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Envisioning the Gowanus

As jobs go, bridge-keeper on the upper Gowanus Canal is a quiet one. There’s little commercial traffic this far up the canal, so most of the day Lenny Thomas sits in the second story of the Union Street bridgehouse and works on recipes for a cookbook he’s writing. As malodorous and polluted as the water is outside, he finds that its ebb and flow make him feel content: “There’s something about the water,” he says. “It does something, calms you down.”

The canal snakes through Brooklyn’s smokestacks and abandoned power stations, gas pipes and cranes, under an expressway and train tracks, out past Red Hook and into the harbor. It’s one of New York’s most ill-used waterways: bearer of industrial waste, reputed resting-place of gangsters,­ the borough’s infernal digestive tract. In fact, it’s always been known for its unpleasantness: proposals to fill it in for the public health stretch back to the 1880s, when the canal was still heavily used. Today there isn’t much boat traffic, but when it rains heavily, human waste and runoff from the streets empty into the water. At any given time, you can peer over the side of one of the bridges and see a slime-covered couch, an old air-conditioner, or a shopping cart.

Bend down a little closer, though, and things look different: oysters by the 3rd Street Bridge, raccoon holes in the banks, striped bass and flounder swimming in the water, egrets and herons wading through the shoreline murk. A casual glance at the water tells you that things are better than they were only five years ago, when you might have seen a dead dog drifting along the foul surface of the canal, or sniffed its sulfuric rotten-egg smell from blocks away.

Local residents, developers, planners, and environmentalists are all taking a keen eye towards the Gowanus Canal. As in so many parts of the city, however, the area’s revitalization threatens to replace existing industries with chain stores and high-end lofts. And, as with other areas, whether Gowanus will retain its own distinct identity amidst these changes is an open question.

Originally the Gowanus Creek, the canal slices into the western end of Long Island, an area initially occupied by the Canarsie Indians, and subsequently by Dutch and English settlers. Back then, it yielded oysters of astonishing size—some a foot across—that were fine enough to be exported. The creek also provided a runoff area for settlements upland on either side, so the use of the canal as a de facto sewer also began quite early.

By the 19th Century, Brooklyn was a major US city. Shipping and manufacturing increased exponentially, and the Gowanus Creek became a point of access. The New York State Assembly authorized the construction of a canal in the 1840s, and it was finished in the 1860s. In an 1869 articles about the construction of docks along the canal, The New York Times wrote: “Among the beneficial effects of this enterprise may be reckoned the following: That it will help to drain the swamps, and that it will make all the blocks between Third-street and Sixth-street, and between Third-avenue and the canal valuable wharf property, instead of salt meadows.”

The present state of the canal—and its surrounding neighborhood—can be traced to a wealthy New York lawyer and railroad magnate, Edwin C. Litchfield. He came out to Brooklyn in the 1850s and built a large villa for his family in the woods and farmland that now constitute the top of Park Slope. Litchfield purchased the tract of land between his villa and the canal and divided it into lots, reserving those to the East for houses, and those to the West for industry. As brownstones accumulated at the top of the slope, industry built up at the bottom. The squat brick buildings and billowing smokestacks that you see today are the remnants of his vision.

Most credit the flushing tunnel, which reopened in 1999 after decades of inoperation, for rejuvenating the canal’s ecosystem. (Less pollution and dumping along the banks certainly helps as well.) It was originally constructed in 1911 to make the Gowanus more palatable to nearby residents. It drew water from the Buttermilk Channel (the body of water between Governor’s Island and Brooklyn), carried it under the streets of West Brooklyn, and sent it swirling into the canal. But this mechanism broke down sometime in the early 1960s, and from then on things deteriorated. At one point, typhoid and a virulent strain of cholera were reportedly found in the water, as if the canal were holding onto diseases from its industrial youth.

Now the canal has its own ecosystem, the fruits of various efforts by local groups to improve the quality of the water over the past decade. It is an environmental curiosity: the triumph of nature over a century-and-a-half of mistreatment. And it isn’t done yet. The city Department of Environmental Protection and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers are engaged in a $5 million feasibility study to determine what can be done to restore the canal’s salt-marsh ecosystem.

Out of this environmental progress comes economic speculation. Some take the short view: the Army Corps is improving the bulkheads, the DEP wants less sewage overflow and an improved flushing mechanism, many local organizations want a small park. Some are more ambitious and predict a future in which a rejuvenated Gowanus shimmers in a redeveloped Brooklyn.

On April 30th, hardware giant Lowe’s opened its vast new Brooklyn store on the Gowanus. It represents an investment in the retail potential of the area, but what is more interesting is the promenade it developed on the banks of the canal—a strip of finely-crushed gravel supported by wooden bulkheads, with an iron railing, benches, lamps, and trees. Right now, this promenade sits across from an oil depot and a scrap-metal facility, and the canal beneath it is strewn with garbage, but it represents a significant concession from a Gowanus property owner—namely, that the water is worthy of public access. Unlike other buildings on the canal, Lowe’s—as if proud of its location—faces the water.

Not everyone is pleased by recent developments. There are decades-old businesses up and down the banks, and much of the speculation about the canal’s future seems to ignore them completely, or pretend that they are merely relics of a bygone Brooklyn. Artists also thrive around the Gowanus, and developing the canal for residential use would inevitably price them out of their studios. It seems likely that the symbiotic relationship between these unlikely brethren—painters and masons, musicians and fuel oil dealers—might give way to a new one, between residents and retailers.

