At Pine Ridge Road, just outside the city limits of Buffalo in the town of Cheektowaga, Scajaquada Creek enters a several-mile-long living grave. The creek emerges again in Forest Lawn Cemetery, flowing again in the daylight among the buried.
The western section of the creek is bordered by a multi-use path, a college, churches, and aging industry. The eastern headwaters run through suburban neighborhoods and parks. But for three and a half miles, the creek is bordered by nothing above ground, nothing the untrained eye can see.
As the eastern neighborhoods of Buffalo grew in the early 20th century, the creek became an open garbage pit and sewer. It was buried, between the years 1922 and 1927, for its own protection, where it remains. But Scajaquada refuses to let the city forget it entirely. Along its course lie sewer covers, small points of interaction where the creek reminds the astute of its existence through sight, smell, and sound. Today, the Drain conceals its living secret: a hidden ecosystem, there for those who can find it.
The last surviving members of the Neutral Nation, a tribe that called the Eastern shore of Lake Erie and the Niagara River home before the arrival of the Seneca, provided unknowingly the name that now refers to creek, urban street, expressway, and drain: Scajaquada. Beyond the Multitude. According to many sources, the oldest word in use on the Niagara Frontier.
The creek was a lush fishing ground and a site of historical significance during the War of 1812. It provided inspiration for Frederick Law Olmstead and, through a series of dams, produced and fed the lake that was the centerpiece of his Delaware Park in Northern Buffalo. And now, it functions in a different way: as a buried stream below Buffalo’s East Side, as a sewer beneath its streets, and, significantly, as a public right-of-way that frequently takes the form of small parks running through the center of the area’s modest (and historically underserved) neighborhoods.
It is these two points of interaction, the right-of-way parks that cover the drain, and the manhole covers that provide a window into it, that are the primary focus of this project.
The creek ties together a neighborhood in need of assistance and redevelopment. Scajaquada, and the houses, schools, churches, and businesses around it share a common history, a common ecology, that is constantly threatened by neglect and demolition. Short of the drastic move of completely uncovering the three-and-a-half buried miles, the next best option is a concentrated effort to build out and restore the public resources already provided by the drain. This project suggests that, as part of this process, the creek could sonically daylighted, building connections between park, sewer cover, and drain beneath.
Daylighting is the practice of uncovering buried waterways, generally in urban or suburban areas, in order to provide some measure of ecological restoration, flood control, water quality management, or to make some other improvement to infrastructure. Some projects simply remove the “roof” of the concrete channels in which many urban creeks have been confined, while others integrate extensive habitat restoration and bank stabilization, in essence attempting to recreate, or at least move toward, a more healthy riparian ecosystem. Sonic daylighting would therefore imply that, while the creek remained buried, its sound would be released (if not amplified) at key locations into the open air. Though the creek would still remain unseen, it would no longer go unheard.
The purpose of the project is thus twofold: first, to encourage exploration and appreciation of the latent ecologies (built, historical, cultural, acoustic and otherwise) of Scajaquada Drain, and second, through this first step, to begin to advocate for the “greening” of the drain and the surrounding neighborhood, leading to Scajaquada’s eventual resurrection.
To achieve the goal of sonic daylighting, twelve to fifteen sewer covers, selected for location relative to greenspace as well as acoustic qualities, will be modified or augmented in some way. Methods considered range from intensely personal listening experiences to highly public broadcast methods, including electronic amplification paired with headphones, a mounted speaker, or a motor or driver that would turn the manhole cover itself into a resonating surface, redesigning manhole covers to turn them into acoustic amplifiers, or installing a parabolic dish above the cover to redirect the existing sound emanating from the drain back down to a listener. Also considered were “ aquaphones,” or listening pipes, to be inserted into the drain through holes in the sewer cover, and short-range radio broadcast antennae.
Considered in this proposal, through video documentation of a prototype installation and speculative illustrations, are two of these approaches: electronic amplifiers, paired with either headphones or a mounted speaker, and listening pipes. Four sites were chosen for initial testing; installations were carried out and documented at three.
Though each of the sites used one of two prototype devices, and illustrations picture similar devices installed in all of the test locations, installations would likely be designed on a site-by-site basis, with decisions about range of broadcast, volume, and method of amplification made primarily by each neighborhood community. Additionally, not pictured in these images is interpretive signage, which would accompany each of the installations. Each sign would indicate the scope and narrative of the overall project, but would focus on locationally-specific information including alternative histories, sites of cultural or architectural significance, plant and animal species found nearby, personal memories, and documentation of neighborhood smells and sounds.
