If you lived in New York City in 2009, you remember the stories about the "dumpster pools" set up in an undisclosed lot somewhere in Gowanus, . They were the stuff of legend. New York in the summer is basically a crematory made out of asphalt and trash, so when rumors of an oasis amid the warehouses in south Brooklyn began to circulate, things escalated quickly. The now-defunct DIY magazine broke the dumpster pool story but withheld the location in a nice attempt at keeping the small space under wraps. After ricocheting around the Brooklyn blogosphere for a couple of weeks, however, the story landed in the , which led to a national frenzy about the pools. Stories about the dumpsters appeared everywhere from to to the , and at one point even Oprah called the organizers—personally—to ask about having them on her show. The secret was out, and all of New York was trying to figure out how to get an invite to one of the pools' private parties.
The men behind the dumpsters were part of a company called Macro Sea made up of David Belt, Alix Feinkind, and Jocko Weyland. They got the idea after hearing about a guy in Athens, Georgia, who had done the same thing in a mall parking lot. The story of how the pools—three of them in all, dumpsters arranged in the shape of an H—became a reality in an abandoned lot in Brooklyn is every bit as interesting as the end product. So thankfully Weyland, an artist, writer, skateboard historian, and longtime VICE contributor, has published a book called Danny's Lot with Dashwood Books explaining, in detail, how the whole thing came about.
The book's title, as you might have guessed, comes from the man who owned the Gowanus lot where the pools were housed. Danny Tinneny proved to be instrumental in the construction of the project, at different times serving as foreman, forklift operator, indispensable advice-dispenser, and genial landlord. Weyland became infatuated with Danny, as well as the physical space of the lot, and spent two years photographing it as the seasons changed down by the canal. The result is a photo book that focuses more on the strange beauty of an abandoned lot than it does on the pools themselves, but looking at the lot as art instead of a trash heap is a lot like the idea behind the dumpster pools in the first place: As David Belt put it to the Daily News in 2009, "The idea was to take something that someone thinks of in one way, and use it in another."
Weyland was kind enough to answer some questions via email ahead of Wednesday's opening reception for the book at Dashwood's shop in Soho.
VICE: What was the lot being used for before you found it?
Jocko Weyland: An all-purpose conglomeration, with lots of what most people would consider junk lying around, as well as forklifts, backhoes, cranes, old cars, boats, jet-skis, bikes, ladders… you name it. A moving company called Rabbit Movers had an office and parked their trucks there, and movie stylist RVs were stored there between jobs. There was a woodshop, a guy named Lee had a music studio, and this fellow Johnny lived above Danny's office. And there were three boats moored in the canal that housed various nonconformists. All kinds of things were going on there, though it wasn't readily apparent what they all were, exactly. Prior to that, way before I met Danny, up through 1990, well, the end pages of the book are police evidence photos from when it was allegedly a haven of purported illegal activities.
What do you think it was about that space that you found so special? It seems like a lot of it was Danny's personality, but you visited often by yourself just to spend time alone there, correct?
Danny's personality was such a key factor. He really was the "king of the lot" and his sensibility and character infused everything, from the smallest detail to the overall "vision," if you could call it that. It was all a reflection of him and his life. What really made it special was that he was sort of a benevolent dictator who made a space, not only a physical but psychic one, for all kinds of wingnuts and misfits who he gave refuge to and allowed to unabashedly fly their freak flags high. Which was especially great, since on the face of it you wouldn't have guessed that. He was gruff, a tough old New Yorker, but there was a mischievous prankster behind the facade, who had a soft spot for oddballs and rejects. An anti-authoritarian streak ran deep in him and by extension the whole lot.
And yes, I went there a lot by myself, and I'm very thankful for that. Danny got there at 4:30 AM or so and was gone by 2 PM. His son, Danny Jr., would get there later in the morning but also leave fairly early. It was a real gift that I had access, and keys, and could be there at any time. It was extraordinary in many ways, but the main facets of that were all the space, all the cool shit lying around, and the feeling of freedom, not buttoned-down or prissy. As I say in the book, in was a true temporary semi-autonomous zone.
Is there anything about the lot itself that you feel helped to inspire the creation of the pools or the events that were thrown there?
