Thursday, December 20, 2007

Gowanus Canal

First of all, I'm sorry for the brief hiatus from this blog. The flu hit me pretty hard last week, and I was completely out of commission. But I'm back on the trail and to celebrate, I took the advice of a good friend of mine and took a trip to the Gowanus Canal. Yummy!

I have many times passed by, crossed over and at times purposely avoided NYC's most infamous waterway, especially during my intense 5 month look at New York's underbelly. But yesterday, I took a trip to explore it in its entirety. From dirty start in Carrol Gardens through Industrial Redhook and out to the Gowanus, and New York Bays.

The neighborhood around the canal has one of the oldest recorded histories in Brooklyn. The residents of New Netherlands bought the land from the Dutch Government in 1639 and could be the first official real estate deal in the New World. Because of its access to water and its rich soil, it was to be used as a tobacco farm (if they could see it now). Throughout this period, the land was farmed and the waterfront used for the areas first boom business, oyster exporting.

During the next century, because of the increase in settlers (or gentrifying usurpers if you will) there was a big need for docks and shipping ports, and the area now known as Redhook and its tidal creek were the perfect place to start. Not to jump ahead, but over the next 200 years the Brooklyn waterfront was turned into the world's largest shipping hub and the Gowanus neighborhood was at its epicenter. So much for the lush farmland!

Now, the canal is among the countries dirtiest creeks and the rundown industrial land surrounding the canal remains as a skeleton of what it once was. Its a filthy reminder of what a society built on commercial backbone looks like. As an urban explorer I love the endless fields of large rusty broken down structures, crumbling walls of graffiti and old buildings being slowly reclaimed by the stubborn plant life growing up from cracks in the cobblestones. As a person seriously concerned about the state of the environment and the lasting effects that our shipping and shopping industries have piled upon our landscape, I am saddened to see what we have been left to clean up.

As I traveled through the neighborhood, I tried to cross over all the small bridges and overhangs, like the ones on 3rd street and 9th street (reminding of an old nearby warehouse that was used for a meeting space for a protest in days past). I also went to the edge of the canal at the tips of all the dead-end streets that ran into the canal.

There is no end to the things that I found interesting to see along the way: Rusted cranes leaning into the water, garbage barges filled to capacity and illegally allowing the overflow to fall into the canal, a small group of kayakers paddling their way through a guided tour of the area (possibly from the Gowanus Dredger's Canoe Club), and countless flocks of bloated seagulls and pigeons feasting on the tons of trash washed up along its banks.

On my bike I found less access to the water, as the canal got closer to the bay, but I found a great old structure near the Redhook Recreation Area (its really called that). What probably was an old train terminal, i found a hole in a rusty fence and climbed in. There was a maze of cement walls and large stone blocks completely covered with street art and great graffiti work. Check out one picture I took here. It was endless, and after about an hour inside, it was getting too dark for me to continue, but I will be back.

As for the Canal, i have just read some research put out by the Department of Environmental Protection and even though the area is in gross violation of the Clean Water Act, they continue to OK the use of the canal for awful practices like sewage dumping without sufficient flushing pipes and reckless garbage transfer. As the efforts to turn the neighborhood into another Williamsburg continue, the calls for cleanup get louder. NOT LOUD ENOUGH.

For anyone who continues to mutter hollow liberal mantras like "Its slowly getting better", keep this in mind: this past April, a Minke Whale after seemingly suffering from serious breathing problems due to water pollution was found dead after beaching itself on an oil slicked embankment along the canal.

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