When you're looking at the murky waters of the Gowanus Canal from the Salt Lot on Fifth Street and Second Avenue, a green space alive with plants and wildlife is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind. Nor is a colorful artistic exhibition space lined with bright neon birdhouses.
Yet that's entirely the goal of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a grassroots organization that's working towards environmental revitalization of the canal. And through a series of special projects based around collective creative efforts, they fully intend on making that happen.
On Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., volunteers are invited to the Salt Lot on Fifth Street, an area frequented by mosquitos, dotted with derelict tour buses and heavily guarded by the Department of Sanitation. The event is the first in a five-part series intended to bring a colorful transformation to the lot. Volunteers will paint murals on 8x12 foot plywood canvases with donated paint.
The five-part series is separated into themes based on the past, present and future of the Gowanus, including the industrial past, recent improvements and a Utopian future as envisioned by artists.
The lot is owned by the Department of Sanitation, which is responsible for de-icing streets and highways during the winter, hence the Salt Lot moniker.
Hans Hesselein, who is overseeing the mural project, says the GCC has a good relationship with the Department of Sanitation due largely to a recent and very large volunteer effort. Concerned residents and Conservancy members collected trash in the lot in an effort to clean the soil around the canal and initiate re-vegetation of the canal's native plantlife. About 200 volunteers came out to clear piles of garbage, and along the way, the GCC formed a sort of alliance with the Sanitation Department, which as a result has granted the GCC permanent access to the site. It now houses a tool shed with necessary gardening and maintenance tools, a compost heap and the beginnings of a community garden.
The GCC is also aligned with , a "creative reuse center," also located in Gowanus. FBR rescues and then sells or donates, based on need, materials used by film production companies that would otherwise be discarded and potentially end up as pollution, including paint, which FBR happily donated for this weekend's event.
"FBR is a dedicated supporter of Gowanus-based initiatives. When we learned that the GCC was asking the community to participate with the Mural Painting Project at all levels, including the concept of the murals, we became that much more inspired," said Jane Borock, Director of Marketing, Development and Outreach at FBR. "We believe true community involvement begins with collective dialogue, not just a call for help in execution."
"We've always been impressed with GCC's process and FBR is very excited to see paints originally purchased for major film and TV productions beautify our neighborhood," she said.
The GCC also gets by with a little help from capital projects such as grants, city money for storm and green infrastructure, and even ConEd.
Hans says GCC is always looking for volunteers, not only to help mobilize the community into action, but to contribute creative ideas.
An issue that's currently under the radar, but that has a significant impact on the health of the canal waters, is the runoff of storm water, which carries sewage with it into the canal. With the development of a specific pilot program, Hesselein says he would like to see the storm water collected for other purposes, such as tree planting, before it and more pollutants end up in the canal.
Volunteers have already helped tremendously with cleaning and beautification efforts, including the building and addition of bright, neon green birdhouses. As the waters of the canal currently do not contain enough oxygen to sustain most life, the surrounding area is not yet habitable for birds. GCC hopes to change that, but continued community participation is key.
"Maybe if we all play our part, it could be wildlife habitat," said Hesselein. "Maybe we can have a healthy ecosystem here one day."
Hesselein says he hopes to see more volunteers this weekend and in the near future, and highly urges anyone that's creatively minded, environmentally conscious, or enjoys the outdoors – or all three – to participate.
And every little bit helps.
"We're into people helping as much, or as little, as they have the time and patience for," he said.
"If you like gardening, and you like working outdoors and you're community minded, come out and join us, because it's a lot of fun," he said. "I think we provide the best volunteer activities you can find in NYC."
For more information and to find out how to volunteer for this weekend or for future events, visit the Film Biz Recycling blog.