For over thirty years, Mark D Phillips has documented the Gowanus waterway and the surrounding urban environment. Phillips has organized and developed Gowanus Canal: Brooklyn’s Superfund Waterway, SouthBrooklyn’s new photography stock photo location for general editorial use with minimal licensing fees.
Long ago, the native Americans who populated this part of what is known today as Brooklyn named it Gowanes Creek in honor of Chief Gowanes of the Canarses tribe. The creek served as an important access point from New York Harbor. Over the years, it blossomed with industry, with tidal grain mills taking advantage of the six-foot tides bringing brackish water along its two-mile course.
As the surrounding neighborhoods boomed through the end of the 19th century, sewers and streets were laid out, draining engine oil, antifreeze and all the muck of New York City into the water. Sewage flowed into the canal as early as 1858. By the 1880s, the waterway had gained the moniker “Lavender Lake,” a snide joke about its malodorous qualities. Over 30 businesses handling lumber, coal, firewood, hay, grain, oil, building materials, and chemical fertilizers dumped waste along its length.
Those businesses brought the canal to its current state of toxic nightmare. When Phillips moved to Brooklyn in 1989, the Gowanus Canal was a smelly blight, an industrial wasteland tucked between two quickly gentrifying brownstone neighborhoods. In the 1990s, community leaders were doing their best to bring the woes of the waterway to the public. Owen Foote founded the Gowanus Dredgers, a canoe-club and advocacy group. John C. Muir, as executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, began boat tours teaching the history of the destruction of an ecosystem. The late Buddy Scotto founded the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation to help facilitate the cleanup and development of the canal.
Their efforts led to a 1999 cleanup effort, involving repairs to the flushing tunnel that was built in 1911. It runs underneath the width of the Cobble Hill neighborhood, bringing water from Buttermilk Channel off New York Harbor to the head of the canal on Butler Street.
The results were immediate, with a marked increase in fish and wildlife springing to life in the canal. But, although the water quality improved, the underlying sediment within the canal was still at a dangerously polluted level.
Phillips’ photographs captured these early attempts to rejuvenate the wretched Gowanus. Still, over the next decade, changes in the banks of the waterway were merely cosmetic, even as real-estate values soared on the trendy blocks of Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, the desirable neighborhoods surrounding Gowanus.
The Environmental Protection Agency designated the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site on March 2, 2010, which should have pumped in enough federal dollars to clean the fetid waterway. The area seemed to be on the verge, with real-estate speculation at a fever pitch, and multimillion-dollar condos springing up on the Gowanus’ shores. But, for the next decade, nothing much happened in the water.
That all changed in 2020, when the cleanup started in earnest
“We’ve come a long way to get where we are today,” said Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez on November 16, 2020, as the EPA officially began dredging the entire length of the canal. “Full-scale dredging is a welcome and long-awaited step toward full cleanup of the polluted Gowanus Canal.”
Dredging is a slow and laborious process. The canal’s grotesque ooze is removed from the bottom with a backhoe, a single shovelful at a time. This is repeated, over and over, until the entire length of the Gowanus is cleaned.
But that doesn’t mean the Gowanus Canal will be ready for its grand reopening in 2023. According to the Brooklyn Paper, the city’s construction of two massive tanks and a filtration facility designed to help keep the Gowanus clean following the Superfund project won’t be completed until the end of 2032. The facility captures and sanitizes raw sewage and stormwater runoff from the streets. The infrastructure upgrade will cost a whopping $1.3 billion in city funds – $748.5 million for the upper tank and facility, and $558.5 million for the mid-canal tank, according to NYCDEP calculations.
So even with all the dredging and capping – laying a rubber seal on the canal’s bottom – the Gowanus may get dirty all over again, thanks to the inept and overwhelmed city. Taxpayers could end up footing an even larger bill due to delays, according to EPA’s project manager for the cleanup, Christos Tsiamis, who said that the city would have to pay for dredging of any additional viscous toxic material known locally as “black mayonnaise.”
And since we are now talking about the inept city, let’s mention the development of the neighborhoods off the water.
The city’s Department of City Planning director Marisa Lago is pushing to complete the vast Gowanus rezoning before Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is pro-development, leaves office and the 2022 elections term-limits out a bumber of City Council members. The rezoning would allow more development and taller buildings up to 30 stories in the currently low-rise industrial and residential neighborhoods. City planners have estimated the rezoning could bring around 8,200 new housing units to the area by 2035, including some 3,000 below-market-rate homes. Much of the current public space in the proposal will be along the canal, behind major new residential developments. Rezoning from industrial to residential is likely to dramatically increase the value of property and be a bonanza for current owners of industrial property in the area.
But, as the project accelerates, so does the demolition of structures that have stood on canal’s banks for generations.
In 2014, the New York State Preservation Office shelved a plan to designate the Gowanus Canal area as a state and national historic district. So much has disappeared just during the pandemic.
One of the most memorable warehouses along the Gowanus, the Alex Figliola building, was torn down, destroying overnight a striking graffiti canvas that had covered the canal-side wall of the structure. It was strangely gorgeous, but now it’s merely a memory. The former Con-Ed powerhouse, and soon-to-be Powerhouse Arts, is being renovated at a fever pace.
Gowanus Station, a Beaux-Arts brick industrial building at 234 Butler Street built by the city in 1913 as a pumping station for the canal, was privately owned and prominently defended by the owner and neighbors. The city took control of the 106-year-old building through eminent domain in September 2020 in order to raze the structure to make way for the upper cistern and head house. The EPA modified its proposal to allow the city agency to dismantle the building and reconstruct certain elements into the new facility as a way to ensure “both the Canal and its historic district, which had been in the works for about a decade. DEP will preserve parts of the building including its well-known terra cotta pediment that reads “City of New York Water Supply-Distribution Gowanus Station,” stone window sills, and bricks for reuse in the construction of the head house’s facade. Welcome to the new age of historic preservation, in which precious little is preserved.
And while this is all going on, the public can’t even access the waterway.
“No boating is going to be allowed during cleanup operations that begin in November — no boating, no canoeing,” said EPA’s Tsiamis in November 2020. The industrial waterway will be off-limits from its head at Butler Street all the way to the Ninth Street Bridge, 0.8 miles of its 1.8-mile length.
So for now, we have a waterway that may be cleaned by 2023, but will have sewage and runoff continuing to foul it until 2032, which may require dredging to begin all over again at an astronomical cost to the beleaguered taxpayer. Add to that the unbridled construction of new buildings along the canal and the destruction of beloved historical structures. Amazingly, sometimes canal enthusiasts actually miss the fascinating, formerly filthy, surface that brought a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns to the top of the water. No one knows what will replace this unique urban oddity in the decade to come.
I hope one day to be able to and continue my journeys along the Gowanus Canal aboard my kayak. Time, and my photographs, will tell.