Muscota Marsh Park: A Lucid View of Troubled Waters

From left, a current day aerial photo of the site for Muscota Marsh Park; a graphic recreation of the site in ancient times; a 2012 designer’s rendering. Sources: Photo and illustration by Markley Boyer, Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Eric W. Sanderson, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2009; designer’s rendering by James Corner Field Operations

This harsh winter seems sure to linger in New York City past the official first day of spring on March 20, and we will likely have a few more weeks to see things in our newest naturalistic City parks and gardens that might go unnoticed in growing season.  First up is this little park by famed designer, James Corner, that sits so unassumingly on the edge of an ancient estuary, yet manages to raise complex 21st century questions.  

In coming weeks, before things get too busy outside, we will also talk with Darrel Morrison about the deep structure of his recent additions to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden, and visit the New York Botanical Garden’s newest big attraction by the team at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates.  Thank you for your interest so far in this off-season experiment.    -- Harry Wade for Grounded Design

Time + Space = Place

Here, a thousand years or more before the first Europeans sped up what is now the Hudson River on their way to India, a small estuary thrived where an easterly tangent of the river met a tidal strait at the northern tip of today’s Manhattan.

The Munsee tribe of the Lenape people lived among these waters. At low tide, they could walk across the mudflat from the mainland to their Manhattan village, Shorakkopoch.  They shared the estuary for work and play – harvesting oysters, clams and crabs; using intricately woven reed weirs to trap striped bass and bluefish as the tide ebbed. Skilled small boaters, the Lenape would paddle almost silently and low in the water, face-to-face with the estuary’s flora and fauna. 

Estuaries like this have always been among the most fertile areas on the planet.  The daily ebb and flow of both sea and fresh water deposits a unique blend of nutrients and diverse species, without high salinity levels. For this particular estuary, the hills that sloped gently down to the water’s edge added further nutrients I runoff from the rich topsoil.  The hills also protected the cove from storms, allowing the Lenape to hunt the densely wooded hills of Liriodendron tulipifera and Quercus rubra right down to the water, where they fished and farmed in gentle turn.

This setting, with its natural forces in balance with modest cultivation, may seem like an unlikely site for the British landscape architect and urban planner, James Corner, whose highly aesthetic tableaux of seminatural forces at work upon one another have become iconic of ecological urban design.  But here sits Corner’s newest park – also New York City’s newest – on the edge of Manhattan’s last remaining estuary, in the shadows of the City’s last original growth trees. 

What is it about this site that has brought the team from James Corner Field Operations 11 miles uptown from The High Line, one of the City’s proudest parks today? What does his eye for urban decay and reclamation see here? 

From left: The overgrown elevated train track platform in lower Manhattan before restoration and reconstruction began on The High Line in 2006; The High Line today. Source: Friends of The High Line

The answer is a centuries-long story, every chapter of which can be read from any of the irregularly placed benches along the new park’s path.  

To start, about two and a half centuries after the Lenape were driven out of the area, much of the surrounding mudflat was dredged to create the Harlem River Shipping Canal, technically making Manhattan an island for the first time and providing a shortcut for commerce.  Bigger ships soon made the canal worthless, but here it remains, flanked by giant sheer cliffs of a local bedrock called Inwood Marble, exposed by the excavation. 

The Harlem River Shipping Canal, Source: Harper's Weekly, February 16, 1895. Illustration by Al. Hencke
By the early 20th century, other small boaters worked these modernized waters.  Columbia University’s collegiate crew team adopted the cove and an old boathouse was moved here in the 1930s for them, just a few yards from where the Lenape legendarily sold Manhattan to opportunistic Dutch settlers who, conceivably, could have included some of the crew team’s ancestors.  Crew practice and village life are worlds apart, but then again, aren’t they similarly pragmatic kinds of activities, tied to getting things done, succeeding or failing because of the mood of the estuary on any given day?

