gowanuscanal.us front page
Announcing the launch of GowanusCanal.us, my new website devoted to my 35-year documentation of the renaissance taking place on Brooklyn's Superfund waterway.

by Mark D Phillips

In 1989, I walked from my home in Cobble Hill to Park Slope, on an urban adventure. Little did I know it would lead to the longest documentary project of my career.

As I looked at the paper map of Brooklyn, I tried to understand the no-man’s land between the two neighborhoods. As I walked down Third Street, a bridge appeared ahead of me, crossing a waterway, the Gowanus Canal.

I knew nothing about it except that it was an abandoned, dreary place surrounded by brownstone homes that ended before the final block by its banks. It was fascinating and intriguing.

Over the next 35 years, I have seen multiple attempts to clean it up and listened to numerous pitches of what it can be. Now to see that coming to fruition is hard to imagine. I just hope that the unbridled development isn’t another New York City debacle.

It is the main reason I started SouthBrooklyn.com and now the reason I have created GowanusCanal.us, devoted to my artwork and my impressions of the new neighborhood.

GowanusCanal.US, 30 years Of Photography of the Gowanus Canal area by Mark D Phillips
GowanusCanal.US, 30 years Of Photography of the Gowanus Canal area by Mark D Phillips

The first cleanup occurred in 1998, the year my daughter was born. With that first cleanup, I saw the obstacles that would cause the waterway to become a Superfund site. As backhoe shovelfuls of muck were lifted from its depths, the smell was overwhelming. The divers who worked on the flushing tunnel climbed into the water, entering with pristine white diving suits, but when they exited, they were coated in a black oily substance that barely came off when sprayed with high pressure hoses. Their diving masks had to be scrubbed with a toothbrush to let them see through the sticky substance.

No one would accept the material removed from the waterway. It was too toxic.

Another dozen years passed. Politicians came to the canal making promises that never materialized. In April 2009, the US EPA proposed that the Gowanus Canal be placed on the National Priorities List (NPL),  overruling Mayor Boomberg’s proposal for a quicker cleanup without the designation. Bloomberg’s plan called for a nine-year cleanup program, the EPA estimated 10-12 years.

Now 15-years later, we hear that there may need to be a second dredging and the project cost has ballooned to over $1 billion from an estimated cost of $300 million to $500 million, according to an audit by EPA Inspector General Sean W. O’Donnell. The March 21, 2024, report also stated that the project is more than six and a half years behind schedule.

Gowanus stories published on GowanusCanal.US
Gowanus stories published on GowanusCanal.US

The EPA cleanup continued all through the COVID shutdown. And the pandemic opened a developer’s feeding frenzy, with buildings disappearing faster than I could watch. Some of my favorite graffiti vanished, including the iconic “Welcome to Venice” on the Alex Figliola warehouse beside the Carroll Street bridge.

So what comes next? It’s groups like the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, the Gowanus Dredgers, Voice of Gowanus, and the local residents to stand their ground and make sure this project comes to fruition and it is something we are proud to pass on to our next generation.

There are times I miss the days of canoeing the canal with it being the most disgusting water I have ever seen. Today’s canal is becoming like every other city’s downtown waterway…. over-built, over-urbanized and under-utilized as an actual body of water. I still can’t wait to drag my kayak to the new park planned on its shore with an actual boat ramp. I have hope it will come to fruition.

Enjoy GowanusCanal.com and I hope to see you on the Gowanus.