An overlooked museum in the stately James A. Farley Post Office
The Gowanus Canal (all photographs by the author unless indicated)
Having grown up in Brooklyn just a few blocks away, the stench of Gowanus Canal reminds me of my childhood, but for all the time I've spent smelling the canal I never imagined I’d one day go canoeing on it — and then, this October, I did.
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club is a volunteer organization that believes people should enjoy their waterfront, no matter how much lead, mercury, pesticide, cholera, typhoid, typhus, gonorrhea, and something called black mayonnaise (a 10-foot thick layer of various pollutants which cakes the bottom of the canal) it may be filled with. Logging over 2,000 trips last season, they have free outings weekly, the only requirement being that you wear a life vest. When I asked veteran dredger Owen Foote if he’d ever accidentally come in contact with canal water, he responded: “Certainly, and I have superpowers because of it.”
Indeed, both on and below its surface the Gowanus is filled with many a poison. Liquid coal tar, usually measured in parts per million, is measured in parts per hundred in the canal, and microbes found in the water have evolved a resistance to filth. Canoeing on the canal means pushing away plastic bags and empty soda cans with your oar, the vessel gliding over rainbow-colored clumps of chemicals and woefully soggy take out containers. At one point, I even passed a bubbling whirlpool of gunk, casually glugging away under one of the canal’s seven bridges.
1851 oil painting "Sunset at Gowanus Bay" by Henry Gritten (via Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmania)
Everybody’s favorite brownfield, today the Gowanus is practically venerated, a source of backwards Brooklyn pride as one of the most polluted spots in the nation — but it used to be much, much worse. Built in the mid-19th century in place of the Gowanus Creek, it quickly became a favorite dumping spot for local ink factories and the Mafia. In the 1880s, the canal was given its nickname “Lavender Lake” after its changing daily pigment due to the nearby dye manufacturers’ waste. At the time, some poor people were convinced that the rising rank fumes had healing powers, and would stand their asthmatic children on the canal bridges to absorb them. A common pastime in the warmer months was to stand on the banks and watch decomposing sludge boil and spit bubbles the size of basketballs ride the surface.