Contributing writer: Matthew López-Jensen, Bronx-based Interdisciplinary Environmental Artist. All photos courtesy Matthew López-Jensen.

The Tibbetts Estuary Tapestry is a fifteen-foot-long community embroidered work of art — and it is also a map of the neighborhoods and commercial buildings in the Northwest Bronx, built on former marshland. The work was commissioned by City as Living Laboratory with support from the Coby Foundation and was created in collaboration with artist Ana de la Cueva and over one hundred volunteers. It is also one of the most complicated endeavors I have ever taken on as an artist.

Tibbetts Estuary Tapestry

Before I could imagine a work of art, I had to get to know Tibbetts Brook. I live adjacent to what might be considered the “Tibbetts watershed,” but visiting the stream is harder than it sounds. As Tibbetts crosses into the Bronx from Westchester County it gets lost in a tangle of highway medians and golf course fences before becoming Van Cortlandt Lake. My research began — like most of my projects begin — on foot. I followed the old watercourse through the streets of Kingsbridge and Marble Hill, walked the trails around Van Cortlandt Lake, hopped fences where necessary, and traversed the Old Putnam Trail north to Tibbetts Brook Park in Yonkers. Then I combined my historical research, wanderings, photographs, videos, and writings into a “virtual walk” that lives here: Walking Tibbetts.

The virtual walk made sharing experiences of hard-to-reach landscapes possible in the middle of the pandemic. A few months after completing this virtual work, I was asked to think about a Tibbetts-related work that was also a socially engaged piece and done in collaboration with artist Ana de la Cueva. Ana was based in Guadalajara, Mexico at the time, having left her studio in Harlem during of the pandemic.

Tibbetts Brook Flooded
Tibbetts Brook Flooded
Greenroof Botanical Sampler
Tree Stitch
Botanical Stitches

A few months later Tibbetts Brook made international news when it flooded the Major Deegan Expressway and surrounding neighborhoods. Extra-heavy rains, made possible by climate change, now threaten this region with or without an accompanying hurricane. What had once been a rich estuary — teaming with biodiversity, built by nature to absorb enormous amounts of water — is now gone. New York City diverted Tibbetts Brook into the sewer system, filled in the marshland, and sold it to the highest bidder. Now big box stores and parking lots abound. When it rains the water has nowhere to go.

Tapestry Installed
One tapestry square
Tapestery Installed detail

Finally, after decades of advocacy by residents, the city is going to “daylight” Tibbetts Brook. Examples of stream daylighting exist both throughout the world and close to home. Downtown Yonkers, only a few miles north of New York City, recently brought the Saw Mill River back into view.

It won’t be so easy in the Bronx. The stream will follow the old CSX train tracks (not its original path) to the Harlem River. The project will mitigate some of the pollution and flooding problems that occur during heavy rains. Unfortunately, the new watercourse will be so narrow that it will not have much of an impact on the heat island effect created by the adjacent commercial lots.

The Tibbetts Estuary Tapestry imagines a reality, or versions of it, where green roofs are installed on all the huge flat rooftops and the city increases the number of permeable hardscapes in the corridor.

Throughout the tapestry viewers will see clusters of green French knots representing street trees and canopy cover. Part of the digital mapping process involved capturing all the existing trees in the corridor so participants could render them in thread. A significant portion of the meager canopy comes from volunteer trees growing in the margins between the highway and railroad. Most of the street trees are new and stunted by the harsh growing conditions generated by the blocks of commercial development with expansive parking lots and little stewardship.

The tapestry, of course, is also speculative and many participants decided to push the script and stitch trees along every road and over parking lots. It is certainly makes for a more beautiful work of art and would also be a better reality for the community.

As humble as the work of thread might appear, the tapestry is a provocation. It invites the community to look harder at all the rooftops we can see from the windows of the IRT. It asks New York City to do more than pass green roof laws that can be easily circumnavigated or ignored by commercial buildings.

We need the estuary back.

What about the tapestry? How exactly did it come to be? How might someone replicate the process? It is the manifestation of art, research, and so much administration. Here are the steps it took:

  • I outlined the framework for the idea and sent it off to CaLL. Eventually everything fell into place and I was given the greenlight to proceed.
  • Ana de la Cueva and I pushed and pulled the idea a bit more. We also imagined that the pandemic would abate, and she would be back in New York City soon.
  • I designed a digital map of all the structures with flat roofs in the area that was once estuary. I included trainlines and bridges but ignored roads and highways. I also included a blue line to represent the future course of Tibbetts Brook.
  • Inspired by the stitch-like markings used to denote various terrains on old maps, I invented fourteen stitches to represent plants that would grow well on a green roof in our climate zone. These included purple love grass, yucca, wild blue indigo, early goldenrod, Eastern prickly pear, bluestem grass, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susan, narrowleaf mountain mint, tall redtop grass, hens-and-chicks, sedum, shaggy golden aster and Northern oat grass.
  • I made a “Green Roof Botanical Sampler” that featured the stitches.
  • I filmed how-to videos for each stitch and gave embroidery lessons at the Riverdale Farmers Market.
  • CaLL helped me to connect with and enlist over one hundred volunteers.
  • I scaled the digital drawing of the neighborhood to 15×6 feet and broke it into 120 tiles: one for each future volunteer.
  • The lines were digitally embroidered by crafts people that Ana de la Cueva works with in Guadalajara.
  • The “tiles” were sent back to NYC and included as part of embroidery kits with all the colors one would need to stitch the plants featured in the videos.
  • The kits were mailed, at no expense to the volunteers.
  • We held online Zoom sessions where volunteers could meet each other and stitch together. Volunteers were asked to invent hypothetical gardens on the rooftops featured in their square.
  • The existing tree canopy was rendered in French knots throughout the tapestry and stitchers could add more trees wherever they wanted.
  • The finished squares were mailed back to CaLL. (Not as easy as it sounds). They contained many wonderful surprises not in the original script.
  • Then the tiles were stitched together, a border added and a stand built.
  • Now the tapestry exists as a free-standing, easy-to-install teaching tool. It has already been exhibited at four venues in the Bronx!

And that is the Tibbetts Estuary Tapestry in a nutshell.

More of Matt’s tree-related projects:

Map of Tibbetts Brook Pre Filling In copy