Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal

gowanusGowanus Canal is a fetid, polluted, smelly waterway that runs through Brooklyn, and by all accounts it’s nothing but a drainage ditch. For years the locals complained about the stink, and nothing was ever done. The area was so unpleasant that the inhabitants deserted in droves. This book explores a question that a lot of local residents have; how did this useless canal become an object of fascination?

Joseph Alexiou, a NYC tour guide, tells how the area went from a natural hunting and fishing ground to a farming community, an industrial zone, and now a high-priced neighborhood. Originally a treeless marsh, it was bought by Dutch farmers from Indian chiefs. As for the name, nobody knows how or where it came into being, it could mean “Thorny Bush” or “Sleep.” Throughout the book, the author repeatedly discusses the drainage problem of the area, and even uncovers unused plans, going back to the 19th century, to cut a direct canal to the river, providing sewers as well. The problem was that the area is ungraded, meaning there’s no downhill anywhere. The area is flat, so gravity doesn’t pull the water towards the river. The first thing we learn of in this book is how the hurricanes cause the Gowanus Canal to overflow and dump sewage all over peoples’ basements.

Alexiou spends some time discussing the actual neighborhood, but it gets a little repetitive. The area was industrial, and because of the stink nobody wanted to live there unless they had no choice. It was always a high crime area, and as soon as better housing became available, people left. The artists only moved into the area because it was convenient to Manhattan by subway. He ends the book with the Superfund designation, which would not have happened without the large number of wealthier people moving in, but so far hasn’t amounted to any real effort. There were some plans for cleanup back in the 1970’s, but the city was bankrupt at the time, and by the 1980’s most of the people had moved away.

I’ll give Alexious high marks for his research. He dredges up old engineering plans, old maps, drawings from the 1800’s, and lots of information from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. As for the neighborhood, I don’t go there much myself, but the canal doesn’t smell as bad as I imagined. It smells more like a stagnant bayside area, not a sewer, and it’s even less smelly in the winter. But even if the Gowanus Canal stinks in the summer, keep in mind that the beautiful city of Venice doesn’t smell much better. It’s full of nasty stagnant canals, smelly for half the year, and flooding for the other half, and this is Europe’s priciest tourist attraction. By comparison, Gowanus is nowhere near that bad.

Besides, the living cost in Gowanus is a lot lower. And best of all, you can get around by subway.

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