This project shares conceptual terrain with a large number of contemporary works, ranging from those largely taking place in the realm of the biological sciences, to work produced by architects, activists, designers, and media artists. Larger conceptual movements addressed by many of these works include citizen science, urban ecology, alternative histories, radical/critical cartography, acoustic ecology, and environmental justice.
The NYC Cricket Crawl is the most scientifically rigorous of the works to be discussed here. The organizers, who included such diverse groups as the American Museum of Natural History Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, the New York Entomological Society, Proteus Gowanus Interdisciplinary Gallery and Reading Room, and the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, were interested in carrying out a massive one-time survey of New York City’s cricket and katydid populations. They used call identification guides and a phone message system to report, track, and analyze the insect calls. In addition to its citizen-driven approach to research, the project is of particular interest here due to its use of sound as a tool for scientific discovery, and listening as a way of defamiliarizing oneself with a space in order to rediscover it.
Three very diverse projects are all of particular interest due to their unique approaches to placing/installing/shaping sound in a public space. Bernhard Leitner’s Water Mirror is an acoustic sculpture installed in the Danube temple at Donaueschingen in Germany. Using an arched metal surface, Water Mirror reflects and acoustically filters the sounds of the river to fill the small pavillion, giving the temple “acoustic shape. ” A related piece is Aquaphones, an aquatic listening device installed in Otego, NY by SonArc (architects Bill and Mary Buchen). However, while both pieces use the sounds of water to construct an atmosphere, Leitner’s piece fills a constructed space with sound, while SonArc’s encourages a more personal listening experience, usable by only one person at a time. The third sound piece to be discussed here is Lalya Gaye and Margot Jacobs’s Tejp. Small boxes containing a prerecorded personal message are attached in public places. When a person moves close enough to the box, the message is played. The device functions as an “audio tag,” and in that way shares an aesthetic and conceptual framework with traditional graffiti.
A series of projects developed in New York City focused around creating public art to explore alternative histories were carried out from 1989 to 2000 under the RepoHistory moniker. Many of these RepoHistory projects involved the installation of signs in public spaces recounting untold histories of the places and neighborhoods in which they were installed. Along with the signs (created by local artists), the projects often involved parades, walking tours, and other events focused on public engagement and education.
A final relevant work is Safari 7, a large-scale collaborative project put together by architects, designers, educators, and students at the Urban Landscape Lab at Columbia University and the design firm MTWTF. Safari 7, is, according to its creators, a “self-guided tour of urban wildlife along the 7 subway line.” Located in New York City and running from downtown Manhattan to Flushing, Queens, the “7 Line is a physical, urban transect through New York City’s most diverse range of ecosystems.”
As this project is heavily concerned with community organizing, engagement, and education, its primary audience is the community around Scajaquada Drain. A number of schools, block clubs, churches, and other community organizations are located on or near the creek, and their involvement both in the creation of and engagement with every aspect of the project is essential for its success. A related outreach event, tentatively titled “The Great Scajaquada Drain Toy Boat Float,” is in the early stages of development for late summer or early fall. It would gather together participants from the community to march or parade above the drain from beginning to end, following the path of a flotilla of toy boats carrying lit candles, culminating in a block party and community mapping event in either the cemetery or the nearby Delaware Park.
Additionally, there are several community organizations upstream and downstream from the drain, including the Scajaquada Canoe Club, the Buffalo-Niagara Riverkeeper, and others, who have expressed interest in the sonic daylighting process. The Canoe Club in particular is in the process of organizing an archive of historical photographs, documents, and maps of Scajaquada Creek and the surrounding communities, and there has been some talk about organizing an event or gallery show using historical materials, new work by regional artists, and a prototype of the project in coordination with an upcoming fall cleanup event.
When this project is fully implemented, “guide” documents will be published and distributed at regional arts, education, and community outreach centers. Therefore, a tertiary audience would be interested parties from communities outside the East Side, who will be drawn in through brochures, maps, guides, flyers, or other publications.
As mentioned above, the primary goals of the project are to organize, activate, and educate about and around the often-overlooked urban ecosystem of Scajaquada Drain. Through this, I hope to advocate for expanded and better-maintained greenspace in the neighborhood and for the eventual resurrection of the creek. The sound amplification devices are intended to playfully disorientate passersby and community members, providing a poetic, simple, and engaging “window” into the world underneath their lawns and streets. Additionally, community mapping and planning components of the project will gather information about neighborhood histories, places of significance, local habitat, and other features, with an eye toward preservation, restoration, and sustainable development.
Finally, I believe that Scajaquada Drain could easily provide, through its continued burial, a valuable resource to the East Side. The drain lies between two significant city parks (Schiller Park in the east and Delaware Park in the west); it would make perfect sense to convert the entire drain corridor into the Scajaquada Drain Parkway, providing a green band across the East Side and a significant step toward the neighborhood’s recovery.