The Teaneck Creek Conservancy and EcoArt

November 22, 2010

This is Week Three in our guest series by the Center for Urban and Environmental Sustainability and their County Extension Agents. If you haven’t already, read Week One (“Urban Solutions are Just a Call Away”) and Week Two (“Transforming Newark Lot by Lot”).

Teaneck Creek Conservancy

Like many successful non-profit organizations, the Teaneck Creek Conservancy was formed in response to a perceived threat. One morning the founders of the Puffin Foundation, Perry and Gladys Rosenstein, looked out their office window and saw surveyor flagging tape that was mysteriously adorning trees in the forest behind the building’s parking lot. Alarmed by the thought that the trees were selected to be cut down, the Rosensteins mobilized local community environmentalists, educators, artists, and scientists to save the 46 acre forest that they found out was owned by Bergen County and designated as “Area 1” of Overpeck County Park. Twelve years later the non-profit Teaneck Creek Conservancy (TCC) is the premier EcoArt organization in Bergen County. TCC now has a unique long-term lease with Bergen County and manages the 46 acre Park’s programming, trail maintenance, and fund raising activities.

Teaneck Wetlands Degradation Over Time

The original wetlands of the Teaneck Creek portion of the Hackensack Meadowlands have a sad history. They were once the dumping ground for private companies and the NJ Department of Transportation, which used the site in the 1960’s as a staging and disposal area for dredge and construction debris materials during the building of the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 80 – huge interstate highways that are the Park’s neighbors. Materials illegally dumped and buried on the site in the 1960’s include domestic waste filled with cans, bottles, clothing, and plastic, and construction debris containing bricks, glass, concrete, roofing materials, lumber, automotive parts, and appliances. The original intentions for the property were to fill the wetland area with garbage and then cap the landfilled site and convert it into community park space. The first conservancy volunteers vowed that the Park would reflect these misguided origins while preserving the ecological integrity of the site and having art works created here that would reuse only materials found on the site – a living testament to the power of recycling!

TCC refrigerator & garlic mustard

Labyrinth Volunteers at Teaneck Creek Conservancy

Since TCC was incorporated in 2001, community volunteers using only hand tools have removed literally tons of debris from the Park, including automotive parts, construction debris, and household appliances. The earliest EcoArt projects relied upon the “Jersey RubbleStone” – large pieces of concrete left over from the road construction. Concrete slabs were extracted from the soil and moved by volunteers into new positions – to be reused as signs, bird Migration MilePost Markers, and the seating area in the Peace Labyrinth. Local artists led the volunteers – Lynn Hull worked to create the migration markers that detail flight patterns of transient Park residents who use the Atlantic Flyway. Arianna Burgess designed and led the building of the labyrinth, a naturally peaceful setting for mediation that is located only ten miles “as the crow flies” from mid-town Manhattan!

Lynn Hull_grosbeak

Labyrinth Walk at Teaneck Creek Conservancy

TCC brings together the diverse populations living in this densely populated portion of New Jersey by engaging adults and children to participate in EcoArt communal activities. World recognized EcoArtists come to the Park for residencies that range from one day to month-long stays. These artists share their skill and passion with local residents and school groups, creating artwork that sometimes remains in the Park, but may also be ephemeral, decomposing naturally over time. Each year a different renowned artist is featured, and these artists often creatively mix science into their artistic vision.

In May 2006, Brandon Ballengée created a temporary outdoor installation at the main entrance to Teaneck Creek Park through use of ultra-violet (black) light to study and photograph arthropods (spiders, moths, beetles, etc.) and other nocturnal creatures. Attracted to the light, these creatures would mate and feed on the sculpture. Moths “painted” the piece when they released chemical pheromones to attract their mates, while the spiders spun webs adding their own unique contribution to the work. Deconstructing the boundaries between art and science, Brandon creates conceptual installations out of information generated from ecological field trips and laboratory research. The work of Brandon Ballengée bridges the gap between research biology and art as he collaborates with scientists to create hybrid environmental art/ ecological research projects. Brandon uses his visual expressions of science to engage the public in a discussion of broader environmental issues.

Roy Staab was the Park’s 2007 resident artist. Roy’s vision is to make art that is part of nature, reflected in the ethereal sculpture that he created from common reeds growing in the Park. Roy sought out the perfect location to build the 60 foot high, 100 foot long and 50 foot wide installation at the convergence of two trails where a cottonwood tree stands. Assisted by four students and artists, he bundled the reeds gathered from the surrounding area. He then created an arrow by suspending five lines from a fork in the cottonwood, which fanned down 16 feet before doubling into ten lines that swoop downward across the space and then curve back up to attach to other trees at varying heights. The curve formed a swaying ceiling meant to give a sense of protection to anyone standing below.