Columbia University’s Gould-Remmer Boathouse, 
in use since the 1930’s. Source:  Pacman
 online collection
Around the same time that the boathouse went in, the Henry Hudson Bridge (designed by David B. Steinman, 1936) opened up Manhattan’s far north side, framing the view from the estuary of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades with the longest single-span of its time.   It is an arc reflected in the nearby Inwood Hill Park hillside and Corner’s paths through Muscota.

Graceful though the bridge is, there are many distractions in the same eyeful.  The odd battle of the blues, for instance:  the peculiar blue gray of the bridge – close but not close enough to the blue of ‘C Rock,’ a sanctioned piece of graffiti first painted by those school-spirited Columbia boatmen in the 1950's on the cliff across from the boathouse – crowned by a 1960’s squat residential high rise they even call “The Blue Building.”

The Henry Hudson Bridge seen from Muscota Marsh Park, summer 2013. Source: inhabitat New York City

Which blue came first and why the others mismatched it so jarringly is a multi-generational mystery.   But they all somehow combine with the hodgepodge of surrounding residential architecture of Deco to Brutal design, and with the invasive undergrowth that fills the untended edges of both shorelines, and of course the tidal garbage along the remaining mudflat at low tide. 

Henry Hudson Bridge, “C Rock” and “The Blue  Building,” winter 2014. Source: H. Wade
It is not what the Lenape knew, and the Columbia crew team would probably prefer something closer to Harvard’s Charles River or Yale’s Thames.  But this place is authentic, part of America’s overdeveloped, under-planned and entirely unmaintained urban margins that grow in interest through accretion over time.  It is just the stuff for James Corner’s new design for Muscota Marsh Park.

A Park on the Edge

From left: Muscota Marsh Park waterfront, winter 2014; designer’s rendering, 2012. Sources:  H. Wade; James Corner Field Operations

“Muscota” is the Lenape word for “meadow by the water,” or “where the reeds grow,” and the new park includes a 350’ stretch of estuary waterfront, along with a boat dock extending out over the mudflat to the edge of the shipping canal. 

Part of Columbia’s Baker Athletic Center, Muscota Marsh Park is a modest one-acre arc, subtly framed by Corner’s signature sleek industrial hardscape lines and biomorphic paths and beds.  These sharp edges manage to counterpoint the complexity of the plantings and ecological water management systems at the center of the park, taking visitors on a short but leisurely walk along the water.

In fact, there are two separate water management systems that unapologetically take center stage within this park.  The first is a three-tiered storm water runoff collection and filtration system that manages runoff from the higher zones of the park, and the second is a restored section of the salt marsh. Honest concrete weirs capture receding tides to maintain a constant low water level, reflecting back to the woven weirs once used in the same place to capture fish.

From left: Muscota Marsh Park tidal weirs, winter 2014; designer’s rendering of mixed planting zone, 2012. Sources:  H. Wade; James Corner Field Operations

The fresh water wetland and salt marsh are especially vulnerable to birds that feed heavily in the area, so the zones are protected with a network of lines and the full impact of the plantings will have to wait for another year or more.  When fully established, a gradient of plantings from aquatic to upland species tolerating temporary inundation will restore the area to Lenape lushness.  The planting includes assorted sedges, rushes, cordgrass and their relatives (Carex pensylvanica, C. comosa, C. crinita, C. stricta, C. vulpinoidea, Juncus canadensis, J. militaris, J. effusus, Spartina patens, S alternifolia, and Scirpus tabernaemontanii).
Making their appearance sooner will be a few subtle plantings in the park’s drier zones – the blueberry look-alike, Black Huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and the Arum-esque Lizard Tail (Saururus cernuus).   And late this summer will hopefully bring Corner’s unusual use of the commonly resisted Baccharis halimifolia, creatively used as a screening hedge.

Karen Tamir, Senior Associate with James Corner Field Operations, has managed the Muscota design and development from the beginning and told me that the park’s ecological components make it especially reliant on short- and long-term management, which is shared by Columbia and the New York Parks Department.   

