Story and Images by Mark D Phillips
Gowanus is dead, Long live Gowanus.
I have expected to say this for at least a decade, and now, post COVID, it is finally here. The Gowanus I photographed for thirty years is officially dead, and the new Gowanus is here to stay. And it’s not my generations Gowanus by any stretch of the imagination.
This Gowanus will be enveloped with people and buildings to resemble the riverwalk in Providence, RI, or San Antonio, TX. The wild spirit that existed on its shores and waters is a thing of the past, along with many of its iconic structures and graffiti. Not all of it was bad and some of it was actually good.
On March 15, 2023, New York City Mayor Eric Adams, New York City Chief Climate Officer and New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Rohit T. Aggarwala, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 2 Administrator Lisa F. Garcia broke ground on the first of two underground storage tanks that will help prevent sewer overflow during rainstorms into the Gowanus Canal. The two tanks are part of an estimated $1.6 billion investment to reduce pollutants flowing into the canal while creating 3.6 acres of new public waterfront open space including New York City’s first-ever public ADA-accessible kayak launch.
A 1.6-acre waterfront public open space includes the tank’s head house atop the first tank, which extends underground nearly two blocks from Butler Street to Degraw Street. A waterfront esplanade with reclaimed concrete block benches, large planted areas that frame views to the canal, gently sloped lawns bordered with seat walls and benches, granite pavers, and weathered steel accents will grace the space.
The second tank will be located on a triangular peninsula at Second Avenue and Sixth Street, scheduled to begin before the EPA’s June 2023 milestone. This two-acre space will include the ADA-accessible kayak launch at the Sixth Street turning basin, the first of its kind in New York City. It’s about time. I have canoed the canal for a very long time and had serious concerns that the general public would be blocked from easy access.
The announcement gives me hope that we have not lost the canal as our city jewel, and the politicians came out in force to praise the decision.
“Investing in these two major infrastructure projects will not only provide essential protections for the Gowanus Canal, but will also allow for the creation of critically needed public spaces for residents in the community,” said U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Long time Gowanus Canal advocate, U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez, said, “I am also pleased this project will create new public spaces along the canal where our communities can gather. This initiative, and others like it, will support our mission of revitalizing these waterways and transforming our waterfronts into a source of pride for New Yorkers.”
As an aside, Nydia Velázquez was on one of the first tours of the Gowanus that I went on in the early 1990s. She has worked hard for a clean Gowanus.
Rezoning was approved on November 23, 2021, by the New York City Council, pushed through by the de Blasio administration. With residential buildings as tall as 30 stories in an area originally zoned for industrial six-story buildings, the population is expected to double as 20,000 new residents in 8,500 new apartments flood the area.
During COVID, I tried to go to the Gowanus Canal as often as I could. It was devastating. Each time I went, another of my favorite locations had disappeared. The worst was when “Welcome to Venice” was gone, my favorite graffiti on the canal, like it had never been there. The warehouse at the Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1925, was not even considered a historic structure, just a great wall canvas for graffiti that was viewable from the new condos and promenade on the opposite bank. A monstrosity is going up in its place at 402 Carroll Street.
Now we can add so many more to the list of vanished Gowanus.
Lavender Lake, a favorite bar with incredible outdoor space, is now as much a part of history as Two Dan’s, an automotive shop that existed in the same spot almost 20 years ago. The door was fantastic. It’s like it never existed.
Pig Beach…. everyone who went there joked about it, but the dining courtyard ran right up to the canal and was usually packed. It is closed with a sign on the door warning of asbestos. The owners posted on Instagram in December 2022, “Despite our greatest efforts, what has been our flagship home for the last eight years was sold to a local Brooklyn developer, Tankhouse, along with their partner, MacArthur Holdings, as part of the Gowanus Rezoning project.” The developer plans a mixed-use development with a “significant” non-residential component on its new lot, according to a story on The Real Deal. “Knowing how much Pig Beach means to the neighborhood (and vice versa), we’ve left the door open with the new landlords to one day reopen Pig Beach in the new 480 Union Street development,” the owners wrote.
Sunrise welcomes a cacophony along the streets and waterway in this new Gowanus. Cement trucks barrel up the one-way streets beside the canal, a boatload of workers in orange vests motors toward the Union Street bridge, and heavy machinery is out in full force. Some of the scenes were almost comical. A mini backhoe working on a pile of dirt above a surreal field of metal poles topped with red plastic that almost look like flowers, and came across that way in my image. Looking across another construction site, it looked crammed into a sea of buildings. Construction in an urban environment is insane.
Dredging was completed in the upper section of the canal between Butler Street and 3rd Street during the week of January 2nd, 2023. The dredged material was screened and items of interest were set out to be reviewed by archaeologists. According to the updates from the EPA, hardly anything of historical interest was found. A couple brass propellors, a meat hook, and the only piece called an artifact, a blacksmith’s leg vise, dredged to the present from the water in an area where several smithy shops existed on both the 1886 and 1915 Sunburn maps. This totally surprised me. I expected discoveries of all kinds of discarded items.
Currently, the EPA has closed off the waterway to personal travel. Last summer, I made one journey with the Gowanus Dredgers paddling to the 9th Street bridge for a commemoration of the Battle of Brooklyn. It already feels like a different place. I find myself really missing the way it was.
On May 27, 2023, take an opportunity to see the southern end of the canal as the Gowanus Dredgers bring a paddle-in performance of After the End of Time by Unheard-of Ensemble on the floating stage at 19th St. Seats can be reserved in a Dredgers canoe or attendees may arrive in their own vessels, or bring a chair and watch from shore.
The new Gowanus Canal is coming soon…..