Alien Beauty ecoart at Teaneck Creek Conservancy

The most ambitious EcoArt project undertaken by TCC so far is the transformation of the Five Pipes. These five-foot diameter concrete “monoliths” are thought to be drainage pipes left over from construction of the NJ Turnpike. In 2008 TCC commissioned muralist Eduardo Rubel to lead school children and volunteers in creating a pictorial history and future vision of Teaneck Creek Park. The five pipes were designated to represent historic eras: prehistory, European colonization during the 18th Century, industrialization of the 19th Century, the 20th Century, and the Future. The inside of the pipes depicted the human aspects of each era and the outside represented the environmental features or degradation associated with each time period. Working though the entire school year 2008-09 Eduardo completed this terrific project last fall, and the installation was dedicated by Bergen County Executive Dennis McNearny. The Future Pipe illustrates two pathways – a sustainable environment or continuing degradation – we hope the children’s sustainable vision comes to be!

[You can see another Dodge blog post, “Notes From the Road” about the Five Pipes project by Wendy Liscow.]

Inside 5 Pipes

Grand Opening_5 Pipes

Jane Ingram Allen, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, was the 2010 Artist in Residence. During a month-long stay Jane led volunteers in installing a living gateway and border at the Fycke Lane entrance to Teaneck Creek Park. The “Crossing Borders” installation marks the point of leaving the urban world and entering the world of nature, where it merges with the Jersey RubbleStone supports built by County workers. Built by Jane with the help of local art teachers and school children the sculpture made from branches and vines is reminiscent of the Fycke fish trap once used by Native Americans living in the Teaneck Creek wetlands. During her residency, Jane lead paper making workshops using materials found onsite, and the structure is covered with handmade paper in fish shapes that were created from native plants. The fish represent species found in Teaneck Creek and the paper pulp has seeds of native northeastern wildflowers embedded in it. Over time the seeds will sprout and grow into a field of wildflowers forming a living entrance to the Park. The installation will last for years until the branches decompose naturally into the landscape, and over time the flowers and vines will create a living natural gate and border at the Park entrance. To follow the four week TCC residency you can visit a blog post by Jane’s intern.

In addition to its unique focus on EcoArt installations, TCC is equally committed to sound science and environmental education. Rutgers University has been an active partner in the TCC wetland restoration project for more than half a decade. The long-term environmental objective is to restore a large portion of the original wetlands that were filled and degraded so long ago. Rutgers students, environmental scientists, and bioengineers have collaborated with TCC and Bergen County to develop a Conceptual Restoration Plan that will reestablish 20 acres of high quality wetlands on the 46-acre site. This plan has been submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the funding to recreate the wetlands and remove the remaining construction debris is being sought by Bergen County.

This project provided a unique opportunity for applied research in the field of urban wetland restoration. Hydrology, water quality, vegetation and soils expertise were brought together through Rutgers to address these particular challenges. Funding provided for the research by the NJDEP Wetlands Mitigation Council was leveraged with additional funds from EPA, USGS, Rutgers University and the NJ Agricultural Experiment Station. This cooperative effort resulted in collection of the scientific data needed to complete the wetlands design and to build upon the knowledge of urban wetland restoration. TCC provided an educational opportunity to train future science and engineering professionals in restoration techniques for urban wetland systems.

The Conceptual Wetland Restoration Plan that was developed is based upon conclusions reached after analysis of the data, mapping, and modeling completed during the Rutgers research phase of the project. Restoration activities are designated in four distinct zones across Teaneck Creek Park. These zones were determined using the information generated by the hydrologic modeling, soil characterization, and vegetation surveys. Specific restoration and management initiatives have been developed for each zone. The goals of the restoration approach are to:

• Protect the identified high quality areas remaining in Teaneck Creek Park,

• Restore new wetland areas through the removal of identified fill materials,

• Lower surface elevations in filled areas, reestablishing hydrologic connections between the Teaneck Creek and the interior wetlands, and

• Make the restored wetland sites accessible to the local community and residents of Bergen County.

The research and restoration plans have been submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and funding to recreate the wetlands and remove the remaining construction debris is being sought by Bergen County.

For additional information about the Teaneck Creek Conservancy, please contact Devery Volpe, Executive Director or visit our website.

You can also read more about the scientific research conducted at Teaneck Creek Park by going to the CUES website, or by contacting Dr. Beth Ravit at

Images: Teaneck Creek Conservancy

This guest series continues next Monday.