It’s Open House New York day here in NYC, a wonderful event that offers numerous opportunities to tour urban spaces not always open to the public. My brilliant friend Mia reserved several spaces on a tour along the Gowanus Canal and was generous enough to offer me one of those spots. We met up with our friend Anna and joined about a dozen other inquisitive folk to spend a gloriously sunny day strolling through industrial Brooklyn.
For those not familiar with the Gowanus, it runs through an industrial stretch of South Brooklyn and is best known for it’s stinky smell and inability to host happy water life. After years of sewage overflow, toxic factory run-off and generally standing still, the water in the canal now has only half of the oxygen needed for fish and plants to thrive (we saw some minnows, there are apparently crabs and jellyfish but not much else residing below the green surface). Lots of people have taken interest in this predicament, including the Federal government. The EPA designated the Gowanus a Superfund site.
There’s also a great group called the Gowanus Dredgers who lead canoe tours, lobby for dredging the banks so people can boat, and keep a fleet of canoes that you can access anytime if you pay a fee to become a member. I once took one of these free tours, back when I was first getting into trash politics and wanted to paddle into a marine transfer station. It’s a great free way to spend a day, as long as you don’t touch the water.
The walking tour I took today was themed around the proposed Gowanus Canal Sponge Park for which a group of people would like to A) set up sponges to prevent excess storm water from overflowing the sewers, one of the major causes of contamination in the canal and B) develop the street end sections of water front to provide nice places for people to sit and walk, launch boats and in general enjoy the setting—once the canal is cleaned up a bit that is.
In the meantime, the city is retrofitting a pump to churn the still and stagnant water and, while that is going on, using this mysterious cone contraption to aerate the water. The aeration is no quick fix, but will keep the water bubbling a bit to prevent it from getting any worse.
At present, oil floats on the water’s surface and trash falls in and collects along the water’s edge. It’s getting better, but only slowly. It’s not hard to understand why locals call the Gowanus “Lavendar Lake” because of the lovely toxic shade created by the oil.
The city and nonprofits are doing what they can to attract life back to the area. There are Green Streets planters along some of the access points where streets dead end into the canal. And these bright birdhouses, some of which our tour guide says are occupied by actual birds.
Afterward we went for pie at that joint everyone’s been talking about. Trash + pie = perfect afternoon.