On an overcast mid-July morning, 11-year-old Trayvon Vautrin combs the beach for treasures in the form of broken pottery pieces as he waits for his fellow co-workers of the Uptown Summer program to start their task of the day. Intern and production manager Nick Nerolien starts setting up his camera and filming b-roll of the water as it laps up on the beach. The air smells thick with diesel oil at the Ingalls Avenue boat launch in North Troy, where Vautrin is skipping rocks into the murky water of the Hudson River, but that’s not the only reason he scrunches his nose.
“What’s all that foam?” he asks as a stone kerplunks into the water, dispersing the grayish-white bubbles atop the water’s surface. None of the adults, including a few environmental scientists and a microbiologist, seem too certain about the film that covers the water, and a program volunteer hands Vautrin a pair of powder blue disposable gloves.
News of the unreported runoff of combined sewage overflow (CSO) in Troy had been reported on the first day of the program, July 11. According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC), the wastewater that overflows into the river from combined sewer systems are likely to occur after heavy rainfall and are “allowable discharges under the Clean Water Act (CWA).” On the visit to the boat launch three days later, the visible effects of the latest runoff had the program’s visiting scientists a bit wary.
In addition to collecting water samples, the citizen scientists were supposed to be seining this morning–that is, fishing with a large net–to study the Hudson’s marine wildlife. But an assessment from visiting scientists Dr. Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Brandon Ballengée of Louisiana State University (LSU)–determined that seining was too dangerous, due to the high level of visible debris that included floating condoms and human waste. The activity was postponed for another week.
The dozen preteens and teenagers that gather along the water’s edge are employees of the Media Alliance’s seventh annual Uptown Summer program–a five-week youth employment program combining art, science and community activism through environmentally themed multimedia projects at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in North Troy.
Directed by Darlene Hunter, an environmental science teacher at Averill Park High School, they set out to collect data samples of bacteria and any possible antibiotic resistance of the water–and subsequently, the marine life that inhabit it–snapping on their disposable gloves and gingerly dipping vials into the river, taking care not to touch the water with their bare skin.
“If you’ve got any little cuts on your skin or if you accidentally get it in your mouth you can get pretty sick. What it means is that there’s too much bacteria,” Ballengée explains. “Naturally, there is always gonna be a little bit of E. coli floating around in bodies of water from fish waste and human waste, but in this case, it’s just too much risk to be exposing yourself.”
For the young researchers in Uptown Summer, the pollution of the Hudson was the only way they have ever known the river. But program leaders hope the weeks spent with environmental scientists and employees of the state water departments have opened their minds to recognize the pollution as a problem that is worth solving. This year’s goal, Miller says, is to “tell the complex story of the Erie Canal, through their eyes today.”
“I always knew the river was dirty, now I know why,” Aries Doyle, 15, told The Alt before detailing what he had learned from visiting speakers about the history of pollution in the Hudson via the 30-year-long General Electric (GE) dumping of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
The day spent at the boat launch is one of many research activities that the Uptown Summer crew completed during the program as they compile research and footage for their multimedia documentary “Echoes from Lock One,” in which the the young participants explore the history of the Hudson River and 200-year-old Erie Canal, particularly in the area of North Troy. Each of the local teens have come to the Sanctuary with interests ranging from filmmaking to forensics.
The Sanctuary’s arts and education coordinator Branda Miller refers to the program and its members as a “patchwork quilt,” where artists, scientists and community members come together to make a change in their community.
Through the making of the documentary, the participants had the opportunity to try out a variety of tactics in research and scientific experimentation, and express their findings through art and media production. One day, they wrote song lyrics depicting the feeling that the river–and their communities–had been overlooked by their community leaders. Another day, they completed scientific journals with observations and experimental results.
On top of their practice in filmmaking and scientific research, the participants explored the timeline of the Hudson River and its man-made counterpart of the Erie Canal and learned new forms of artistic expression.