Not as far as the pools, because we, Macro Sea, had the idea for the pools before we found the lot. We just needed to find a place to do put them and make our "lo-fi country club." But that wasn't easy. It had to be the right place, though neither David Belt, Macro Sea's founder, nor Alix Feinkind, who also worked for Macro Sea, or I could have said precisely what that entailed. Then, by pure chance, when I found Danny, his lot turned out to be the perfect location and had just the right ambience. So as that first summer went on, with the pools and the parties, the film screenings and music events, I think everyone who came to the pools was really inspired by the lot. Well, almost everyone. Most people who could dig swimming in a dumpster pool by the Gowanus were inclined to dig everything else about the lot.
When the story about the pools exploded were you worried they would get shut down? Why do you think the city—aside from the one noise complaint and the letter from the department of Health after the pools were finished—was so accommodating?
Yes, we were. There was a bit too much exposure. That was good for Macro Sea, certainly, and the attention led to many future projects. But what we thought would stay "underground" quickly got out of hand, particularly from a "management" perspective. And therein lay a paradox, because David and I (and the Dannys) loved the pools and what we had created around them, but we didn't like the hassle of dealing with all the looky-loos and problems that arose because of their popularity. Kind of a double-edged sword.
The city didn't know about or care about us, but with all the media coverage, especially the article in the New York Times, well, sooner or later someone high up was going to say, "What's going on over there? Who are these people? And do they have permits? Is it code compliant?" Etc. Etc. That's what happened. But by that time, actually, on the day David got that letter, it happened to be the same day he decided to empty the pools. We'd had loads of fun, but it was also a lot to handle. So the city's threat at that point didn't really mean much. Though, ironically, it led to David meeting with the Department of Health, saying, basically, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." And later, to the Department of Transportation and Bloomburg's Summer Streets Program people asking Macro Sea to make custom pools, which we did. Those street legal, code compliant, fully mobile dumpster pools were manufactured at Cooper Tank in Bushwick in the winter of 2010 and then were used on Park Avenue that August for the Summer Streets program. And now, five years later, those three pools have been very graciously donated by David to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, where I happen to be the curator.
What did Oprah say when she called about the dumpsters?
Well, that's all second-hand, reported to me by David. I did not speak directly to Oprah. I was skating at Bay Ridge that day and David called and told me, and we were just laughing. It was absurd. As I heard from him, her people called at the office and told him Oprah wanted to talk, but he would have to be on hold for 15 minutes, and would have to address her a certain way—all these rules and regulations. Well, he said, tell Oprah thank you very much for the interest, but I'm busy, could she call back? I guess they got kind of huffy about it, like, how could he be so impertinent? Anyway a minute later his cell phone rings, he answers, and it's "Hi, David. It's Oprah." They figured out his cell number somehow, like CIA-level capabilities. They had a nice chat and she said how much she loved the pools and floated the idea of us going on her show. Which, thankfully, David declined. That would have been preposterous.
Another funny thing is the same day, and I remember David calling me at 10:00 at night to tell me, is that Waste Management, the biggest waste disposal company in the country, put a link to the Times article on their website. That was real validation for us—much more than getting a call from Oprah.
Did you consider inviting Oprah to take a swim in the dumpsters?
In retrospect, maybe we should have. That might have been great. On the other hand—another hassle.
Do you have plans to do anything else with the space?
Macro Sea did a lot there—the pools, Glassphemy!, and I put on two Elk Gallery shows. But by the summer of 2011, Danny had gotten sick and Macro Sea had moved on. It was all very amicable. Danny recovered and I got to see him on the lot in the summer of 2012, and he knew that I wanted to do this book. He would always sort of shake his head, like why was I so interested in his lot, and him? But I also think he liked that someone got it, someone appreciated it. Then he died in early 2013, and that was obviously the end of an era—for the lot, and for us. A deep personal loss, too, and really the reason for this book: a heartfelt eulogy and celebration of an exceptional man and the environment he devised. Danny Tinneny Jr. now has control of the lot and I'm sure has plans for it. Though it's on a Superfund site, that will eventually get taken care of, and it's extremely valuable real estate.
You've traveled the world taking photos of interesting and exciting people and places; did you ever find it difficult to focus on one stationary subject—an old lot—for such a long period of time?
I've never thought about it this way until you asked, but in a sense, the lot was a microcosm, an interesting and exciting place, that I went back to again and again and it was always exotic and intriguing. It might be stationary, between Carroll Street and Union and the canal and Bond Street, but every time it was akin to traveling to a far-flung, stimulatingly alien yet familiar foreign land. So there was no risk of it ever getting boring or mundane.
More photos from Danny's Lot are below. To buy a copy of the book click here, and if you're in New York Wednesday night stop by Dashwood at 33 Bond Street from 6:00 to 8:00 PM and get a copy signed by Weyland.
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