A Visit to “The New York Earth Room”

The New York Earth Room, photo by Britta Gustafson

Today’s itinerary: visit Earth Room, where a layer of soil, two feet thick, has occupied a gallery in SoHo since 1977.

Stepping outside onto Bed-Stuy sidewalks, I am greeted by raindrops. They feel good. I tilt my head upwards, inviting more raindrops to splash across my cheeks. As Emily and I walk toward our subway stop, I take in the kaleidoscopic displays of water and oil mixing on the asphalt. I almost bump into someone passing in the other direction. I contort my body just in time to dodge the fast-moving figure. I never cease to be surprised by how different walking feels in New York City compared to small-town California.

Crossing into Manhattan, I peer out the window at the deep green of the East River. Seated on the orange plastic seat of the chilled subway car, I close my eyes and surrender my attention to the soundtrack of our journey. Screeching metal and roaring winds are briefly interrupted by shouts to “Hold the door!” and the crackling of a disembodied intercom voice. I can’t quite understand what the voice says. All I can do is hope it’s not too important.

We are in Manhattan. It’s busy, as always. Overcast but the rain has stopped at least for now. Google Maps tells us we’re only a few blocks away from Earth Room. I begin to worry I got the address wrong as we stroll past high-end clothing boutiques, fine dining restaurants, and cocktail lounges. The din of thousands of conversations and car engines drowns out my thoughts. 

141 Wooster Street. A small nondescript sign next to the door lets us know that we’ve arrived at the correct place. We climb a narrow metal staircase to the second floor and emerge into silence. The squeaking of our rain-slicked sneakers on the hardwood floor is the only sound I hear as we progress down a narrow strip of fluorescent-lit hallway. Seated at the end of the hallway is the curator: a middle-aged man in a tweed jacket, reading a book with his glasses perched low on his nose. We are the only visitors.

To our right, 280,000 pounds of soil covers the rest of the gallery floor. A waist-high, transparent retaining wall keeps it at bay. Transfixed, I slowly approach the edge of the soil expanse. It is deep brown, clumpy, and spread somewhat evenly across the gallery. The subtle variations across the surface of the earth remind me of the gentle undulations of waves while out at sea. My body sways ever so slightly.

A row of four windows lines the left-hand side of the room, gently illuminating patches of earth. The light is quickly swallowed by the soil, just as the soil swallows the sounds of the city. I wipe beads of sweat from my forehead and strip off my jacket. Earth Room has its own climate.

Every ten feet or so, a support beam rises from the soil and meets the ceiling. A wall meets a doorway in the back right corner of the gallery; the soil flows through the doorway, disappearing from view. Emily and I stand quietly next to each other, smiling.

Anna Lenaker

Anna Lenaker is studying climate change science and environmental policy at Yale School of the Environment.

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