Eymund Diegel moved from South Africa to the Gowanus neighborhood almost twenty years ago. Beginning with his first job at what was unofficially called the “Shit Management Plan,” Eymund has specialized in thinking about materials that move through the air and water of urban environments. Since then, Eymund has remained deeply passionate and curious about what lies beneath the Gowanus neighborhood.
Today, Eymund is the chair of Public Laboratory, a citizen science group partnered with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy's Grassroots Aerial Photography program. He works with other local residents tying digital cameras to kites and balloons to map and reconstruct the Gowanus Canal's "ghost stream" network. But with this crowd sourced technology, he’s found much more than just underground streams.
Q: Eymund, why do you feel so connected to the Gowanus and why did you start mapping here?
People should care about their backyards. The moment you make a connection to home, you start caring. Unfortunately New York City homes are often interior spaces, and they never really think of the external public space. For me, it was as important to find and understand the space around me.
The thing that started the stream mapping study, which I’ll be exclusively talking about (at the TEDxGowanus event), is when we took pictures of the frozen canal in the winter. We found the spots that were the coldest underneath the bridge were not melted, had no ice. That was completely counter intuitive to what we thought. We realized that the ice was melting because the water was warmer there, and we had to figure out why. Turns out, there’s a stream coming out from the ground melting the ice, leaving a thermal signature of the old ghost stream.
Q: What’s something you’ve found that really surprised you from your aerial mapping?
Once I found photographs of graffiti on old industrial buildings. But what I found was that all these buildings only had graffiti on one side. I couldn’t figure for the life of me why they were only graffiting on one side of the building. Then I turned around and realized that the Smith/9th St subway station has a perfect visual arch that curves around the Gowanus. Anyone into graffiti tagging selects their facades based on the visual angle of the passing subway train, so they can show off to their subway buddies. That was an example of a surprise identification, a thing I’d never thought about.
Q: Where do you find beauty in the Gowanus?
One other thing unique about the Gowanus is that you can see twice as much. What I mean by that is the water reflects the sky. If you are a photographer or an artist, you have the light of two worlds. You have the light of the world that you’re living in, and the light of the world that’s reflected in the water. You go on to the canoe and you go on to see all these amazing colors and lights that people like from an artistic point of view. And so in that sense, the open space of the water makes it a unique visual environment that you won’t get in the skyscrapers or the Upper East Side. From an aesthetic point of view, Gowanus is beautiful because you have so much change and the plain visual beauty of nature itself.
What I like are the grand old industrial brick buildings that are right on the water. The old NY City Water Works at the end of Butler Street is visually quite interesting. I like the 9th St factories because they’ve been cut apart and rebuilt so many times. You go in there and realize there are ten stories all vaulted and interlocked in one air space. So many things were made in one space, plastic dolls to silver plates, to dynamite. You can see traces of all of these stories going on at one time.
Eymund will be speaking in the third session, #GowanusInspired, of our all-day event. Please see the full lineup here.