Horticulturalists don’t get to work from home. The earth needs to be tilled, rain gardens need maintaining and bulbs need to be planted. As much of the world spends more time indoors, Brenda Suchilt has been keeping busy out — she’s among the newest additions to the Newtown Creek Alliance staff, joining this community organization as a part-time horticulturalist. Here, she discusses how the NCA has adapted to COVID and climate change, and the breadth of her work, which, if you count “home” as the earth, then it’s indeed where she’s working from.
Greenpointers: You’re the newest member of the NCA family! Tell us a little about the organization and your new role in it.
Brenda Suchilt: Newtown Creek Alliance is an organization that is dedicated to restoring the health of Newtown Creek and all the inhabitants alongside the water way. Our mission is to reveal, restore, and revitalize Newtown Creek. From wildlife to the industrial and manufacturing businesses along its shores, and all the people who enjoy the water. We are here for the community, and the community has shown the organization they’re here for us.
I’m NCA’s new horticulturist, and my role in the organization is to manage, maintain, and help the horticultural aspect of our now many green spaces creekwide, including several in Greenpoint. These green spaces are designed to support our local ecologies by providing food sources to native pollinators through using native cultivars in our planting practices.
How has the NCA adapted to these COVID times? Surely an outdoor spot must be desirable to visit, though the weather is getting cooler.
Being that NCA is a place for the community not just for education, but also for interaction. It’s been difficult for us because we’ve had to cancel our annual Kingsland Wildflowers Festival, we suspended many of our tours, all field trips and any in-person activity with any public school, and all of the public activities that would normally take place at the Kingsland Wildflowers (KW) at Broadway Stages community center and green roof. Most interaction with the public and volunteers have taken place at outdoor sites where we care for plantings and host clean ups to keep trash from entering the Creek, in a safe and socially distant manner. We have been able to get a lot done in the opening phases of New York, with our meadow planting and our creek clean ups! We’ve even had a hummingbird visit our new 3,000+ square foot median meadow in Long Island City. As it is starting to cool down we only have a few meet-ups left in this season and then we prepare for spring and hopefully our Wildflower Festival for the Summer of 2021! We will be fixing a fence and planting hundreds of crocus bulbs at Manhattan Ave Street End Park November 7 — come say hi!
Tidal Toast, your annual fundraiser, goes virtual this year. What can we expect?
It’s nerve-wracking putting together a really important event where we try to raise enough money to support a portion of our staff time, horticultural work, educational programming, water monitoring and patrolling for the year, and more. We are excited about this new approach to the event though! We will be showing a series of short films that introduce viewers to our work, our partners, and the physical places we have spent so much of our energies in 2019-2020. There will be a live chat and some interactive elements that I hope are fun for event guests. Its been fun to help with the filming of the videos and I’m excited to see them myself, I haven’t seen any of them yet, only the trailer, which is pretty great, so I’m excited for their debut too!
You’re working with Greenpoint Innovations on the installation of a mural in Hunter’s Point. What has that entailed, and what continued connections are you striving to make with artists?
The mural project has been a few years in the making. The origin of this mural in particular is probably from three years ago leading up to our annual Kingsland Wildflowers Festival and Climate Week. NCA was planning for the festival and was approached by some artists that wanted to perform a play on the bulkhead. It was through the planning process of hosting this performance that we began having more earnest conversations about the ways that people communicate larger complicated issues, like the environment. We saw opportunity to cultivate partnerships in the art world that could help us tell the story of our waters in a way that didn’t require data or research or a history lesson or any of the kind of typical environmental nonprofit messaging methodologies. So we partnered with Greenpoint Innovations to start collaborating on more public art. Our first project was a year later also during Climate Week NYC: a mural on the wall behind KW on that same bulkhead the performance was the year before. We were at that time pushing the expansion of our partnerships in LIC, we were just starting to work with a few schools in LIC, getting more focused on the Dutch Kills Loop, and really looking at ways to make a statement on the Queens side of the Creek. So we received funding through the New York Environmental Fund, administered by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and the NYS Pollution Prevention Institute to hire Greenpoint Innovations to help us curate an artist and get a large format mural up in a visible location in LIC. Our proposal was titled, Our Past, Our Future, Our Water: Restoration through Reflection and it is meant to depict the past, present, and future of our local waterways. It was really challenging getting this project off the ground in the first place, when COVID struck, it seemed like every ball we had in the air dropped. This project included. To complicate things, the mural is going up on a public school meaning the bureaucracy to get it approved was even more complicated.
In a nutshell, we are so thrilled with it, with the artwork, the placement, the message, the support for it, all of that, but it has been difficult. Well worth the effort. There will be a short film made about the mural as well so keep an eye for it!
What has it meant, for you, to be a part of NCA during this turbulent, political period?
It’s honestly meant so much for me to be a part of the organization this year, for the beginning months of COVID and during the peak of the protests I really started asking myself, what am I doing for not just my future, but the future of the community around me and what my legacy could mean. Recycling, reading the news, protesting, and having an opinion is all very important. But I felt I was not doing enough, I’ve always wanted to be a part of something like NCA, so to join in a time like now really feels fulfilling. To be involved in such amazing conversations for social justice and combating climate change in a city like New York feels like a dream come true. Immersing myself, listening to such compassionate and passionate individuals helps me get a break of the daunting news articles and political climate because the people around me care and are doing something that is helping make a difference.
Every organization must confront climate change and adapt its habits for the good of the planet and its people; how has an eco-forward organization like NCA contended with this science?
The impacts of climate change are already very real and apparent both on Newtown Creek and throughout the city. This includes issues like increased heatwaves (which can be pronounced in urban industrial area), stronger and more frequent rain events (which increases the amount of Combined Sewer Overflow that enters our waterways), more tropical storms and hurricanes (which can flood shoreline neighborhoods like Greenpoint), and, of course, sea level rise that will flood more of our city on regular high tide events in the coming years. We are in a very difficult spot to try and contend with these impacts. It is why we need real planning, greater investments into green infrastructure and shoreline improvements, and a path forward to limit greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change (which is why we oppose the North Brooklyn Pipeline project). This is why our work is a combination of advocacy, education, and on-the-ground improvements. We can’t just focus on the pollution of the past when there are also decisions being made today that will continue to negatively impact both our neighborhood and the planet.
Thank you, Brenda! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Go out and vote! Pay attention to your council members, your police chiefs, and your community gardens! They’re for you and you have every right to be heard! We won’t let our arts and science programs be ignored. Also, love and acceptance will help us heal through these turbulent times.