Salvatore “Buddy” Scott has his own vision for the Gowanus, and he works on a large canvas. Scotto is the proprietor of the Scotto Funeral Home in Carroll Gardens and is known locally as the “mayor of the Gowans.” He is expansive: when recounting the history of the canal, he invokes the Roman Empire (in trying to explain some of the cultural attributes of Italian-Americans). He sees the Gowanus as a potential eastern counterpart to San Antonio’s Riverwalk—or as Brooklyn’s answer to Venice’s Grand Canal. He says, “The emphasis of New York City has changed from living and playing as far away from our waterfronts as you can get to getting down to the waterfront.”

Scotto has spent most of his life near the canal. When he returned from the Korean War, suburbia beckoned, as it did for so many Americans of his generation. But Scotto decided to stay in central Brooklyn and devote himself to its improvement. He founded the Carroll Gardens Association, and amog his projects was the cleansing of the canal, the fumes of which drifted west into the neighborhood during the summer. For decades he campaigned to improve the canal’s water, and now that it is improving, he concentrates on the land surrounding it.

Decades-old zoning laws are the biggest impediment to Scotto’s vision. In light of the globalized economy, he believes, industry cannot survive along the canal for much longer, the canal’s original purpose having expired. “It ain’t ever gonna be like it was,” he says. He sees a canal that people from the surrounding communities use for recreation, instead of just sending their sewage. “It’s inevitable,” he says. “Restaurants, coffee-houses, shops, artisans, art galleries—commercial stuff. It will be a wonderful destination point for the people of Carroll Gardens. I’m going to get the gondola concession and have a little guy with a mandolin. And we’ll have a little Venice, right here at our own back door.”

Some of the most innovative ideas about what to do with the Gowanus aren’t coming from central Brooklyn. Earlier this year, students from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture attended community meeting, at which they presented a series of structures that would make for a cleaner and more accessible canal: a “floating walkway” on top, runoff-catching drainage ditches, greenhouses, sewage treatment facilities.

The most ambitious project is the “vertical farm” which would divert polluted water from the canal to the top of a twelve-story structure, where it would fertilize compostable plants. These, in turn, would be used at the next level down to fertilize another set of plants, and so on to the bottom of the structure, where decorative plants would be grown. The lowest level of the structure would offer a greenmarket where edible produce would be sold.

Proposals like these are precisely the problem says Leah Archibald, the executive director of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corp. “Their assignment was not to come up with something that will work: It was to come up with something that you dream.” Archibald’s organization wants to preserve the canal-side industries, and the manufacturing jobs they provide. She points out that the area along the canal is one of Brooklyn’s few centrally-located industrial areas, with blue-collar jobs—5,000 of them, by her count—that offer better pay and benefits than retail or service jobs.

“What we’re talking about are businesses that have found some other basis to compete on, whether it’s proximity to talent proximity to their market, or their ability to turn things around faster,” says Archibald. It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing use of the area, but it fulfills a significant function, and is exactly what the canal was developed for in the first place. “We’re the reality,” she says. “Everything else is the dream”

“Imagine how many condos I could fit in here,” Joe Guido says. He’s surveying the vast workshop of his marble business, where his employees cut stone slabs while a forklift drives slowly through the hazy and acrid air. This is FORO Marble, Inc., the sort of ideal Gowanus-based industry Archibald describes. Guido has no intention of selling. From his shop—the inside of which looks like a cross between a Renaissance palazzo and a corner hardware store—he sends customized marble out to buyers around the area. “I’ve never left the neighborhood in forty years,” he says, “and I don’t intend to do it now. We’re close to Staten Island, Manhattan—we can go anywhere from here. If I go to Pennsylvania, in the woods, who am I going to sell a piece of marble to—a bear?” Guido isn’t as pessimistic as Archibald about residential use of the canal (in part because much of his customer base is residential), but he does worry the inevitable conflicts that housing will bring: complains about noise, dirt, and industrial traffic.

Like Soho and Williamsburg before it, the Gowanus area has attracted many artists to take advantage of cheap rents and studios in former warehouses and factories. And, like manufacturers, they feel threatened by the prospect of housing. The increase in rents that residential use encourages is driving some to seek studio space elsewhere. David Konigsberg, a painter, is moving further out into Brooklyn. The building where he rents his studio is up for sale, and the asking price is high enough to suggest that staying will be too expensive. “In order for somebody to make any money at all,” he says, “they’d have to double our rents. For an artist, that’s out of the question. The problem with visual art is that you need space.”

Konigsberg’s paintings—hazy and surreal visions of archaic flying machines, futuristic buildings, and human figures in patterns—bear little trace of the landscape out his window, and yet that landscape has, in its own way, fostered the creation of these works. It is one of the canal’s ironies that industry promotes the creation of beauty. There exists a curious camaraderie between artists and industrial manufacturers: Whether you produce music, painting, concrete, or fuel oil, there are only so many places in New York that will accommodate you.

Konigsberg has seen this before. He used to have a space in Soho, and watched artists move from Manhattan to Williamsburg, only to be priced out of there. The Gowanus area and Red Hook were the next refuge. When he first moved in, he says, “the canal was disgusting; safety was iffy. It was perfect!” Now he notices people strolling around the canal on weekends, curious about the neighborhood. The funny thing about Gowanus is that there wasn’t even enough time for galleries to develop. “My fear,” he says, “is that it’s just going to leap-frog past that stage to condos.”


Arthur Vaughan

Arthur Vaughan is a writer based in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2004

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