A rancid canal runs through it
A dozen campers look suspiciously at the winding Brooklyn canal they are about to canoe.
“OK, what’s the most important thing about this waterway?” Owen Foote, their expedition leader, asks.
“It stinks!” the preteens squeal in chorus.
Indeed it does.
But never mind that. The Gowanus Canal is the latest, hottest, coolest spot in a city that won’t sleep until it’s completely gentrified.
Never mind that the federal government designated the Gowanus a Superfund site last year and “one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation.” Never mind that the waterway is so rank the feds had difficulty catching enough fish to determine if they’re safe to eat. (They’re not.)
The sediment, once described as looking like black mayonnaise, is thick with metals, coal tar and PCBs, and there’s the 300 million gallons of storm water tainted with sewage that flows into the canal every year, changing the water color from gray to greenish from the algae feeding on human waste.
But in this part of the city, the Gowanus is what passes for the great outdoors.
Which explains why aspiring professionals, poor artists and eager real estate agents — who once flocked to cozy Carroll Gardens and tree-lined Park Slope — are now drawn to the fetid canal that runs between those neighborhoods. It also explains why Foote, an architect, volunteers on a day off to show hesitant day campers the secrets of a hidden urban waterway with weedy, earthen — not concrete — banks and little oil slicks that shimmer here and there.
Though the canal is mostly lined with industrial and commercial sites and a smattering of housing, people dance, paint and perform operas on its banks; they hike, bike and get engaged there.
A few summers ago an enterprising neighbor pumped fresh water into a giant dumpster parked adjacent to the canal and invited swimmers for a dip. Though not even New Yorkers are eccentric enough to jump in the canal, it’s hard to imagine another Superfund site so lived in.
On a recent morning, before Foote takes out the campers, he gives a private tour like a breathless guide plying the Colorado River.
“Many people think we shouldn’t be out here,” he explains. “They think a drop of this water will eat through your hand.” Then he shows a tanned hand. “Still there.”
Foote is a founding member of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, started about a decade ago to inspire the neighborhood to dream of cleaning the canal. The club offers free canoe rides twice a week from a small launch at the end of Second Street. Tall and athletic, the 43-year-old Foote looks better suited for tony Greenwich than toxic Gowanus.
“Good stuff,” he says, breathing deeply as he passes through a white mist from one of three cement facilities along the Gowanus. “If you don’t like the smell of grinding asphalt, it’s probably better to come in the evenings.”
Clearly, Foote likes it, though he doesn’t quite get why out-of-towners may think it odd that cement is being made a short subway ride from Wall Street.
“The thing that makes recreation wonderful is that you see something you don’t see in normal life,” Foote says. “The same reason people go to the Grand Canyon they should come here and see asphalt being made and baking being done.”
Like Ebbets Field, the Gowanus both repels and attracts the locals; it’s part of the folk history.Named by the Dutch for Gouwanue, a Canarse Indian chief who fished the waters, the 100-foot-wide canal was carved out of a swamp off New York Harbor in the late 1860s and comes to a dead end 1.8 miles from shore.
It was used by ships coming down from the Erie Canal, and soon became one of the busiest waterways in the country with factories, foundries, warehouses, tanneries, paint, ink and coal-burning plants. By the 1960s, its commercial purpose had faded from history and the Gowanus became little more than a dumping ground — sometimes for dead bodies.
For the last decade, volunteers have combed its murky waters for derelict shopping carts, chairs, refrigerators and other sizable garbage. After the city installed new pumps to circulate water, creatures such as blue crabs and striped bass made occasional appearances in the canal. (A few years ago, a minke whale took a wrong turn from the harbor and promptly beached itself on a canal bulkhead and died.)
As Foote paddles, he points out half a dozen wooden feeders installed by a local conservancy to attract bats, which eat mosquitoes, and other improvements made by a few private owners who have built esplanades on their property.
Though it smells faintly like petroleum, the canal is improbably peaceful on this summer morning. A man practices the trumpet on a bench in the parking lot of a Lowe’s. A plastic bottle floats by, then a crab. As Foote vigorously paddles closer to the busy end of the canal, the noise level picks up and the scenery is akin to a John French Sloan painting — urban, vibrant and gritty.
A pipe hisses from a gas plant; a giant claw separates scrap metal on a barge; a subway train screeches as it crosses above on the highest elevated tracks in the city that arc over the Gowanus.
“Listen, the non-New Yorker maybe doesn’t see the thrill of canoeing on an industrial waterway, but as a New Yorker I can tell you I don’t mind contaminated water that shows me all of this,” Foote says.
He is a native of Manhattan who remembers when the East River was so polluted it caught fire. But it’s not like he doesn’t know the difference between a watery wilderness and a smelly pit. Foote learned to canoe at overnight camp in the Adirondacks, and he was an undergraduate in Colorado.
But now he lives in Brooklyn, with a wife, two young children, six bikes but no car.
“I think in 20- and 40-year perspectives,” he says. “The water quality all around the city is improving and people are using the waterfronts. … This is ours.”
Suddenly, a whiff of fresh baked bread from a factory bravely breaks through the stench and a duck appears miraculously, perched above the water on a pipe. There’s a breeze.
Beauty is in the eyes of people who can adapt to anything, even if it’s not tempting to run a finger atop the water.
Foote spots David Lefkowitz, another Gowanus devotee, up on the bank and edges closer to shore to greet him.
“Good to see you out, man,” Lefkowitz says.
For the last 15 years, Lefkowitz has owned a scruffy plot of land adjacent to the canal that he has turned into a party space. On summer weekends, 20-somethings, often a few hundred on a Sunday evening, flock there to hear techno bands and shake and sway on a small concrete dance floor. The property would have been swallowed up by a 450-unit condo development if the owner had not pulled out after the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in. “How,” the owner complained, “do you market a Superfund site?”
But Lefkowitz, 56, is sanguine about the future of the Gowanus.
“It has yet to become something,” he says, peering through owl-like glasses. “But that’s the magic — for now this is one of the shrinking places of freedom in the city at a time when everything is monetized and manicured.”
“You know,” he adds, “people are so tired of ‘done.’ ”
The EPA doesn’t expect to complete an estimated half-billion-dollar cleanup for up to 15 years, and even then the water probably won’t be swimmable. In the meantime, the canal is safe for canoeing, says the EPA’s Walter Mugdan, adding, “Just don’t tip.”
Despite what will likely be a messy cleanup effort, property values are expected to escalate and urban pioneers who yearn for a little sky and water, even dirty water, will continue to gravitate here.
This spring, a doctor paid $3 million for a five-story row house with a heated pool a block from the canal, and this summer even more hipsters and visionaries are treating an old industrial waterway like Venice in Brooklyn and trying to rent in the area’s oddball apartment buildings and slightly shabby brownstones.
Two hours after Foote had set off with the hesitant preteens, he brings them back to the site. They put away the equipment and help themselves to several squirts from giant bottles of hand sanitizer that the Dredgers club buys in bulk.
By this point, the kids are happily comparing notes about what they saw.
Patrick Costantin, an 11-year-old who lives in lower Manhattan, is surprised by the wildlife that he expected would look “freakish” — if it survived at all. “I saw a jellyfish,” the 7th-grader says.
He vows to bring back his parents for a canoe ride.
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