Artist Nancy Nowacek Is Building Bridge to Governors Island

Nancy Nowacek, Citizen Bridge prototype being teste in New York Harbor. Photo: Nancy Nowacek.
Nancy Nowacek, Citizen Bridge prototype being teste in New York Harbor. Photo: Nancy Nowacek.

Inspired by historical legend and the view out her window, artist Nancy Nowacek is planning to build a footbridge across the narrow Buttermilk Channel that separates Brooklyn from Governors Island, reports Brooklyn Based.

According to Walt Whitman, the channel’s name dates back to the Revolutionary War, when farmers used to walk their cows across the sandbar that would appear at low tide so they could graze on the island. If they waited too long to walk back, and tide was coming in, the cows would wind up with udders full of sour milk—or so the story goes. In the years since, the tidal strait has been dredged for cargo ships, leaving Governors Island tantalizingly inaccessible for those without a water craft.

When Nowacek, whose apartment has a view of the channel and the island beyond, first heard the story, she was intrigued. Governors Island, she realized, was only about 1,200 feet away, or a mere four blocks. “You think about that as a New Yorker, “ Nowacek told Brooklyn Based, “and you think, ‘That’s nothing.’”

Nowacek isn’t the first to have attempt to reconnect the island to the mainland. One of Robert Moses’s unrealized projects would have seen Governors Island bridge the gab between Lower Manhattan and the Belt Parkway. More recently, former mayor Michael Bloomberg supported plans for an elevated gondola system designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that would have done the same thing in futuristic fashion (see New York Times report).

By comparison, Nowacek, who is currently in residency at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation in DUMBO, is thinking on a much smaller scale. “The question became ‘Could it be possible to reconnect Brooklyn to Governors Island by hand, with the most minimal means necessary, without large, industrial infrastructure?’” she says.

What Nowacek originally envisioned as a six month-long project soon grew into something much bigger. “I think after maybe the first five weeks, I realized that I would be lucky if I could complete it in the course of two or three years. Now I’ll be lucky if I can complete it in another two to three years, but the longer I do it, the more possible it seems, so it’s worth the commitment,” she said. “I think the magical thing about the project is that it seems utterly impossible yet completely possible.”

There have been many rejected ideas, including a bridge of giant hamster balls and another made of inflated pool rafts, but after two years of planning, a process that has already engaged roughly 100 people, Nowacek unveiled her fourth prototype on Governors Island this weekend during  City of Water Day. The current design employs plywood planks mounted on buoyant shipping drums, with railings for safety.

The proposed footbridge, which Nowacek has dubbed the Citizen Bridge due to the large number of people who are working to make her dream a reality, has the Coast’s Guard’s blessing—albeit for a one-day only event, which is understandable considering the waterway’s use as a major shipping channel.  The artist expects it will take about eight hours to both set up and break down the structure, leaving eight hours for New Yorkers to walk across. If all goes well, however, Nowacek hopes that it could become an annual event.


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