“The restoration of the salt marsh has the potential to support new and returning plant species, new nesting opportunities, a thriving biomass.  The systems are straightforward but delicate, especially for a park that will also support public recreation, educational programs, and the University’s own uses.  Everything collides, so it is an especially compelling balancing act,” Karen explains.

Ecological restoration probably always comes into conflict with the logistics of human enjoyment, especially when it is on a large public scale.  But this is not a flaw.  At least in design that articulates the tension as well as Muscota does, a kind of implicit respect and cohabitation can emerge.   This is part of Muscota’s repose, a calm that has already made it popular only weeks after opening in the dead of a very hard winter.  

Much else contributes to the park’s charms, even within such a crowded urban space.  Ice flows carried by the near constant tidal flow of the shipping canal highlight the contrast of water textures where the tide meets the calm of the estuary a few yards off shore.  Except for lowest tide, the estuary combines the mystery of depth with the calm of shallows. 

From left: Muscota Marsh Park as the estuary meets Harlem River shipping canal; woodland zone, winter 2014. Source:  H. Wade

Turning inland, the historic boathouse and stonewall that separates Muscota from the street beyond will soon become a richly shaded hill of mixed ferns (Woodwardia virginica, Onoclea sensibillis, Athyrium filix-femina and Dryopteris cristata) and other woodland favorites.  Preexisting mosses (unidentifiable in the winter) will cover the permanently weeping stonewall, making this area a very different experience of water and shelter than the estuary, just feet away.

An Edge to the Park

Muscota Marsh Park, winter 2014. Source: H. Wade
Muscota has the closest, most direct water access of any park in the entire City – close enough to get splashed by a gentle wave at high tide and to hear the water lapping, or ice squeaking, beneath your feet as you stand on the slatted metal dock.  Though a shelf of boulders lines part of the waterfront for erosion control, there is a narrow and gentle incline down to the water’s edge that offers such free contact that many New Yorkers are, frankly, suspicious.  

While water access can be part of the comfort of the place, it can also just as quickly disarm, and Corner’s design for Muscota engages both experiences, putting them in the larger context of contemporary City life in provocative ways.

Here’s the thing:  The vast majority of waterway access in the City is gated for private boating and other high-priced sport.  There are many opportunities to stand at a respectful distance and smell the salt water, but a generation or more of middle class New Yorkers has grown up with a vaguely illicit relationship with their water.  The rivers and harbor feel slightly taboo and renegade – not an entirely unenjoyable experience if you’re willing to sneak down to the water’s edge at any of the hidden, overgrown and mostly illegal spots around the City. 

A growing and empowered paddle sport community in and around the City is trying to clean up this stigma.   Many of these organizations are part of the Metropolitan Waterways Alliance, a broader network of over 780 organizations working on waterfront issues to make more “places in New York where you can skip a stone from time to time,” or so MWA President and Chief Executive Officer, Roland Lewis, told me.  “We’re far from being a Vancouver, with its spiritual connection to water, but we’re moving in the right direction, and education efforts today will mean a very different City waterway 20 years from now.”

Muscota is an elegant little microcosm of this City waterfront dynamic.  At another level too, the park engages controversy.  Here, “mixed use” takes on near-political intensity.  Never mind the unspoken College-versus-neighborhood drama that has unfolded here, as Columbia borders Inwood.  The park tells you everything you need to know about the standoff:  

College crew teams literally– but politely – elbow out park visitors for access to the dock where they have launched their boats for decades.  It is an alluring dock, perhaps evoking the ancient mudflat that once connected Manhattan to the mainland.  But it’s a locked gate away for Muscota visitors.

Muscota Marsh Park dock, winter 2014. Source: H. Wade
The crew’s boats are stacked on the side of the park path by the Boathouse, and that gentle incline down to the water doubles as a boat ramp, cutting bluntly across the path.  It feels like you’re somewhere you really shouldn’t be, as ever-present Columbia surveillance looks on.

This cramped quality is an undeniable and dynamic part of visiting Muscota.  The place exists along fault lines in the City’s economic divide, sparking tensions of entitlement and disenfranchisement that are right at the heart of a City whose public/private boundaries have always been livewires.

