Had our 18th- and 19th-century forebears been as preservationally minded as we, very few of us would live here: Brooklyn would be a loose collection of farms and shacks and creeks and marshes, with coastal mansion-getaways in the south and a denser downtown with a working waterfront in the north. And while we certainly wouldn’t sneer at more open space—more occasional breaks from the concrete and asphalt on which we live and work and recreate—not all development is bad: we like train lines that bring us to points all around the city; we like that we have places to live and that our friends and family do too. We like Brooklyn, though imperfect, as it stands, more or less.
Though that’s not to say we always love where it’s headed, because, of course, not all development is good, either: we resent elevated highways that tore through neighborhoods, razed over homes, and rended communities like Williamsburg, Red Hook and Sunset Park; and we yearn for a secret spot unbound by street grids and unmarred by paved roads. The problem these days is that we only get one kind of development: bad. When the beautiful, historic Bay Ridge United Methodist Church was torn down more than five years ago, it was sad not just to lose an attractive old building but also because you knew it wouldn’t be replaced by anything of equal character. We don’t build nice things anymore, not on the human-scaled level. (After the hard work of community advocates, a school, whose architectural design nods to the demolished church, went up in the space. Better than more gruesomely boxy condos!)
So when you hear that the state is considering designating 422 properties within 53 blocks on either side of the Gowanus Canal as a historic district, it’s hard to know how to feel. On the one hand, it seems sort of ridiculous to consider all of those old low brick warehouses, factories and garages as worthy of protection. Though industrial areas possess unique beauty, and evoke a history of manufacturing worth remembering and connecting to, this one in particular is also full of ugly old buildings, many of whose specific utilitarian purpose is now gone. “They have absolutely no historic value and no architectural integrity,” one anti-preservationist property owner told the Daily News.
His major problem is that such protection could impede future development—that it’s not (groan) “a progressive way of looking at Gowanus.” At the same time, what kind of development are we talking about here? New buildings like the Coignet Building on the corner of Third and Third, the remarkable
Beaux Arts Italianate former headquarters of a stone company? Or more buildings like the Whole Foods that now surrounds it?
To see Gowanus enlivened by real community-level development—of new housing that people who aren’t wealthy people pushed out of more expensive neighborhoods by foreign billionaires could live in; of usable spaces like churches, community centers and arts and educational institutions—would be wonderful, and you wouldn’t want new regulations from people who let nostalgia govern progress to stand in its way. But in reality, all you’re going to see in an unchecked Gowanus is big money coming in to cater to big money: large condo towers and prominent-brand retail that would rob the neighborhood of its sense of place without replacing it with any character of its own. This is the New York Bloomberg has left us.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart