Every time I approach the Gowanus Canal, I don’t know what to expect.
This time, standing on the Third Street Bridge looking northward, Movers, Not Shakers… the glorious black building with YOU SHOULD MOVE TO BROOKLYN, in 15-foot letters… was gone. Mark Ehrhardt created the display so that you could plainly see it as you rolled your shopping cart out of Whole Foods, after bringing his company from Red Hook to Gowanus, renting the location beside the Third Street bridge from 2014 to 2021.
I am finally realizing what we are losing in this mad conversion from old New York to the condominium-crazy developers of the Gowanus Canal.
I had the honor of two exhibits at his location during the Gowanus Open Studios in 2018 and 2019. Mark Ehrhardt and I dubbed the space we created in his warehouse as “The Green Gallery,” the art hanging on walls made of green, reusable bins. They were events, drawing my friends and family to the waterway I have devoted so much of my life to documenting.
Gowanus in the 2000’s was a neighborhood everyone said was on the verge of big things. We all knew the changes were coming, but it still felt like the Wild West surrounded by elite Brooklyn. There were Gowanus natives and the new artists taking advantage of huge space that landlords were holding onto for the prospect of a huge payday.
“One of my favorite memories was when a woman walked in our office door in the late afternoon, and asked a few questions about what we do,” said Ehrhardt. “When I explained that we were a green moving company and that we did lots of things to make moving sustainable, she replied, ‘Oh yea, I could work here.’”
“It was a testament to the laid back feeling Gowanus had in the 2000s, that someone could just knock on your door and end up becoming a big part of your life,” he said. “I hope Gowanus can retain some of that feeling through this latest transformation.”
Each time I have returned since the pandemic, the landscape is different. It is ugly. Blue walls line the curbs, cutting off the views of destruction behind. Empty lots with construction equipment stand beside iron frameworks, monstrous apartment buildings rising in place of the one-and-two story brick warehouses that so defined the neighborhood.
The amount of graffiti and murals lost to gentrification is mind boggling. I have to give eulogies to some of my favorites.
1) Lucas Gouch
My earliest graffiti picture from the Gowanus Canal was widely published. The signature looming over the Carroll Street Bridge was completed in 1998 by by Lucas Gouch, the artist. The year is in the HR at the end of his name. An effort had begun to clean the waterway and several of my images, including this one, appeared in the New York Times.
When I took this picture, I had no idea who the artist was. Now, with a quick google, I found the artist 25 years later. In a message exchange with @gouchizm on Instagram, I was told:
“Crept in there on a late night and climbed up a rusty pipe. In a time with less responsibilities and no social media. It was a spur of the moment spot. Not planned. That’s probably why we used different colors. We just grabbed some paint that we had at the moment and never got a photo. Glad to see it resurface digitally today.
It was getting artsy and gentrification had already started slowly creeping in by 1998. My pops had an art studio on union street. That neighborhood is being completely demolished.”
2) Two Dans Horses
Over the years, other graffiti and artwork has disappeared, but it was always a slow process.
Two Dans had a beautiful arched doorway with horse cutouts adorning the diagonal white wood doors. It was a touch of class on a former carriage house containing an auto body shop. One of the Dans was my first portrait on the waterway.
Reborn as Lavender Lake, the neighborhood restaurant and bar had one of the best backyard scenes and the remoteness of Gowanus as its draw. Anything goes on the Gowanus.
Located on the north side of the Carroll Street Bridge, it was doomed as soon as the new zoning came into effect.
Zink! adorns the wall while garbage gathers on the sidewalk of Carroll Street by the Carroll Street Bridge.
Purchased by David Lefkowitz in 1998, the location became an early artist enclave on the water’s edge. With an incredible silo that served as a local musical cathedral, artists like Risha Gorig created artwork that peppered the shoreline.
In 2016, 365 Bond debuted as the first 12-story condominium on the Gowanus Canal. With 430 units, the waterfront rush was underway.
The rush became a tidal wave during the pandemic.
4) Welcome to Venice
By far my favorite location on the canal for graffiti was the Alex Figliola building. The first photograph I ever took of the Gowanus Canal in 1989 had this building in the center of the frame, clean and unadorned. Over the next 32 years, new items appeared — a strange dog, anime faces, and the fabulous Welcome to Venice Love Jerko in bright blue.
This was my spot, whether from the water in a Gowanus Dredgers canoe, or on the unique Carroll Street Bridge. To me, this was the spot that defined Gowanus. This was where I photographed the Chicken Man, Leonard Thomas, the bridge tender who became my friend. The graffiti on the wall had to be a better view for the residents of 365 Bond than the windows directly into more apartments.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I returned to an empty lot, realizing that only memories and my photographs of the canal-side wall will remain of the “old” Gowanus. The warehouse at the Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1925, was not even considered a historic structure, now lost to a behemoth going up in its place at 420 Carroll Street.
On May 23, construction topped out on the tallest building designed by FXCollaborative for the waterfront property, a 20-story tower with a 15-story second building, and a publicly accessible connection to a new public promenade along the Gowanus Canal.
5) PIG BEACH
This was a true jewel of a location right on the canal with a befitting name — Pig Beach — as there was no beach, but you could look down on the EPA involved in the cleanup of the Superfund waterway.
Pig Beach didn’t really have graffiti, but it always had something fun either written on the wall by its door or on the sidewalk as you walked by. It had neon, a neat lighting scheme and messaging to the public as it stayed alive during the pandemic.
The business closed for the last time on December 30, 2022, when the location where Pig Beach BBQ was born was sold to a local Brooklyn developer, Tankhouse, along with their partner, MacArthur Holdings, as part of the Gowanus Rezoning project.
In the final message still available on pigbeachnyc.com, the love of the uniqueness of this area comes through…
“Speaking of Brooklyn; from our first crazy summer here in 2016 we knew we had something special with Pig Beach. Our team created a family (and dog) friendly home away from home, a go-to neighborhood spot where friends from near and afar could gather to hang and relax over some delicious BBQ and beer. We’ve hosted weddings, bar mitzvahs, marriage proposals, breakups, dancing dragons, brass bands, and Santa Claus. We grieved the tragic loss of our dear friend and chef, Jeff Michner, and celebrated his life with the world’s greatest pitmasters at our side. We became part of the Brooklyn fabric of life, and in turn, it wove itself into ours.
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. We’re staying hopeful those future stars will align — but in the meantime we’re vigorously seeking out a new place in Brooklyn, whether it be temporary or permanent, where we can light up those smokers again.”
6) PASTA WORLD
Pasta Forever! In a cacophony of blue and bright colors, the building canvas at 287 Bond Street is a jumble word display to Pasta. The paint covers every inch of the wall, from sidewalk to rooftop with every color imaginable.
The warehouse building at 158 2nd Street bordered the shoreline at the dock for the Gowanus Dredgers and was like an old friend.
The building’s wall along 2nd Street was a long narrow canvas with graffiti and images of people, all smiling and happy. I never knew who any of the people were, whether real local residents or just unknown grabs from some stock photography collection. The wall had a character and a beauty that won’t be forgotten.
The warehouse was behind MoversNotShakers so it was doomed from the start. We all knew this was coming. MoversNotShakers relocated to Red Hook. In its stead on the banks of the canal will rise a 22-story residential building with 301 rental units, commercial space, 45 enclosed parking spaces, and a 26-foot-long rear yard. Look at the renderings. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
Currently, there is no water access allowed from the bridge or the promenades. We may not launch a canoe from the Gowanus Dredgers floating dock at 2nd Street ever again.