By anyone’s standard, the Gowanus Canal is one of the most repugnant places in New York City. The 1.8-mile central Brooklyn waterway flows from Butler Street to the Gowanus Bay and is a toxic cesspool, the result of 150 years of industrial waste from manufactured gas plants, oil refineries, coal yards, paint factories, machine shops, and more. The air stinks of raw sewage. The once-thriving manufacturing neighborhood surrounding the canal is decaying and desolate. Put simply: it is the definition of a dump.
Despite everything this little strip of land has going against it, an impassioned group of New Yorkers — entrepreneurs, residents, artists, urban designers, entertainers, and scientists — are making the most out of this environmental catastrophe. For them, the Gowanus is a place of possibilities and opportunities.
They are not alone. Located minutes from Manhattan and sandwiched between two of Brooklyn’s most desirable neighborhoods — Carroll Gardens and Park Slope — the area holds promise of economic gold in a city starved for land to develop. Private developers, urban planners, and the Bloomberg administration dream about what this land could become and have envisioned hundreds of units of housing and waterfront esplanades.
But first it must be cleaned up. On March 2, 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the Gowanus as a Superfund site, ushering in nearly 12 years of studies and work to dredge the contaminated mud at a cost of $500 million. The city is also at work on a three-year, $150-million project to clean the water by rehabilitating the canal’s flushing tunnel and pumping station. A city rezoning proposal to add residential to the manufacturing zone is currently on hold while the agency decides how to move forward and how the federal cleanup designation would impact appropriate redevelopment and remediation, according to an agency spokeswoman.
No matter how the future proceeds, the people of the Gowanus — the characters who populate the area — have stories to tell. What follows are portraits of the quintessential and tenacious New Yorkers who never give up on their land, who refuse to succumb to the obstacles, and who are inspired by their beloved canal.