UPDATED AUGUST 2, 2020:
Some considered the graffiti-clad warehouse that for years graced the banks of the Gowanus Canal, predating the gentrification that’s bringing multimillion-dollar condos to the shores of one of the nation’s most polluted waterways, an odious eyesore.
I found it endearing.
And now, it is gone forever, swept up into a vortex of big-money development that eats, Pac-Man-like, everything unique or quirky in its path.
Since 2016, the patch of graffiti on a warehouse by the Carroll Street Bridge welcomed visitors with the tagline “Welcome to Venice” with the signature “Love Jerko.” But just like the canal itself, it became a victim of gentrification.
On my first visit to the Gowanus since the pandemic struck, I had one of those “Oh No” moments when I drove across the historic Carroll Street Bridge and realized the graffiti covered wall was gone. Not just gone but obliterated like it had never been there.
During the Revolutionary War, Gowanus became a major battle site. The invading British marched up the Gowanus Road, one of the main passes through Brooklyn, to the Old Stone House, where more than 250 American soldiers were killed and more than 100 others wounded or taken prisoner. Today the invaders are developers hoping that the rezoning will allow an unending line of condos cutting off the waterway from the rest of the neighborhood.
Many of the neighborhood landmarks around the Gowanus may soon be demolished as the New York City Council prepares the latest rezoning plans for the area. In anticipation, real estate speculators have spent the last few years investing hundreds of millions of dollars into buying up as much property as possible, awaiting the city’s permission to tear it down and build a new neighborhood of residential towers. The property across the waterway was sold to Domain Companies in February 2018 for $47,500,000 from an affiliate of Property Markets Group. Property Markets Group (PMG) has been buying up property in Gowanus since 2012, when they purchased a 25,000 s/f warehouse on Nevins Street for $14 million. Richard Lam, principal at PMG, said the firm saw Gowanus as underutilized.
Many significant historic structures have already vanished during the recent waves of gentrification that have swept across the Gowanus. Manufacturing businesses, welders, and garages have been displaced with shuffleboard courts, rock climbing gyms, and other playgrounds for the wealthy moving in.
On May 22, 2018, the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition held a press conference at the Union Street Bridge, announcing a list of 29 proposed landmarks for the neighborhoods around the Gowanus Canal. Their call-to-arms may be the community’s last chance to slow the wrecking ball.
The Carroll Street Bridge, which dates back to 1889 is one of just four retractile bridges remaining in the United States and one of the oldest bridges in New York City. The bridge became a landmark in 1987, and the stone building was designated in 2006, but since then, the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has declined to protect any other structures in the neighborhood. On October 29, 2019, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) designated five historic buildings in Gowanus as individual landmarks. Built between 1884 and 1913 for utilitarian purposes, for industry and manufacturing, these buildings are prominent within the neighborhood and have adapted over time in response to the changes in industrial activity and the neighborhood itself. They are:
- The Somers Brothers Tinware Factory (later American Can Company) at 238-246 3rd Street was built in 1884 for Somers Brothers, the first known tinware lithographers in the United States and the largest American decorated tinware firm at the time of construction. In 1901, Somers Brothers was absorbed by the American Can Company, which became the largest producer of tin cans in the world. This highly distinctive former factory complex remains remarkably intact to its time as a major manufacturing presence in Gowanus and remains one of Gowanus’ most-distinctive industrial buildings. It also led the neighborhood’s transition from industry to a lively mix of arts and manufacturing. Since the 1970s, the former Somers Brothers factory has housed artists’ studios. Today, Old American Can Factory is used by more than 300 artists, performers, designers, publishers, non-profit organizations.
- The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT) Central Power Station Engine House at 153 2nd Street was built in 1901-03 by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, which gained a near-monopoly over Brooklyn’s railroad and streetcar lines since its establishment in 1896. The new power station consolidated operations for Brooklyn’s various mass-transit lines on a single site, marking the company’s emergence as one of the country’s largest transit providers and representing an important step towards the creation of an integrated mass-transit system. It remained in operation, providing electric power to the Fourth Avenue subway, until 1972. The engine house remains largely intact and is a significant presence in the Gowanus neighborhood. In 2012, it was acquired by the Powerhouse Environmental Arts Foundation, which plans to reuse and rehabilitate the structure for conversion into an arts center and industrial workshop.
- The Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel Pumping Station and Gate House at 196 Butler Street was completed in 1911 as part of a major infrastructure project intended to cleanse the polluted waters of the Gowanus Canal. At the time of the flushing tunnel’s opening it represented one of the most ambitious efforts ever attempted to clean a polluted American waterway. The Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel Pumping Station and Gate House continued to operate until the 1960s when the propeller mechanism broke. The tunnel was offline until 1999 when the the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reactivated it after a five-year-long renovation. Today, the Pumping Station remains in active use as part of the tunnel system, which pumps more than 250 million gallons of bay water into the Gowanus Canal each day. It has changed little since its construction and remains well-preserved.
- The Montauk Paint Manufacturing Company Building at 170 2nd Avenue was built in 1908 for William Kelly, president of the Brooklyn Alcatraz Asphalt Company, whose factory and stables occupied the rest of the block. Its first tenant was the Montauk Paint Manufacturing Company, one of the most prominent manufacturers in the early 20th century. In the mid-20th century Norge Sailmakers moved in to manufacture yacht and sailboat sails as well as covers for pleasure crafts until 1952. Today, it is a handsome and highly intact former factory building that reflects the industrial history of the Gowanus neighborhood and stands out for its simple yet refined design.
- The ASPCA Brooklyn Office, Shelter and Garage at 233 Butler Street was hailed as “the largest, most complete animal shelter in the world” when it opened in 1913. It was originally constructed as the Brooklyn dog and cat shelter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the early 1960s, the shelter was said to “handle more animals than any shelter in the country,” and thousands of Brooklynites adopted pets here before its closure in 1979. The elegant neo-Romanesque-style design of the Butler Street facade by the firm of Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker is a testament to the organization’s civic and social importance. It is the finest surviving ASPCA building in New York City.
The warehouse with the graffiti at the Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1925, was not even considered a historic structure. It was just a great canvas that was viewable from multiple locations along the canal, especially from the new condos on the opposite bank. 363 Bond Street and the complementary 365 Bond Street became the first luxury living on the canal. The complex includes a pool on the roof with a view of the Freedom Tower, a shuffleboard court, lounge, game room, yoga studio, fitness center, kids room, 2nd floor courtyard and plenty of accessible outdoor terraces. The two buildings dwarfed the surrounding buildings, including the engine house for the Carroll Street Bridge at its side. The juxtaposition is uncanny for the old and the new.
The former home of Alex Figliolia Water & Sewer, the 65,000-square-foot industrial building disappeared without a trace, and conventional wisdom says the new construction will rival its predecessor across the water. Another high-end condo will dwarf the bridge.
Next door is the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Powerhouse, now being restored by architects Herzog & de Meuron, with the backing of a nonprofit and developer Joshua Rechnitz. Also known as The Batcave, this monumental structure dates back to at least 1902, and is not yet landmarked. It was also one of the most polluted pieces of property along the shoreline. The Powerhouse Workshop will be a contemporary industrial fabrication center established to serve the working needs of artists. Affordable and accessible space for industry and production is increasingly scarce in New York City. Fabrication shops in wood, metal, ceramics, textiles and printmaking will provide sophisticated production capabilities and support risk-taking and exploration for artists In Powerhouse’s new Gowanus home.
Of course, the reality will be that none of the artists will be able to afford to live in the neighborhood. Gentrification is a hard-edged sword. It will cut a swath through Gowanus that will change its character forever.