Waterfalls make a splash, but doubts surface

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2008, 12:00am

New York

New York has had more than its share of the extraordinary. So when residents got up one morning at the end of June and saw four waterfalls pouring from scaffolding in the East River, they knew it wasn't a mirage.

The waterfalls are a public work of art by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and have become a major attraction and a source of controversy. The waterfalls, each between 30 and 40 metres tall, are created by pumping 8 million litres of water an hour from the East River down a scaffold at the centre of the installations. The falls are located along the river fairly close to each other on the banks of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Governors Island.

The New York City Waterfalls are the largest-scale public art works in the city since The Gates, the 2005 installation by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude that brightened the bleak winter in Central Park with saffron-coloured drapes running for 37km. And, like The Gates, The Waterfalls made an immediate splash. New Yorkers and tourists alike rush to the area to take a look. Cruise boats and hotels have launched special packages that spin around the waterfalls. From Boston to San Diego, local media are calling on their own cities to upgrade their public art to the New York level.

But like anything of this nature, the falls also get their share of scrutiny. The most recent clash is about their environmental impact, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg promised would be 'little'.

Last week, the New York Post found that the trees in the garden of the River Cafe, a posh restaurant at the foot of the waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge, were turning brown because they were exposed to the fog of salty water stirred by the wind. It turns out plants at other waterfall sites are suffering similarly (the city has now hired some experts to rescue the trees).

This has added fuel to criticism of the project's US$15.5 million cost. The money has been raised mainly from private donors, with only US$2 million provided by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, which was set up after 9/11 to help rebuild downtown Manhattan.

The city expects to earn US$55 million from tourism spending before the installations, which opened on June 26, are pulled down in October. Still, critics ask whether the project is worth the money at a time when the city and New York state have to cut budgets from education to senior services in an economic downturn. They also question whether there is any real artistic value in the works.

The New York Times questioned the expected income from tourism: 'How much of the money visitors spend on T-shirts or bottled water while viewing the exhibit would otherwise have gone to, say, movie tickets or museum souvenirs [or bottled water while doing something else]?'

Such views were easy to track on a visit to the waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge last week. But the arguments almost seem to justify the waterfall's existence - in many ways New York's reputation has been built on such debate, albeit rancorous at times.

On the left-hand side of the waterfall stood Mike Henson, a construction worker who works at a nearby site. Since the waterfalls went up, Mr Henson has spent all his breaks close by.

'It really beautified the area. It's worth every penny. And the city is getting the money back,' Mr Henson said, pointing to a tour boat hovering around the fall.

At the River Cafe, valet Davis Falls was parking cars for customers. 'I think it's a great idea, but it wasn't executed well,' he said. 'It was kind of disappointing. I thought it would look more natural ... And now we have to worry about our trees.'

On the right-hand side, French tourist Brigitte Kahane was enjoying the water blown over from the fall. 'It feels cool,' she said.

Tomorrow: London