations at Art at the Water’s Edge: Building Community along Brooklyn’s Waterfront, an event hosted by the Brooklyn Waterfront Research Center at CUNY in March, 2017. Chief among these themes were the importance of unregulated commons and the perception of underused space, especially infrastructure corridors.

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Several of the artists noted the importance of an abandoned waterfront space in initiating their artistic inquiry and engaging them with the city personally.

Dylan Gauthier referred to wilderness and the age-old notion of the city as an enclosure from which one seeks escape either within or beyond its borders. Sto Len described the “vacant” waterfront he encountered on his first visit to Bushwick as a playground in which people worked, played, and resided outside the gatekeeping structures of the city. For Barry Rosenthal unattended shorelines are the attic where objects accrete and time is marked by changes in product design, one layer settling over another or surfacing as the shoreline wears away.

For Nancy Nowacek, Sto Len, and Gauthier part of the appeal in an unregulated commons is in another great NYC trope: exclusivity. Often accessing an unregulated commons requires a degree of law-breaking, both a domain excluding the law-abiding, and an act that disrupts the exclusivity of legal separations. Gauthier expressed a cavalier disregard for construction barriers and the land beyond them, reportedly tearing down these structures and reusing them as boat building materials. In his typical irreverent way, Sto Len, has set up The Newtown Creek Center for Visual Research, a squatters shack on what he terms as “abandoned land” in which he exhibited his art with an opening featuring pirate radio that breaks into the semi-regulated commons of radio frequency bandwidths.

Nancy Nowacek is working within the law but seeking special accommodation. This is not law-abiding, assiduous citizenship so much as necessity, fitting the scope of her project, which leaves the waterfront and extends across the last unregulated commons: the waterways themselves. Nowacek is working with the Coast Guard to orchestrate a temporary closing of Buttermilk Channel to allow for the installation of her Citizens Bridge.

The notion of waterways as unregulated commons, and the importance of that role was highlighted at another event a month later, this one hosted by Waterfront Alliance and its partners and focused on safe operations in the harbor. This Shared Harbor Day brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, ranging from kayakers to commercial operators and including operators of Bayliners, Jet Skis, and fast ferries. When one participant in an open forum suggested a structural solution of increased regulation it was met with overwhelming rejection and vociferous declarations of the sanctity of waterways with minimal regulation.

So long as anyone with sufficient ingenuity can create a floating structure from scrap materials and navigate with it, our waterways will remain that last unregulated commons. As access to the water increases bad actors will increase in number and take a disproportionate toll on the experience of our waterways. To preserve this invaluable community asset we must prepare for the effects of such bad actors and work to limit them through education. If we don’t, then we risk losing the ability to escape the strictures that have come to define terrestrial life in industrialized society.

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