ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And not too far from Wall Street, in New York Harbor and along the East River, New Yorkers woke up today to some new landmarks: four towering waterfalls. They're actually a public art project, as Rick Karr reports.
RICK KARR: This morning, as dawn broke, it looked as though the Brooklyn Bridge had sprung a gigantic leak. There's a 100-foot tall tower of scaffolding just under the roadway on the Brooklyn shore, with water cascading from the top, around 9,000 gallons of water a minute.
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KARR: There are three others like it: one on the Manhattan shore on the Lower East Side, another on the Brooklyn shore and one on Governors Island in the middle of bay.
The falls are between 80- and 120-feet high. At the base of each waterfall, pumps suck water out of the bay and pipe it to the top, where it's dumped into an intentionally leaky, oversized gutter. From there, the water cascades back down into the bay.
The falls are the creation of the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. He's a big deal in the art world right now, as a retrospective of his work closes next week at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.
Two days ago, he sat on an observation deck overlooking the bay, a little bleary-eyed because he'd been up all night making sure everything worked. He gestured toward the water and said the point of the project is to get New Yorkers to think about parts of the city that they usually ignore, although he said it in art-speak.
Mr. OLAFUR ELIASSON (Artist): "There's a kind of a space which we normally would consider a negative space because we're here in Manhattan. This is the positive block. Over there you have another city structure. That's another positive block, but in between here, there is nothing. It's taken for granted as something which is not really even there.
KARR: In other words, the East River and the bay are things to be endured, not enjoyed; New Yorkers are used to passing through the tunnels below them or over the bridges above.
Mr. ELIASSON: This is not about the waterfalls only. This is obviously also about from where you engage with the waterfalls, the journey through the city, on a boat, on a bicycle, walking, running or however you want to look at them.
KARR: The waterfalls cost about $15 million. The money was raised mostly from private donors by a group called the Public Art Fund, which also organized the logistics. Its president, Susan Freedman, says New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg loves the idea and pushed his staff to make it happen.
Ms. SUSAN FREEDMAN (President, Public Art Fund): No one's built a waterfall before, so city agencies think how do we permit this? And there had to be the willingness and creativity to say yes and to want to pursue it and make it happen, and when there's a mandate from City Hall to pursue it and make it happen, then it happens.
KARR: The only comparable public art project in New York history was "The Gates," erected in Central Park in 2005 by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Katy Siegel teaches art history at Hunter College. She says the mayor's support for waterfalls was informed by the success of "The Gates."
Ms. KATEY SIEGEL (Art History Teacher, Hunter College): Michael Bloomberg understands that art is good business. And so "The Gates" was an enormous success, probably the biggest, most successful art - public-art project ever in terms of sheer economics and tourism. And so the question is will this drum up that kind of business?
KARR: Siegel isn't so sure that it will. She says the New York waterfront isn't very pretty, certainly not as inviting as Central Park. She also worries that the focus on tourism will dilute the impact of the waterfalls; that they'll be seen as a spectacle, rather than the sublime evocation of nature that Eliasson seems to want.
Ms. SIEGEL: He didn't want lights, originally, and that they are putting electric lights on them, and I think that's something he's probably afraid of, that it'll just be turned into the equivalent of a laser-light show at a Pink Floyd concert.
KARR: The waterfalls will be in operation through mid-October. A limited number of free tickets will be available every day for a boat tour of all four. Anyone who misses out on the free ride can pay $10. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York.
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