About the Author | Jesse & GregWe earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.
Biking back over the Union Street Bridgetoday I stopped to watch a group of artists quietly painting the battered waterway. It was a really surprising place to see artists at work. It called to mind for me this thing I read once which touched on Monet’s series on the river Thames.
At the time, it was the Industrial Revolution and Monet was seeking to capture the natural beauty of a commercial river filtered through the smog and rainbow hues of pollution. Maybe this group was trying to do the same thing; to find natural beauty where it might still be hiding in the Gowanus. But then I thought maybe that’s kind of a stretch. Regardless of intention, pretty cool to watch artists at work, though.
Built in the mid-nineteenth century where a fresh water creek once meandered, the Gowanus Canal was built to serve the manufacturing needs of a growing city. Dozens of foundries, coal yards, and paint factories dotted the Canal’s shoreline. It is no secret that as a result of all this shipping and industry the Canal turned into one of the most fantastically toxic bodies of water imaginable. Last dredged in 1975, up to twenty feet of sediment has piled up, creating a substance which the Army Corps of Engineers has described as “black mayonnaise.” Yum.
Despite all that, I love the Canal. It is one of the few undeveloped areas left and it has a distinctly unapologetic barren quality that makes it interesting to explore. The fact that it is intensely polluted has not deterred folks from making the best of it, either. I don’t know that I would participate, but there’s a Gowanus Canoe Club (you can launch off the dock below), and even pioneering hipsters living there on houseboats (watch this.)
Designated a Superfund site and scheduled for a complete clean-up by the Gowanus Conservancy, the Big Idea is to eventually create Brooklyn’s own Venetian Grand Canal. Be that as it may, for now I’d still heed the sign.