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A rancid canal runs through it

Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, labeled 'one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation,' isn't just a filthy Superfund site. To urbanites, it's a little piece of the outdoors.

August 01, 2011|By Geraldine Baum, Los Angeles Times
  • Owen Foote guides a canoe under an 1880s bridge on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Foote helped found the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, which offers free canoe rides and aims to inspire an appreciation and change for the polluted canal. Some "think a drop of this water will eat through your hand, he says, showing a tanned hand. Still there.
Owen Foote guides a canoe under an 1880s bridge on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York — A dozen campers look suspiciously at the winding Brooklyn canal they are about to canoe.

"OK, what's the most important thing about this waterway?" Owen Foote, their expedition leader, asks.

"It stinks!" the preteens squeal in chorus.

Indeed it does.

But never mind that. The Gowanus Canal is the latest, hottest, coolest spot in a city that won't sleep until it's completely gentrified.

Photos: Canoeing down a Superfund site

Never mind that the federal government designated the Gowanus a Superfund site last year and "one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the nation." Never mind that the waterway is so rank the feds had difficulty catching enough fish to determine if they're safe to eat. (They're not.)

The sediment, once described as looking like black mayonnaise, is thick with metals, coal tar and PCBs, and there's the 300 million gallons of storm water tainted with sewage that flows into the canal every year, changing the water color from gray to greenish from the algae feeding on human waste.

But in this part of the city, the Gowanus is what passes for the great outdoors.

Which explains why aspiring professionals, poor artists and eager real estate agents — who once flocked to cozy Carroll Gardens and tree-lined Park Slope — are now drawn to the fetid canal that runs between those neighborhoods. It also explains why Foote, an architect, volunteers on a day off to show hesitant day campers the secrets of a hidden urban waterway with weedy, earthen — not concrete — banks and little oil slicks that shimmer here and there.

Though the canal is mostly lined with industrial and commercial sites and a smattering of housing, people dance, paint and perform operas on its banks; they hike, bike and get engaged there.

A few summers ago an enterprising neighbor pumped fresh water into a giant dumpster parked adjacent to the canal and invited swimmers for a dip. Though not even New Yorkers are eccentric enough to jump in the canal, it's hard to imagine another Superfund site so lived in.

On a recent morning, before Foote takes out the campers, he gives a private tour like a breathless guide plying the Colorado River.

"Many people think we shouldn't be out here," he explains. "They think a drop of this water will eat through your hand." Then he shows a tanned hand. "Still there."

Foote is a founding member of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, started about a decade ago to inspire the neighborhood to dream of cleaning the canal. The club offers free canoe rides twice a week from a small launch at the end of Second Street. Tall and athletic, the 43-year-old Foote looks better suited for tony Greenwich than toxic Gowanus.

"Good stuff," he says, breathing deeply as he passes through a white mist from one of three cement facilities along the Gowanus. "If you don't like the smell of grinding asphalt, it's probably better to come in the evenings."

Clearly, Foote likes it, though he doesn't quite get why out-of-towners may think it odd that cement is being made a short subway ride from Wall Street.

"The thing that makes recreation wonderful is that you see something you don't see in normal life," Foote says. "The same reason people go to the Grand Canyon they should come here and see asphalt being made and baking being done."

Like Ebbets Field, the Gowanus both repels and attracts the locals; it's part of the folk history.Named by the Dutch for Gouwanue, a Canarse Indian chief who fished the waters, the 100-foot-wide canal was carved out of a swamp off New York Harbor in the late 1860s and comes to a dead end 1.8 miles from shore.

It was used by ships coming down from the Erie Canal, and soon became one of the busiest waterways in the country with factories, foundries, warehouses, tanneries, paint, ink and coal-burning plants. By the 1960s, its commercial purpose had faded from history and the Gowanus became little more than a dumping ground — sometimes for dead bodies.

For the last decade, volunteers have combed its murky waters for derelict shopping carts, chairs, refrigerators and other sizable garbage. After the city installed new pumps to circulate water, creatures such as blue crabs and striped bass made occasional appearances in the canal. (A few years ago, a minke whale took a wrong turn from the harbor and promptly beached itself on a canal bulkhead and died.)

As Foote paddles, he points out half a dozen wooden feeders installed by a local conservancy to attract bats, which eat mosquitoes, and other improvements made by a few private owners who have built esplanades on their property.

Though it smells faintly like petroleum, the canal is improbably peaceful on this summer morning. A man practices the trumpet on a bench in the parking lot of a Lowe's. A plastic bottle floats by, then a crab. As Foote vigorously paddles closer to the busy end of the canal, the noise level picks up and the scenery is akin to a John French Sloan painting — urban, vibrant and gritty.

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