To radically simplify a complex and very idiosyncratic belief system, fengshui attempts to draw connections between the success of the human inhabitants of an area and the geography of their surroundings. Most famous in the West for its influence in interior design, fengshui operates on myriad scales ranging from within the body itself to the global, and fengshui masters are able to trace flows of energy all the way from distant sources in the mountains of Tibet and India to the individual. In the villages I visited (which were built and inhabited by Han Chinese of the Hakka culture group) fengshui was intimately linked to wealth and its caprices governed largely by the small patches of old growth forest maintained in strategic locations around the village. These would usually include a large, crescent-shaped forest cradling the village uphill and to the north or east, a water supply running from this area around the village and through agricultural areas, and a water gate forest downstream from the village, as well as smaller patches of forest to fill in gaps in surrounding hills. The uphill forest serves as protection, the downstream forest serves as a gate to keep wealth from flowing out of the area freely, and the patches serve to plug holes into which negative forces might flow. Small earth god shrines dot these forests, and bridge temples spanning over the river where it exits the village are common features. Good fengshui would bring wealth, intelligent sons, and escape from natural disasters to a village; poor fengshui is very directly blamed for a lack of these things, in the way you would blame not paying the electric bill for the power shutting off. We’ll get to Greenpoint soon, don’t worry.
While often decried as a yuppie pseudoscience in the West, traditional village fengshui has been the subject of a great deal of interest as a link between established scientific fact and traditional, often mystic, practices. It stands easily to reason that a patch of forest uphill from the village protects the landscape from erosion and helps to maintain a consistent water supply, and that village wealth is increased by maintaining areas where edible and medicinal plants, animals, and fungi can be harvested. In Greenpoint, we see firsthand how well-loved religious sites can increase one’s sense of connection and place in the community, which in turn improves civic engagement and stewardship.
So how is this relevant to Greenpoint? While we clearly did not design our neighborhood according to these principles, I believe that in many ways we have inadvertently aligned ourselves with them to our benefit. First, we are ensconced by water. The Newtown Creek to the north provides a “natural” barrier between us and Queens, and serves to regulate the flow of water during storm events. The East River to our west was historically a primary source of wealth, and as ferry service returns and waterfront activity increases, its influence will only grow. A village fengshui master told us that the main entrances are the most important aspects of a village or home’s orientation, and Greenpoint does an excellent job of protecting all of ours with parks. Fountains adorn the Newtown Creek water treatment plant by the Greenpoint avenue bridge; Greenstreets along McGuinness Boulevard and on the far side of the Pulaski serve to mark those spaces, and McCarren and McGorlick park function in many ways as our water gates – they provide a punctuation between our neighborhood and Williamsburg. They also serve as an anchor point where businesses such as Five Leaves, Enids, Matchless, and Donia Cafe congregate to keep wealth (in the form of brunch patrons) in Greenpoint that may otherwise flow south. Finally, newly constructed parks such as Transmitter Park and the Manhattan Avenue Street End cover the newly important water entries.
Clearly these parallels are open to interpretation, and fengshui on the whole is far more complex than the outline I’ve drawn here. With those caveats, though, I say that Greenpoint has been given an excellent spot in relation to the rest of the city, despite our ongoing environmental concerns, and that we should continue to focus on increasing our waterfront and park access strategically around our little village.