Can a Gas Tank Be a Playground? Dueling Ideas for Bushwick Inlet Park

A rendering (exclusive to New York) of the Tanks. Rendering: STUDIO V Architecture and Ken Smith Workshop

Oil made the industrial world rich, and also sick. It built great cities and despoiled nature. And long after fossil fuels have finally been supplanted, their scars will remain, in lone smokestacks, shoreline ruins, and great industrial deserts. Even as cities clean up virulent sludge from disused plants, they must also cope with the relics of obsolete corporations. Pollution is a form of violence, and as with all mass crimes, the desire to heal and cleanse collides with the need to remember.

That tension between erasure and commemoration keeps coming up as New York gradually converts its once forbidding industrial shoreline into a green and pleasant buffer. If all goes according to plan, sometime in the next few months, crews hired by the city will arrive at Bushwick Inlet on the Greenpoint waterfront and start slicing up a set of ten hulking oil-and-gas tanks. Their destruction will delight neighbors who have spent decades loathing those steel cylinders and want them replaced with precious open space, lawns, playgrounds, soccer fields, and kayak coves. It took a dozen years and $350 million for the city to assemble these 28 acres of polluted shoreline property; it will take still more time and money to scrape away toxin-soaked soil, design a new public waterfront, and build Bushwick Inlet Park. Watchful Greenpointers don’t want anything to slow the already glacial process or deflect them from a goal that’s finally within reach.

Which is why two organizers, Karen Zabarsky and Stacey Anderson, have gotten little traction on an alternative plan that would keep the ten tanks intact and integrate them into a landscape steeped in memory as well as hydrocarbons. In a neighborhood of tireless activists, Zabarsky and Anderson are stubborn and resourceful too. They have assembled a platoon of lawyers, architects (at STUDIO V), landscape designers (Ken Smith Workshop), environmental-remediation experts, and lobbyists — all of whom say they are working for free — into an organization called the Tanks. Their goal is to treat the containers not as objects in an urban museum but as useful structures in a novel kind of postindustrial landscape. “After four years of advocating for this vision, we’ve discovered that the process for having creative ideas considered by the City is ripe for disruption,” Zabarsky and Anderson wrote in a joint email. “The Tanks are just one of a new league of projects led by regular New Yorkers who want to push the boundaries of public space design.”

Looking at the graffiti-covered shells, the largest as tall as a six-story building, huddled on one weedy acre by the East River, it’s hard to see at first what their defenders are so passionate about. Sometimes, though, it takes another look to see the beauty in an eyesore. Zabarsky and her team envision lopping off the tanks’ roofs, opening windows, and installing ramps, stairs, structures, interactive displays, and plantings. One cylinder could become a concert venue, another a climbing wall or a cloistered garden. Pete Malinowski, the founder of the Billion Oyster Project, which hopes one day to restore New York harbor as a thriving crustacean habitat, would love to use the largest tank to cultivate oyster larvae by the millions and pump them directly into Bushwick Inlet, helping to clean the water.

“There’s something really cool about taking something that was responsible for so much environmental degradation and repurposing it for the opposite,” he says. “The problems of the past can be turned into the solutions for the future.”

The debate is partly technical. The city insists that only after the tanks are gone can experts properly assess how contaminated the soil is, how the cleanup should proceed, and — maybe most important — who should pay for it. Nick Molinari, the Parks Department’s chief of planning, says that the future park is a legal as well as environmental mess: The power company National Grid already cleaned one of the lots (at 50 Kent Avenue) and is now suing about 20 different entities, including the city, to recoup its costs. Zabarsky’s consultants counter that the tanks are actually keeping contaminants safely locked underground, and that cleaning even an appallingly polluted site, in and around standing structures, is a common and accepted approach. The deeper question, though, is over the memories contained within those vacant tanks.

The tanks today. Photo: Steven Greaves/Getty Images

Reusing and adapting industrial architecture generally means converting relatively innocuous warehouses and factory buildings, whose miseries may have been mild and lie relatively deep in the past. The process has left us with a repertoire of rough-chic clichés popular with restaurants and software companies: weathered brick, concrete floors, exposed pipes and rivets. Outdoors, decommissioned machinery typically makes an appearance as public art, like the teal-painted screw conveyors and syrup tanks at Domino Park in Williamsburg, or the endearingly robotic family of mixing bins on stilts at Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx. The Tanks people  have a more complete experience in mind, a place where artifacts become habitats, and features of a formerly inhuman landscape are repurposed for leisure and life. They hope to inject a grim place with joy.

There’s a spotty history of precedents. Seattle pioneered the idea of industrial archeology when Gas Works Park opened in 1975, the creation of landscape architect Richard Haag, who deployed microorganisms in the soil to break down contaminants. In 1991, the German firm Latz and Partner won a competition to transform an immense coal and steel production complex in the heavily industrialized Ruhr Valley. The result, the Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park, is a combination of adventure playground, walk-in art installation, and music festival venue. In London, cylindrical iron frames that once each contained a million cubic feet of gas now enfold apartment buildings and gardens. These are all vast and problematic places; it’s not clear that an industrial-age theme park can really do justice to the legacy of exploitation and disease that accompanied affluence and efficiency.

The Tanks plan is exciting and bold — so much so that it could conceivably yield a tourist destination, rather than a tranquil local hangout. That may be one reason some neighborhood activists want no part of their idea. “It’s pretty cut-and-dried where the community stands on this,” says Willis Elkins, who chairs the local community board’s environmental protection committee. “There’s nothing to debate. The tanks are coming down.” Neighbors aren’t even waiting for that to happen. Those who fought to reclaim this patch, like the Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park are taking ownership today — weeding, planting, planning, monitoring oyster populations, presenting jazz, and nursing the coastline back to a semblance of health.

Ward Dennis, a member of the steering committee of Friends of Bushwick Inlet Park, points out that the tanks have to be seen in the context of an area that has been victimized by polluters for nearly 150 years. The nation’s second-biggest oil spill, after the Exxon Valdez, took place half a mile away in Newtown Creek, a multi-decade disaster that still hasn’t been cleaned up. “There have been 20 to 25 years of community planning and activism towards overcoming exactly what the tanks represent,” Dennis says. “To say that we should keep them as symbols of environmental attacks on the community, when we haven’t dealt with the problems yet, is not popular.”

Dennis is not generally an advocate of amnesia; he’s a partner at the preservation consulting firm Higgins Quasebarth & Partners, which helped convert an old rope factory into the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center. And so I’ve been turning his statement over for a while now, and at each revolution it throws off questions like sparks. Should symbols of exploitation be erased? Should misery be memorialized only after it’s firmly in the past? And when the time is finally ripe, what do we do if its relics are all gone? In the long run, we will have to preserve examples of the dirtiest, and most tragic landscapes by finding new uses for them or by treating them as gargantuan relics. The 21st century will eventually deal with dead malls, cloverleaf interchanges, and disused power plants the way the 20th dealt with abandoned silver mines, defunct prisons, and textile mills: let most crumble away, obliterate some, and convert a few into monuments and museums.

Maybe a neighborhood park isn’t the right place to redeem industry’s monstrosities, or just not this long-awaited park in this particular neighborhood. Perhaps Zabarsky’s team should ratchet up its ambitions and plant an American version of Duisburg-Nord in New Jersey’s acrid wetlands. But that won’t be easy either. Almost by definition, the ideal site in which to remember industry’s worst blight doesn’t exist, because wherever the pain is most acute, victims understandably want to forget it.

A Gas-Tank Playground? Dueling Ideas for Bushwick Inlet Park