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NYC filmmaker on 3 Staten Island neighborhoods that made a 'Managed Retreat' post-Sandy

A still from "Managed Retreat."

A still from "Managed Retreat." Photo Credit: Nathan Kensinger

When should we move away from the coast? Nathan Kensinger's 2018 short documentary "Managed Retreat" shows three Staten Island neighborhoods — Graham Beach, Oakwood Beach and Ocean Breeze — where people pulled back after superstorm Sandy, returning land to nature. His film was shown at a Columbia University climate adaptation conference on the same theme last week.

Kensinger, who is also a photographer and artist, has long documented New York City's changing waterfront in photo essays. He lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You said you were going for a "non-human aesthetic." Can you talk about your thinking for that?

A: The film is definitely meant to be from a non-human perspective, or to take on a non-human aesthetic, and to really ask questions about how managed retreat might impact other species, ecologies and even other structures. The main characters in the film are certainly not human, but the homes, the ocean, the marshlands that exist there now and the other species that are coming back.

Q: There's a car that’s shown being steadily reclaimed by nature. Over what time period did you film that?

A: I filmed the piece over the course of about one and a half to two years. The majority of the filming, though, was done over the course of five seasons, to track out that seasonal change. And that car being reclaimed by the marshlands there was over the course of those five seasons. At the latest point it was impossible to access that car, but it starts in the beginning of winter, leading into winter, and I tracked it through to spring, when it became completely overgrown by those Phragmites in the marshland. (They're a harmful invasive species, he explained.) That's a recurring character as well, or a motif, where you return to that same place to watch the return of the marshlands.

Q: What did people on Staten Island say to you about climate change?

A: The people living in this community, they're very aware of the dangers they're facing in many regards. The people living in these communities that retreated had flooded repeatedly over the years, and so they fully understand the danger of living in a marshland next to the ocean. It wasn't too challenging to talk about this with them. They were like yes, I need to move away, I understand that we should not be living here. It's no longer safe with rising sea levels to be here. That was also somewhat of a surprise. People were very honest about the fact that they didn't think they or anyone else should be living along the coastline because they knew what was coming in the future.

Q: That is surprising.

A: Yes, exactly. But if you're living on the front lines of climate change, you're feeling it now. These folks were living on the front lines of climate change — they were completely impacted by Sandy, and by other storms, and you can't ignore that. When a hurricane comes through and floods your entire neighborhood, there's no denying the power of that.

Q: What's a shot you're really happy you got?

A: There's so many favorite moments in the film. They're not really reflective of actual time. The film is very short, but it's compressing a year and a half into 18 minutes. And even within my favorite shots, it's compressing 8 hours into 1 minute. So some of my favorite shots are the demolition of that blue home — it's a very central part of the film, sitting and watching that blue home stubbornly resist the teardown process. I filmed that for about 8 hours one day. And that was very early in the process of making the movie, and after filming that I was like I have to continue to document this, it's just so visually powerful to watch this process of retreat unfolding.

Another favorite shot for sure was happening across that caterpillar at the very end of the film. I ended the piece on that because I found that caterpillar to be a great metaphor for where humans are in the landscape, in relation to the water.

Q: When I was watching the claw do its work, I thought of a T-Rex chomping at the house.

A: Yeah, a lot of people have said that. They were like "This reminds me of a dinosaur," or this other animal, almost, coming in and dramatically reaching up and demolishing these spaces. It's true, it feels like those machines take on an almost animalistic quality as they're doing their work. And you don't see the humans necessarily operating them, so they take on their own personality — not separate from humans, but you're not explicitly seeing that it's a human operation.

Q: Right. And also how hard it was to knock the house down, like you were indicating. But it was very persistent, and eventually got it down.

A: Piece by piece. The process of retreat is like that, though — it's actually a very physical, gritty thing. And that's what I was trying to get across — it's a very lengthy process that involves in some cases very violent action, like ripping out homes and digging up the evidence of human civilization, and then trying to erase that from the landscape. That's a challenging process.

Q: What other imagery has resonated with people?

A: One reason I continued filming was that every time I went there, there'd be something unique and surprising that would happen. Seeing the baby geese learning how to swim in a pothole, and seeing all the wild animals returning so quickly to the area. Certainly people have been surprised to see some of those other species so quickly coming back to the streets. When you're in New York City, you don't really think of wild animals wandering around in broad daylight, like the possum wandering freely. The other species are usually wary of humans, and they don't come out freely like that. For people to see the deer, the turkeys, the possum, all of that has resonated with them — seeing that nature is finding a home when we move away.

Q: You said part of your intent for this is to be hopeful, and that retreat is the most forward-looking response. What lessons do you take from what you saw in these three Staten Island neighborhoods for the rest of New York City’s waterfront, as sea levels rise?

A: All of these [waterfront] neighborhoods are going to be facing similar challenges as sea levels continue to rise. We're going to more and more be having this conversation of how long should we hold onto some of these waterfront areas? How long can we actually live here at the water's edge? If sea levels continue to rise as expected, well, the predictions for sea level rise within New York City by New York State are up to 6.25 feet by [2100]. That's an astronomical amount of water, which would mean that no one can live in quite a few of those neighborhoods, because they would be permanently flooded. So we're going to have these conversations more and more frequently about whether we need to move away from the waterfront, and move to safer areas for the future. That's why managed retreat is a pretty forward-looking process. We're getting out of harm's way while we can, and we're doing it in an organized way, and it's meant to be permanent.

WHERE TO WATCH: You can see "Managed Retreat" at Works on Water on Governors Island on weekends from July 6-28.

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