Currents of Change

Can Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal be Cleaned Up?

A cruise up the murky Gowanus Canal is a journey into the heart of darkest Brooklyn. These sell-out excursions focus not on romance, fine dining or savoring the Manhattan skyline. Instead, throngs lining the boat railings observe rust-belt factories along the waterway, forming a forbidden jungle. One shocked passenger described the scene as “post-apocalyptic.” Rusting bridges span overhead. Junkyard dogs snarl and bark from littered banks. Only the presence of dead rats and trash break the colorful sheen of oil on water that prompted the local sobriquet, “Lavender Lake.”

Those murky depths conceal more than the remains of vanished mobsters. Mercury, lead, PCBs and other contaminants lurk below. The tour boat turns back at Butler Street to reveal the waterway’s inherent design flaw; a single inlet dead-ending against concrete embankments bars New York Harbor’s strong tides and their fresh diurnal doses of oxygenated water in the 1.8-mile channel. Still, hopes are high that restarting an 88-year-old flushing tunnel may be the first significant step in restoring what once was a lovely tidal creek that meandered through salt marshes.

Mark Phillips/Bruce Coleman Inc.

To demonstrate the water “quality,” Abu Moulta-Ali, Neighborhood Environmental Program Coordinator at the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, draws a measure of eau de Gowanus. Passengers cluster around his on-board testing lab. The results? Oxygen: 1.5 parts per million, well below the minimal five per million to sustain life. The opaque Gowanus obstructs sunlight to one third of the six feet needed for aquatic plant growth. Rising gas bubbles betray the decomposition of sewage sludge that overwhelms the olfactories on warm summer days and creates an oxygen-starved biological desert.

The group’s intent with these tours is not to feed morbid New Yorkers’ fascination for things dead and dying, although executive director John Muir says that they’re “the single-most dramatic factor in increasing interest” in the abused waterway. The challenges of reviving both the river and the neighborhood are daunting.

Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam had shipped barrels of Gowanus oysters to Europe. Dams and landfill, however, had already altered the ecology before 1840, when the straightened and walled channel grew into Brooklyn’s industrial center. Dusty stone yards, flour mills, cement works, tanneries, paint, ink and soap factories emitted water and airborne pollutants. Stone, lumber and brick that arrived by boat built the handsome row houses in nearby Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Park Slope. These neighborhoods expressed gratitude by flushing their toilets into the Gowanus.

After World War I, six million annual tons of cargo made this canal the nation’s busiest commercial canal and arguably the most polluted. The 1951 opening of the elevated Gowanus Expressway over the waterway gave easy access to trucks, but no apparent economic advantages. By the 1960s, a commercial exodus left 50 percent of industrial spaces empty while 150,000 vehicles passing overhead each day deposited toxic lead fumes. Boat traffic has plummeted, and with Bayside Fuel being the only canal-side business using the waterway, the last dredging occurred in 1975. Even the $230 million Red Hook Water Pollution Control Plant, completed in 1987, cannot keep up with the combined sewage overflows.

In 1911, more than 300 civic dignitaries applauded as a Brooklyn belle tossed a bouquet of red carnations into the water that a steam engine and churning propeller were supposed to transform. But the flushing tunnel’s attempts to draw dirty water out of the canal through the brick-lined 1.2-mile tunnel below Butler Street never performed well. The last in a long series of snafus occurred in the 1960s, when a city worker dropping a manhole cover killed the pump.

The same dubious tradition continues to delay its reopening, which is currently scheduled for late spring. The latest holdups stem from pump repairs and dredging of a clogged outlet pipe. Still, the injection of 300 million gallons a day won’t be met with just flowers and applause, but also some skepticism.

Just below that mucky bottom lie sordid pollutants. Dredging before the tunnel’s activation would be the most ecologically-sound approach, but with no funding, those contaminants will remain right there unless the artificial current discharges them into Gowanus Bay and the Bay Ridge Channel. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection claims hydraulic studies done by the engineering firm Hazen and Sawyer prove the sediments will not be disturbed. Muir counters that the city has never publicly produced the studies. “Brooklyn deserves scientifically-based reassurance, but we don’t know what the movement of sediments will be.” Muir doesn’t necessarily oppose its reopening. “If the damn thing works, let’s get it started,” he says.

Buddy Scotto, president of the Carroll Garden Association, has championed the Gowanus cleanup for 30 years. “Hazen and Sawyer know more than anyone about the canal,” he says, pronouncing himself satisfied with the hydraulic studies. “If we had clean water here,” says Scotto, “this would go from the least-desirable area to live to the most desirable almost overnight. We’d have a real prospect of getting a revitalization project going down here: a promenade, bike routes, coffeehouses, restaurants and housing above all the shops.”

In New York, Soho and Northside Williamsburg have proven the viability of rehabilitated industrial sites, and with burgeoning brownstone neighborhoods surrounding the Gowanus valley, an avalanche of development could descend. An abandoned post office building nearby will become the $65 million Brooklyn Commons project and create a canal-side family destination of a 22-screen cineplex and 260,000 square feet of retail and recreation space.

Still, urban restoration often involves a complicated system of checks and balances. Older residents and businesses are wary that encroaching gentrification from Park Slope and Carroll Gardens could escalate their low rents. Scotto, however, sees abandoned buildings as a waste in a city of chronic housing shortages. Bette Stoltz, head of the South Brooklyn Local Development Corporation, wants to preserve and expand the Gowanus’ 7,500 blue collar jobs, while the Brooklyn Center for Urban Environment makes environmental clean-up and open spaces its priority. For the Gowanus, a revived neighborhood is still in the distant future, but Muir believes the key to a local renaissance lies in just cleaning it up.