Help build a footbridge from Brooklyn to Governors Island

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A 2014 prototype of Citizen Bridge. Its design has evolved dramatically since then. Photo: Nancy Nowacek

A 2014 prototype of Citizen Bridge. Its design has evolved dramatically since then. Photo: Nancy Nowacek

Two years ago we told you about an artist’s plans to bridge the distance between Red Hook and Governors Island—a mere 1,400 feet—with a floating bridge that would allow pedestrians to walk across Buttermilk Channel for just one day. We won’t be slipping on our boat shoes just yet to make the crossing, but Nancy Nowacek’s crazy, beautiful scheme is a lot closer to happening. It’s just going to take a little more engineering, and some backers for her Kickstarter that just launched last week.

Nowacek’s earliest sketches for the walkway included flotillas of various materials–boats, pool floats, even hamster balls. But Citizen Bridge has become more stable and seaworthy as top advisors have joined the project, including global engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, currently working on the Culture Shed near the High Line; Marvel Architects, the firm responsible for the new St. Ann’s Warehouse; and Glosten, a marine engineering firm that just helped rebuild the world’s longest floating bridge in Washington state.

Last September, the Citizen Bridge team built and tested its seventh iteration, the first fully engineered, 32-foot-long prototype in Sunset Park’s South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. And this September, if the Kickstarter is a success, Nowacek and her crew of volunteers will create a proof-of-concept section of 120 feet, which will float off a Brooklyn Bridge Park pier in the East River for two weeks.

“We are hoping that the bridge will be as public as it can be in this phase of it, and will get people really excited about the full installation,” said Nowacek.

Though the test span of the bridge will be visible from the park, it will not open to foot traffic. Generous Kickstarter backers, however, will get a VIP tour of the site and even the opportunity to name parts of this particular instantiation of the bridge.

Other perks include both the material and the conceptual sides of the project. Along with t-shirts and caps, there are also prizes that refer to what Nowacek calls “the poetics of the project. “At different levels, I will rebuild or burn a bridge for you over text or email or phone call or handwritten letter. I really hope someone takes me up on it.”

The most recent prototype for Citizen Bridge, tested last summer in Sunset Park. Photos: Nancy Nowacek

The most recent prototype for Citizen Bridge, tested last summer in Gowanus Bay, off of Sunset Park. Photos: Nancy Nowacek

Nowacek’s initial vision was to reclaim a passage between Governors Island and Red Hook which 1800s farmers accessed at low tide. They would lead their cattle to and from the island on a sand bar in Buttermilk Channel, which got its name, as one apocryphal account goes, from the rough passage home as the tide came back in, and the water’s currents soured their milk.

The Channel is still a force to be reckoned with. But beyond creating a safe crossing from Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Red Hook, to Yankee Pier on the east side on Governors Island, Nowacek also sees Citizen Bridge as an opportunity for people to reconnect with the waterways of New York and reclaim it as a public space.

“The bridge is going to be surrounded by a month-long celebration of all the skills and knowledge that go into to being on the water,” she said. The bridge itself will just be installed and open for foot traffic for a day, but bookending this event will be workshops on building boats and sailing boats, fishing and swimming, growing oyster reefs and aqua gardens, and learning about aqua robots and the future of the waterways. “There will be a real way to have some hands-on experience with the water around the time of the bridge,” said Nowacek.

The estimated time frame for this proof of concept to pass muster is next spring, in part because of all the regulatory bodies who need to sign off, from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Port Authority. If it does, Nowacek hopes that the bridge will be installed in August of 2017, at an estimated cost of over $1 million. (To put this price tag in perspective, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates cost $21 million, and Olaf Eliasson’s The Waterfalls rang in at over $15 million.)

Not only is this a less expensive feat of public art and civil engineering, it is a renewable one, as Nowacek envisions making the one-day installation of the bridge in Buttermilk Channel an annual event. She’s also keen on bringing Citizen Bridges to other parts of the world, too.

“I just got an email from someone in Brazil who just found out about the project. I’m interested in taking this project to waterways all over the country and all over the world, in places where people feel disconnected from their waterways or where waterways are contested between two landmasses. I think the bridge can perform the idea of citizenship in lots of different ways. I’m hoping that we can take the project at some point upstate and possibly cross over into Canada with it. That’s a big dream, right?”

Taking her bridge into international waters does not seem far-fetched so long as she can launch it off of Brooklyn. As I hit publish, she has 24 days to raise roughly $18,500 so that her footbridge can get the green light.

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