Welcome to the Hot Seat, in which we interview folks involved in Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing Justin La Mort, the Chair of Events and a Steering Committee Member at the North Brooklyn Boat Club. The club enables and advocates for human-powered boating on the waterways bordering Greenpoint and Williamsburg. To wrap up its season, the group is holding a benefit concert next week, promised to be “the best Superfund dance party of the season.”
Brownstoner: Where do you live, and how did you end up there?
Justin La Mort: I started out in a warehouse loft off the Williamsburg waterfront but once the condos went up so did the rent. Next I ended up being one of the first tenants in a Bushwick development on the site of the ribbon factory in a “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” then finished the North Brooklyn trifecta with a great old house in Greenpoint near McCarren Park. As of two weeks ago I’ve moved to Windsor Terrace so my girlfriend and I could shorten our commutes to South Brooklyn and enjoy all the green scenery without abandoning our love affair with the G train.
BS: How did the North Brooklyn Boat Club come to be? How did you get involved?
JLM: The North Brooklyn Boat Club (NBBC) was the brain child of local filmmaker Dewey Thompson, Christine Holowacz of the Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning (GWAPP), and too many other great people to name here. North Brooklyn is in dire need of more open space and our city with hundreds of miles of shoreline only has a handful of access points into the water. NBBC was this DIY movement to open up not just the waterfront to the people but the waterways themselves. The idea quickly spread and with an outpouring of community support NBBC was awarded money from an environmental legal settlement that will one day fund the Greenpoint Boathouse.
After the jump, Justin explains why the NBBC picked Newtown Creek for its headquarters, what’s in the future for the club, and his favorite spots on the water…
I personally joined in October of 2011 before NBBC had boats or even a way to get onto the East River. I attended a meeting at the Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club and was amazed at the passion of NBBC’s members towards this abstract idea of a boat club. It was a diverse group who had many ideas of what a boat club could be from urban exploration to boat building to environmental activism. The next few months were a blur of activity. Tony Argento, a local businessman, was generous enough to allow us to create the Broadways Stages Boatyard on this perfect strip of vacant land next to the Pulaski Bridge and the Hudson River Foundation provided a grant to kick start buying equipment and storage containers. Now almost two years later we have over 200 members and have more programming than I could ever have imagined in such a short amount of time. One of our members, Robert DiMaio, made a short documentary about this time of the club’s history that you can see here.
BS: Why Newtown Creek? It’s a highly polluted waterway, but what gave it the potential to be the club’s headquarters?
JLM: The days of children swimming in Newtown Creek are long gone but things are definitely getting better. We test the water on a weekly basis and have strict safety protocols that limit direct exposure. That said, on our dock we can see all sorts of wildlife returning, such as crabs, shrimps, fish, and egrets. The western side of the creek provides a balance in protecting us from the full strength of the currents of the East River while serving as a convenient base to those who want to explore. Now that the EPA is taking an active role in remediation in addition to groups like Riverkeeper, Newtown Creek Alliance, and other government agencies we expect the creek to only keep improving.
BS: How much of the North Brooklyn Boat Club is pure recreational sport? How much of it is advocacy for cleaning up the waterway?
JLM: The beauty of the club is that it is whatever you want the club to be. I joined NBBC because I believe open space is important to democracy. The Jane Jacobs’ idea that waterfronts are barriers if left abandoned or potential seams that bring together disparate groups of people really resonated with me. If you want to solely enjoy some of the best views of the city and paddle amongst our islands at sunset you can do that. If you’d rather work with scientists and engineers on reclaiming a creek that was continuously abused from the onset of the industrial revolution you can do that too. Where the two inevitably intersect is that the more often people connect with the waterways the more it becomes a part of their everyday experience and the more likely they’ll care about keeping/getting the waterways healthy.
BS: Where are your members from, what’s brought them to the boat club? What kind of programs does the club offer?
JLM: If you ask 10 members why they joined you might get 12 different answers. I think it is because of magic. If you want a big house or lots of nature there are plenty of cities that provide more alternatives than Brooklyn. People live in New York City for the jobs and the opportunities but they stay for something greater and that are those magical moments where you couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Paddling on the water with panoramic views of the skyscrapers reaching for the stars or canoeing down forgotten stretches of Dutch Kills can show lifelong New Yorkers a new perspective of the city they call home. Who wouldn’t want to experience magical moments on a regular basis?
On a more practical matter our active membership ranges primarily across Brooklyn, Southern Queens, and Eastern Manhattan. Our programming is constantly growing but currently includes kayaks, canoes, rowboats, bird watching, gardening, composting, woodworking, boat building and restoration, water quality measuring, found art, concerts, guided tours, environmental education and research, and wildlife monitoring. This list grows on a weekly basis.
BS: What’s in the future for the North Brooklyn Boat Club?
JLM: In the short term we’re excited to be a part of the Greenpoint Film Festival on September 19 and we will be celebrating the Fall Equinox with our 2nd Annual Rock the Pulaski Benefit Concert on the evening of September 21 at the Broadway Stages Boatyard (437 McGuinness Boulevard at Ash). We are also hosting public paddles open to anyone who can swim on September 14 and 21 from 12 to 4 pm.
Long term is a grander vision. We are in the process of negotiating and designing the Greenpoint Boathouse which we expect to be one of the biggest in the city. We also want to be a cultural and scientific hub along Newtown Creek and wish to collaborate with other like-minded organizations to lead to a more sustainable, healthier city with a better understanding of the water around us.
BS: Finally, your favorites — favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, favorite spot on the water, and favorite route on the water.
JLM: At this point of my life Greenpoint is my favorite for the sense of community, food, drinks, and atmosphere but who knows what Brooklyn will look like 10 years from now. The water questions are much harder. You couldn’t go wrong with visiting the boat cemetery in Rossville or the creepily abandoned North Brother Island. My favorite has to be something more accessible to the newest of boaters. Paddling from our boatyard to the mouth of the creek you see the city’s past and present. On the left you’ll notice a 100-year-old rope factory and on the right are some of the last vestiges of forest along the waterfront. Soon the landscape will be dominated by Greenpoint Landing and Hunter Point South developments. Once you turn towards the Williamsburg Bridge you’ll discover the most perfectly still water inside the Bushwick Inlet which was promised parkland under the 2005 rezoning but remains inaccessible to those on land. This snapshot in time is a reminder of how quickly things can change and how important it is to prudently plan for the future.