Increasingly though, these partnerships, Muscota included, seem like the wave of the future for City parks –The near future.  Projects like Latz + Partner’s Landschaftspark (1991) in Duisburg Nord, Germany, have made the ecological reclamation of abandoned, once private urban places a foundational concept for contemporary design, though the City is shortening the evolutionary timeline by putting currently active private enterprise to public recreational use now. 

Other partnerships like this include the Sims Municipal Recycling Facility (Selldorf Architects, 2013) at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, a very heavy industry space that has also been opened up for public access and education on recycling and environmental enhancements.  Also, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest sewage treatment facility for the City and supports an active community nature trail (George Trakas, 2010), docking facilities and more environmental education programs. 

From left:  Sims Municipal Recycling Facility, designer’s rendering of restored public waterway; Newton Nature Trail overlooking the Wastewater Treatment Plant. Sources: New York City Economic Development Corporation, Newton Creek Nature Walk Information Bureau

In this respect, Muscota is the most picturesque and modest of public/private parks.  Yet none of those seemingly more complicated partnerships creates as much insightful stress as Muscota. 

Seminatural Ambivalence

Muscota Marsh Park site aerial view, 2013. Source:  Pacman online collection
There is one last sense of stress for Muscota visitors who are willing to indulge in urban neuroses.   As Roland Lewis of MWA put it, “On October 30, 2012, Hurricane Sandy reminded us all that we are island people here.  Sea levels will continue to change.  They may make parts of our city harder to live in, and that is a scary part of life now.  But the changing waterfront also provides rich educational opportunities, along with boating and industry that continue to grow. We are just more aware now that these areas are in transition.  And that’s probably an important thing to remember.” 

Sandy hit Muscota when it was still in early stages of development and delayed its opening by months, though it survived nicely.  Still, Karen Tamir, who is also on James Corner Field Operations teams designing a number of other urban waterfront projects, told me that design for these sites is definitely becoming more complex because of the changing climate.  

“Developers definitely want to ‘lift up,’ which can undermine waterfront experience. A surge in early 21st century zoning changes in the City now requires things to be much more precise, and that may mean that fewer projects will be realized,” according to Karen.  Still, highly ambitious projects advance, including James Corner’s landscape design for some areas of the ambitious Cornell University tech campus on Roosevelt Island.  Karen adds, “Even so, New York City is such a vibrant community and waterfronts today are crying out for more variety in design.  That’s the real demand today – variety, even if competing pressures make it more challenging.” 

Her observations suggest an important question about waterfronts today, for designers and all other island people alike.  As weather and changing tidal dynamics become more apparent, will waterside areas like Muscota become more precious to us, worth whatever additional effort and expense may become necessary?  Or will we eventually desert these places for higher ground, just as our ancestors have often done before in times of disease or flood or noisy industrial competition?  

There is probably an instinctive drive for both – to flee water and to linger there to protect it.   Perhaps this is part of what make muscotas so compelling across the world and throughout history. They are among the most prized human habitats of our planet, simply too fertile and strategic to be left alone for long.   And for the same reasons, they are among the most changing and vulnerable areas today.

By intent or not, Muscota Marsh Park puts itself in the middle of this ambivalence, creating a place that is vulnerable to the same forces of culture and nature that have shaped this place for millennia – extremes of tide and runoff, water quality, species ebb and flow, and overt and subtle violence based on property.  

The park asks us to consider our own experiences of urban nature in transition.  It offers no clear answers but seems to suggest that the future of such places will have to include practical ecological action, but also modesty and tolerance of others.

Most valuable of all, Muscota Marsh Park offers a place to become more conscious of the complexity of the water’s edge.                     --Harry Wade

Muscota Marsh Park, winter 2014. Source: H. Wade

Special thanks are due to Karen Tamir of James Corner Field Operations, and Roland Lewis and Andrew Krochalk of the Metropolitan Waterways Alliance, for their conversations and reviews.

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