On the high seas of Mill Basin off the coast of Brooklyn there is an island by the name of Mau Mau. With a name like that, it is no wonder that a naval battle was held for the honor of this landmass’ sacred name. To avoid any ambiguity, neither the island nor the eponymous battle derive their names from an anti-colonial uprising in Kenya during the 1950s.
In fact, the island, originally known as White Island, did not exist before 1917 and is completely man-made. During the construction of the the Belt Parkway in the 1930s, the marshy landmass expanded as more excavated sand was added to it. Much of the sand was covered in asphalt to protect golfers in Marine Park from the chance that it would blow in the wind.
Today, Mau Mau is far out of reach from the general public’s consciousness, particularly after a 2011 plan to reclaim the island for salt marsh and bird habitat. But a small artists’ collective known as Swimming Cities has hosted an epic naval battle among various participants (termed “gangs”) in a free-for-all interpretive art battle for the island. From names like Notorious G.I.G. to S.S. Botulism, the gangs were required to provide some type of seafaring vessel, many of which are are improvised from an eclectic mix of reclaimed materials. Matt and Jonah Levy from The Levys’ Unique New York! were MC’s during the epic inaugural battle in 2011, which featured boat jousting and a circumnavigational row-powered race around the island. Matt Levy declined to comment on the events, citing a “foggy memory” of the day’s activities.
Word of an NYC Parks Department intervention caught wind, and Mau Mau Island–known unaffectionately by the department under its original name–has been transformed into a bird sanctuary. Ironically enough, the $15 million dollar project spent a hefty portion of its budget on bringing in over 150,000 cubic yards of sand to help attract 4 or 5 local species of birds. Disappointed of the loss of a such a space as Mau Mau battlers may be, the plans for this project date all the way back to 1994, when the construction Erksine Street Shopping Center prompted plans for a shelter for the misplaced species.
You may also recognize Swimming Cities because it’s and designed by the artist SWOON, who made the Hurricane Sandy-themed mural on the Bowery last year.