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Gowanus Canal: Brooklyn's gritty secret


Over the past decade or so, Brooklyn has seen a lot of change, some welcome, and some pushing out long-established people and communities to make way for folks with more money. Sometimes that's very visible along major avenues, but it's also happening in an area even most Brooklynites barely know.


Most of us in Brooklyn think of the Gowanus Canal, a long-established industrial waterway from New York Bay into the heart of Brooklyn, as a subject of jokes, stories about smells, rumors of Mafia body dumps and both long-standing and long-gone businesses.


And nearly all of that is true, true to the extent that the canal is a Superfund site, undergoing years of dredging, cleaning and detoxification, even while developers turn old buildings along it into expensive apartments or build new ones where warehouses and factories stood.

Yellow highlight marks the section of the canal featured here. Below, city workers open the Third Street Bridge to make repairs.

Today, the whole area is in a state of flux, of new building and old businesses, of reclaimed history and abandoned spaces, of work to give the canal new uses for the future while not completely driving out the remaining business. I recently walked along part of the canal near Third Street, where two shoestring parks parallel several blocks near the midpoint of the canal.

P1010383P1010396P1010422P1010427From Third Street to Carroll Street, some money from developers has gone into canal-side walks and part space

Obviously, the canal and its environment didn't always look that way; it started out as freshwater streams flowing out into Gowanus Bay and New York Harbor. Around the middle of the 19th century, Gowanus Creek was rebuilt as a canal, with several basins joining the main nearly two-mile length, and providing convenient shipping for coalyards, stone and gravel merchants, food shippers and more.

HeydayfilthP1010411P1010452The canal in its industrial heyday, and at its 1990s worst—and signs of continuing industry along the canal.

After World War I, its decline began, with more and more industrial pollutants pumped into it on the theory they'd wash out to sea. By the 1960s, there were fewer operating businesses along the canal, but more sunken barges, oil, filth and just plain sludge, making it dangerous...and notoriously odorous. A far cry from its early days as a center of oyster harvesting!


The first attempts to clean up the canal date to the 1880s, when a sewer was built to drain excess water from the closed north end of the canal back to the harbor. When that failed to solve the problem that turned the canal into a stinking "Lavender Lake," a giant tunnel with huge pumps was built around 1911 to flush the tunnel with fresh water. It had some effect, but when the pumps were damaged in the 1960s, the system was shut down.

P1010458P1010412In the background, and looking closer than they are, new towers rise in Downtown Brooklyn.

Only in the past forty years, driven by the possibility of federal funds under the 1972 Clean Water Act and the Superfund, and especially by developers' desire to build and sell high-end apartments, has there been serious progress toward cleanup—although, in heavy storms and high water, sewer overflow is still occasionally diverted into the canal.

Brooklyn attitude: From the optimism of the clean-water canoers, to snarky references to over-optimism and to creatures that might breed in the canal.

GreetingsStill, to some, Gowanus and its canal is on the verge of new life as a Brooklyn Riviera, that they hope will live up to its some-time connections to Venice.

Oh, yeah, right.

But we're Brooklyn—who knows!

Monte's Venetian Room, an old-school neighborhood favorite that closed, and has more recently re-opened. Note the "Park Your Gondola Here" sign.

A trendy bar's name pays tribute to a name for the canal that dates to its times of chemicals and sludge that turned the waters into foul "black mayonnaise."

The early 20th-century Carroll Street Bridge is the city's only remaining wooden-decked bridge. Like all of the canal's bridges except the highway bridge near the end, it's a lift bridge

P1010464P1010460A long-abandoned rooftop water tank, and growing from one of the canal's pilings, a sign of growth and hope, surrounded by tossed coins. Not the Trevi Fountain...but not overrun with visitors, either!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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