Now Ear This

Rachel Levens on Geoff Sobelle's Hear Their There Here

A view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo: Rachel Levens.

ON A RAINY SUNDAY MORNING IN DECEMBER, I took a walk through Brooklyn Bridge Park from St. Ann’s Warehouse via Hear Their There Here, a free audio guide which I’d downloaded onto my iPhone. Conceived by theater artist Geoff Sobelle—co-artistic director of the performance group rainpan 43 as well as a company member of Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company—with sound design by Gareth Fry and app design by Jesse Garrison, and commissioned by St. Ann’s—this interactive sound piece weaves together an aural experience of the park from hundreds of interviews Sobelle and his cohort conducted with visitors. For an hour and half, I walked from St. Ann’s Warehouse to Pier 6 and back listening to a collection of voices sharing their observations and talking about the park’s history.

Whose voice appeared in my headphones (and when) was dictated by the app’s geolocator, which cued up different tracks at various points along my walk. As the project’s title suggests, I was hearing the recordings in exactly the spot where the interviews originally took place. One voice pointed out that the Brooklyn Bridge, designed by John Roebling and constructed from 1869 to 1883, “was the largest cable suspension bridge in the world.” Another told me about about Jane’s Carousel, which was built in 1922, but was purchased at auction in 1986. It took twenty years to restore its chariots and horses. Some of the voices offered advice. A favorite moment: a bird watcher’s guidance. “If you stand perfectly still with your phone so the bird gets used to you and have soft focus until you see movement, chances are you’ll see a bird.” I followed her instructions. (See photo below.)

Photo: Rachel Levens.

Every story slowed me down so I could take in my surroundings with greater attention. During one serendipitous moment, a voice wondered aloud about what the blue roof on the piers would look like on a rainy day, as I was standing there, looking at it on a rainy day. As I walked further, I learned that the design of the park’s lawn creates a sense of peace and serenity because it “obscures the sounds of the cars on the BQE and it deflects the sound on to the water and moves the sound over your head.” But not everything about the park is peaceful and serene. Formerly an industrial shipping port, it is now a green space that hosts events and activities for individuals and their families, and its surrounding area is a popular tourist destination lined with shops, restaurants, stores, and a Brooklyn Historical Society museum outpost. One of the interviewees commented how the park is symptomatic of the rapid and unwelcome gentrification of Brooklyn: “The barber shop, bodega, and people are being pushed out who gave it [the neighborhood] its’s a displacement of memories and what memories remain—how these changes decide what memories are being honored or snatched.”

As I headed back to the York Street subway station, I listened to the story about Washington Roebling, who took over supervising the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after his father,  John Roebling, died. When Washington became sick, his wife Emily took over as chief engineer and on May 26, 1883, she was first person to walk across it. “What will be your mark?” asked the voice. Hear Their There Here reminds us that ultimately, we are the architects of our own experience.

Geoff Sobelle's Hear Their There Here: A Sound Walk Through Brooklyn Bridge Park can be downloaded from the St. Ann's Warehouse website and taken any time.