Cleanup on the Gowanus Canal

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency created a Superfund site just four blocks from my apartment.

The Gowanus Canal is a two-mile waterway running through South Brooklyn into Gowanus Bay near Red Hook (where the new Ikea is). Henry Hudson and Giovanni di Verrazano both navigated the Gowanus Inlet, which led to salt marshes and navigable tidal creeks. Back in Breukelen days, the Dutch harvested oysters from the brackish waters and harnessed the power of their motion to grind flour. By the middle of the 19th century, industry was moving in and Brooklyn was filling in; the canal was built to drain the marshes and provide a transportation backbone for the area.

The canal had a problem, though: it only had one outlet. From the beginning, the factories and warehouses on its banks dumped waste into the canal, and soon a sewer system added more foul runoff. Although the builders of the canal apparently hoped the harbor’s daily tides would move enough water to keep the canal clean, it didn’t turn out that way. The canal stank. It also quickly filled with sewage sediment, threatening ship traffic.

The Army Corps of Engineers took to dredging the canal, and to attempt to solve the filth and stink problem an underground tunnel was built from the head of the canal westward, under Butler Street, to the Buttermilk Channel that divides Brooklyn from Lower Manhattan. A powerful ship’s propeller at the Brooklyn end pushed water through the tunnel and was apparently somewhat effective at making the canal run cleaner.

Shipping traffic on the canal declined after World War II for a number of reasons: new highways made shipping by truck more cost effective; the Brooklyn fuel industry shifted from coal gasification to petroleum and natural gas, which required different facilities; and New York City’s ports declined due to the rise of containerization. In 1955 the Corps dredged the canal for the last time. In 1961 the flushing pump broke, supposedly when a city worker dropped (accidentally or not) a manhole cover onto the propeller.

In recent years, the neighborhoods near the canal have undergone considerable gentrification, but the area immediately surrounding it is still pretty run down. I like to go walking around the canal, and I have a few regular routes that let me check on the progress of new developments. There’s a fancy-looking condo complex called Satori, for example, that seems to have been under construction for the five years I’ve lived here. I wonder whether it’s a victim of the housing slump.

One of the things I like about Gowanus are the decrepit industrial buildings. This photo from Forgotten NY shows an abandoned building that is apparently an old coal gasification plant. One evening I saw three guys in a rowboat tie up to the stone wall near the plant, unload a ladder, and proceed out of view.


Another great thing about Gowanus are the houseboats. There are two or three of them right now, docked near each other on just one section of the canal. I’m not sure if they’re inhabited or not, actually, and I suspect it would kind of suck to live on them, since the canal really does stink a lot of the time. Still, they’re a very romantic image for me, little pods of (potential) habitation in an industrial zone, decaying along with the rest of the landscape.

I also love the Third Street Bridge. The low bridges over the canal are all drawbridges of some sort, and the Third Street Bridge is a “retractile” design, one of only four in the whole country according to Forgotten NY; it slides at an angle to the canal to open a passage for ships. Standing on the bridge, you have great industrial views in either direction. You can also watch the wildlife of the canal. The pump was finally repaired in 1999 and keeps the water relatively clean. There are now fish, ducks, jellyfish, and presumably other creatures living in and around the canal.

The Superfund cleanup is needed to get rid of the toxic sludge that lines the bottom and banks of the Gowanus and also to fix the sewer system that still dumps raw sewage into the canal every time there’s a big storm. The Times reports that Mayor Bloomberg and many developers didn’t want the federal involvement that Superfund designation brings; personally, I think it’s more reassuring than a city-led decontamination effort. I’m not sure either what I think of plans to turn the Gowanus into a “water feature” for fancy new developments like this one (to be built post-cleanup, presumably):


The usual gentrification ambivalence, I guess. Anyway, here’s a song I made last year using a field recording I took on the Third Street Bridge. It’s called “Gowanus,” and if you’ve heard the album I put out last year you’ve already heard it.

<a href="">Gowanus by Weather Balloons</a>

11 responses to “Cleanup on the Gowanus Canal”

  1. I’m glad there is a plan in place to clean up the Gowanus. I like most things about it, but its smell is not one of the things I like. A wonderful children’s book is Gowanus Dogs.

  2. Greg F says:

    There’s something terribly funny (to me) about that picture.

    I imagine someone right now is sitting in an office, collecting a rather comfortable salary, with a large pad on which are written such words as “SoGo” and “GoHo” and perhaps “Superfun(d) Heights.”

  3. Andrew says:

    I’ve also got a weirdly romantic spot reserved in my heart for the Gowanus Canal. I used to live right next to it, and aside from the smell and the mutated, giant mosquitoes that it bred, it was quite lovely. Especially at night.

    Also, who could forget Sludgie?

  4. Literacy says:

    This is the type of post that got me into the Whatsit way back when.

  5. swells says:

    I loved this too. Even more, I loved LOVED putting that song on repeat and bringing those lovely sounds into my office all morning.

  6. lane says:

    really cool, from the hood.

  7. J-Man says:

    Thanks for posting this, Dave. I find industrial ruins really fascinating as well – their eerie sense of history speaks volumes. I can understand your ambivalence about the gentrification of the Canal area – on the one hand, it’s really beautiful the way it is, but of course it’s really toxic, too. Have people gotten sick from interacting with the water and the area? I can’t imagine not.

    It reminds me a little of the L.A. River, which has been paved with concrete for many years, and in turn the concrete has been covered in graffiti in some places. But there are many places where the wilderness has broken through the concrete, and it’s such an interesting contrast, the graffiti, the concrete, and the trees.

  8. swells says:

    Interesting you bring that up, Jen, because I wanted to tell everyone local, but you especially, about this exhibit at the Pasadena Contemporary Museum of Art: It’s all art depicting the LA river, but by far the best part is that the room itself has been done like a stage set of the riverbank itself–cement, trash, plants, girders, exposed cable. This post reminded me of that too. Also thought of it today while in a campus bathroom made of cinderblocks and, up high, windows of open metal grids–with plants growing through them, long tendrils poking into the stall way overhead. Pretty enjoyable.

  9. Greg F says:

    (I will admit that I once wrote to a friend, after a walk over the canal, “…paused on a bridge over the Gowanus Canal as if it were the Ponte Vecchio instead of a prosaic span across a worse-than-prosaic body of water lined with scrap heaps, literal ones.” But I do share the love of urban ruins, and the houseboats do, as you say, present a dream of being in the city but not quite of it, of having the possibility however unreal of waking up, saying “work sounds wrong for today” and of heading out to sea without putting on pants.)

  10. swells says:

    Still listening (at this point rather fetishistically) to that recording over and over. Is that woman whose “sorry” I’ve heard a hundred times by now apologizing for her mildly unruly dog? That’s what I’m imagining.

  11. Dave says:

    Yes, you’ve got it, swells. Except the dog wasn’t unruly at all. I was standing in the middle of the bridge with my field recorder and she came walking across with a lovely, big Golden Retriever who sniffed me with his big wet nose.

    Try the other tracks on the album — “Ignorance” is my favorite.

    J-Man, I’m not sure how much the toxins in the canal endanger people right now. There’s not a lot of residential right on the canal, and supposedly the toxins are mostly in the sludge. The current, vague plan is to dredge and then probably cap it with impermeable clay. I wonder how many mutant fish and horseshoe crabs are down there right now, though, soaking in dioxins (and yes, I realize horseshoe crabs already look like mutants).