They took a historic walking tour of Troy with city historian Kathy Sheehan and studied art and literature focused on the Hudson River. They turned to song and dance with hip-hop artist and environmental activist Mistah Jayohcee and worked with multidisciplinary artist Brenda Ann Kenneally to intertwine their own experiences into the documentary through collages and narrative stories. They were given an exclusive tour of the Federal Lock One–which has been closed to the public since 9/11– led by Bill Petronis, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Albany Field Office and Deputy Director John Callaghan of the state Canal Corporation.
“Some of these kids are just 15-year-olds,” Miller told The Alt. “For most of them, this is their first job ever.”
A few kids who tag along for the program are even younger, like Vautrin, who has been attending the program for a little over two years. “Trae is our youngest intern ever,” Miller says, laughing.
While completing the program, the teens are paid employees thanks to an ongoing partnership with the Rensselaer County Summer Youth Employment Program. This year’s Uptown Summer Program is funded by a few of the foundation’s grants–McCarthy Charities and the Bender Scientific Fund–as well as overlapping grants through Media Alliance. Employees build their resumes and portfolios with projects like this year’s documentary and receive regular on-the-job training from local professionals while learning more about their local community.
“It’s really amazing that a place like this can survive–a community media arts space–because there’s really no funding in this climate for having a place like this,” Miller said to the group during their first week of employment. “You guys are pioneering a project where we have community people and youth become scientists to hold our city government and our national government accountable. You guys are taking power with science, and we’ve got the funding to do that.”
In addition to spending their weeks working on the documentary, the employees are doing hands-on work as environmental stewards on the eight-block environmental campus of the Sanctuary where they house chickens, a full aquaponics hoop house, beehives and gardening space.
They harvest honey and produce, feed the chickens and maintain their space with designated household chores.
While most of the team members undergo a collective learning experience, like Nerolien and Milan Miles are on around the clock film duty, capturing the data study and narratives for the documentary. They hook up mics to visiting speakers with ease and get creative with their b-roll, finding new perspectives over logs, shoulders and railings.
The full production of the documentary is completed by the Uptown Summer employees with a bit of guidance from local media professionals such as Jamel Mosely who walks them through the audio and film production technology.
They receive constant direction from Miller, who darts around the Sanctuary advising the program participants one-on-one as site activities take shape.
In the production room of the Sanctuary, Miller and Mosely stand over Miles as he picks through the production files with intense focus. Back on site, she offers framing advice. “Establish your shot, then just get way in there, lots of close ups,” she whispers to Nerolien during a guest lecture before taking lap around the table of employees who are studying their water samples.
The recent graduate in communications has spent the last seven months at the Sanctuary, having been asked back after his final semester stint to help film “Echoes of Lock One.”
“I’ve learned a lot about film here, but I’ve also learned a lot about myself,” Nick says. “About what I can do.”
This all-encompassing learning process is a highlight for Miller when it comes to watching the program employees explore their surroundings and abilities.
“The idea of youth growing up in this community letting people know the danger [of this pollution] is just so powerful. Even being a media maker and having a voice to break down stereotypes, being a scientist to protect your own community,” Miller says. “This area is epic, it’s so historic. Henry Hudson sailed here, this is the beginning of Federal Lock One and this was once this beautiful spot occupied by the Mohican Native Americans and it’s now unbelievably polluted.”
On Friday August 11 from 1:30 to 3 PM, the team will screen the “Echoes of Lock One” and discuss their research experience and production process with the public at the Sanctuary for Independent Media.
“This is their city and their story,” Sheehan told The Alt. “This area has had some rough times but it played an important part in the region’s history, and it still does.”
At the July 28 opening of the Uptown Summer’s in-progress gallery at the Rensselaer County Historical Society (RCHS) Vautrin and Doyle led visitors around each exhibit, talking them through the youth’s collective artwork, evidence and research material. As one couple surveyed a wall of photographed fishing wire, rope, styrofoam, a box of fireworks, shoes, and metal scraps, the boys described what it was like to find these items floating in the river. The team had collected five garbage bags of debris in the first week of the program. “I found my sole in the Hudson,” Doyle joked, pointing at a shoe.
The exhibit will be on display at RCHS through Sunday, August 6.
Photos by Kiki Vassilakis and author