The Sixth Street Embankment is hard to miss.  What you see when you look at it depends on who you are.  To developers, it’s a place to build and make money.  To greenspace advocates, it’s a potential answer to Manhattan’s High Line.  Birds may see a verdant spot to roost; seedpods might find a fertile place to open up and take root.  Lovers have kissed in its shadows, writers have rhapsodized about its silent eloquence, city planners and attorneys have slugged it out to determine its destiny, historians recognize a vestige of the Downtown’s steely industrial past.  Certain philistines have even argued that we’d be better off without it.  

Our largest and most controversial landmark is the subject of “Embankment on My Mind,” a stirring, rock-solid exhibition that’ll occupy both art spaces at New Jersey City University (2039 Kennedy Blvd.) until Dec. 16. (The opening event happens at NJCU at 3 p.m. on Nov. 5). Curators Peter Delman and Midori Yoshimoto and organizer, writer, and tireless Embankment advocate Maureen Crowley have convinced a remarkable number of the best artists in the region to contribute spanking new works inspired by the great stone sleeper that bisects the Downtown.  It’s an indication of the symbolic power of the Embankment — a design feature that speaks straight to the local unconscious — that participants haven’t simply come through with fresh stuff.  They’ve stepped out of their comfort zones to meet the beast on its own turf.

This is appropriate, because there’s something simultaneously welcoming and discomfiting about the Embankment. The strange destabilizing power that radiates from those big, brawny stones is an important part of its value to us.  With every year, and with each redevelopment, the Embankment feels more incongruous and more necessary.  All around the old abutment, Jersey City has grown slicker, smoother, more corporate, less muscular, less organic.  The Embankment represents everything we’ve repressed in the name of progress and atomization. In piece after piece at the NJCU show, the deep symbolism comes rushing at us: rails, steam, cargo, history, heavy industry, public works, New Jersey as a place of sweat, pain, collective physical labor, and hard-won accomplishment.  

Loura van der Meule conjures the spirit of the Embankment in “A Spontaneous Garden,” a large acrylic canvas that evokes the folk art of the early Americas.  In the background, trains, sheds, and depots stretch in iron streaks toward a golden horizon under a smokestack-grey sky; in the foreground, the opportunistic flora that has reclaimed the disused structure grows wild and unashamed.  A similar union of the natural and industrial is visible in Anne Novado’s “My Embankment Project,” a mixed media piece that makes the heft of the built environment palpable.  It’s totally unlike anything at her winter 2022 gallery show, and it’s another instantiation of the Embankment’s weird power to reach dormant parts of artists’ psyches.  Photographer William A. Ortega presents the tail end of an ancient elevated rail line, snaking through the cover of summer leaves, segmented like a scorpion’s tail, asleep, dreaming a rusty dream.  Like so many of the works in this show, it seems to say to the authorities and planners: your move.

These pieces, and the many others like them in “The Embankment on My Mind,” invest inanimate objects with vitality.  Life force spills out of stones and steel girders, rivets and rusted surfaces, crooked watchtowers and tall brick walls.  In the Hudson County post-industrial style, the older and more abject a thing is, the more it seems to pulse and sing.  Eileen Ferara, maker of paper wonders, captures the skin-like texture of the Embankment’s rough-hewn stone blocks, and simulated ivy crosses the body of her block prints like veins. Sculptor Anthony E. Boone assembles chains, bent gears and crumpled metal collected from the days he worked for Conrail, paints them all tar-black, and hangs them heavily on the wall, solemn as a taxidermist’s trophy.  Robert Lach dusts plastic rings with dirt and pollen from Embankment trees and sticks them together to form a cup-like seed pod; Ann Percoco makes replicas of oysters from torn-up posters, parking tickets and tinfoil; MJ Tyson presents us a little urban altarpiece made of trinkets, subway tokens, gleaming metal punch-outs in the shape of New Jersey, and other wishing well floor-scrapings.  All that is tossed away yearns to re-coalesce and spring back to life.  

And the preservation of life — biological life — is one of this show’s central themes. “The Embankment on My Mind” presents the old rail structure as an accidental habitat: a place reclaimed by nature during decades of disuse.  Atop these brown-black blocks, the built environment and the natural landscape are shaking hands. Botanical artist Katy Lyness, a member of the Embankment Preservation Coalition, has solicited lovingly drawn contributions from a dozen talented sketchers. They’ve contributed detailed images of the plants and animals that have flourished in the urban forest on Sixth Street. These images hold their own amidst the more conceptual pieces in the Lemmerman Gallery and speak with the dignity and dispassion common to exhibitions at natural history museums. They’re a lovely counterweight to the gritty extravagance and naked emotion of the rest of the show. 

An A-team of Jersey abstract artists push things further.  The ever-inventive Kate Dodd imagines a map of the mycelium beneath the Embankment vegetation, renders it in paper strands, and suspends it from the ceiling of the Lemmerman like a great fungal net.  Nancy Cohen crafts fragile replicas of Embankment flora in glass;  Mayumi Sarai carves fallen branches into huge wooden tumbleweeds; Barbara Seddon superimposes a rail track lattice in ghostly blue over a spray of white shoots in a graceful but vibrant linocut. Watercolorist Diedre Kennedy captures the gentle bend of an ailanthus bough against a blue sky.  These are all very different works, but seen together, they make a persuasive argument: destruction of the Embankment means eradication of a pocket biome that enlivens Jersey City.

That much you might expect from a show organized in part by the Embankment Preservation Coalition. They don’t want to see the old viaduct messed with, and if that means standing up for the plants and animals who’d be displaced if we grow a crop of fresh condominiums there, that’s exactly what they’ll do. A project akin to the High Line may indeed be the best way to balance public utility with economic sense and ecological sensitivity, and ensure that the Embankment is still around to haunt, delight, and inspire the next generation of artists.  No doubt it’d also be lots of fun to visit.  But “The Embankment on My Mind” also quietly hints that the best way to honor the Embankment might be to leave it as it is — unmolested by city plans and capitalist’s schemes, a beautiful, mysterious anomaly in a city rapidly homogenizing and drained of magic, and a reminder of our deep and irreducible strangeness. The natural mingles with the architectural in marvelous and unexpected ways atop the rocky slopes of the Embankment. As this articulate, moving show demonstrates, it’s already inspiring our local visionaries. Leave it to out-of-towners to wonder why we make such a big deal out of a rock wall.  If you’re from here, you already know. 

Featured image: “A Spontaneous Garden” by Loura van der Meule

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...