A Photographer Finds Natural Beauty in the Putrid Gowanus Canal

Gowanus_Wild_'Spring_Tangle'The 1.8 mile-long Gowanus Canal is infamous for being one of the smelliest and most polluted waterways in America. In 2010, the EPA deemed it a Superfund site, one that will cost an estimated half billion dollars to clean up. Despite this, wildlife somehow manages to thrive in its arsenic- and sewage-laden carcinogenic ooze. In his series “Gowanus Wild,” photographer Miska Draskoczy captures the unlikely natural beauty hiding in this site of urban decay. 

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Draskoczy, who lives on the border of Gowanus and Park Slope, has been shooting his neighborhood for three years, and the result is a visual record of the rapid urbanization that’s transformed the neighborhood in that time. (Whole Foods and condominium developments have cropped up since the canal cleanup was proposed.) “When I started shooting in 2012, I didn’t feel like I was setting out to capture a historical record,” Draskoczy says. “But then in early 2014, as I was winding down shooting, gentrification in Gowanus began to accelerate dramatically, to the point now where many of the scenes I shot no longer exist.” Nearly every element captured in the photograph “Sailboat,” for example, has changed since it was shot: The Whole Foods’ parking lot is now on the left side of the frame, complete with windmills and a promenade; the longstanding concrete silos in the background were torn down and a new controversial parole center built in their place; and the sailboat has been moved to a new location because of all the new construction.

Gowanus_Wild_'Sailboat'

“I was always struck by how eerie and empty the streets felt at night when walking around the neighborhood,” Draskoczy says. “I wanted to capture a bit of this wilderness, all the random bits of trash and empty, decaying cityscape. Then I started to notice there was actual nature running through many of the photos; vegetation, the canal, animal life.” He set out to consciously capture how nature and urban decay “oppose and compliment each other in a kind of hybrid ecosystem.” In his photographs, many of which seem to give off a radioactive glow, a white egret perches on a tree overlooking the water underneath a Lowe’s sign; red-leafed vines climb over a graffitied brick wall.

Gowanus_Wild_'Moon_Dock'

Like many Brooklynites, Draskoczy has mixed feelings about the speed at which the borough is changing. “People talk about capturing things like the rainforest before it’s all cut down, and I think about how this can apply paradoxically to a wild urban space as well,”Draskoczy says. “I can’t in good conscience argue that we should preserve contaminated industrial environments, but on the other hand I have a hard time identifying with the unchecked march of development across Brooklyn. I don’t think new and clean is necessarily better or means progress. There is something important psychologically about having access to wilderness, the untamed.”

Gowanus_Wild_'Street_Jungle'
Gowanus_Wild_'Red_Piers'

Gowanus_Wild_'Hanging_Garden'

Gowanus_Wild_'Sunflower'
Gowanus_Wild_'Red_Vines'
Gowanus_Wild_'Egret'

Gowanus Wild is now on view at the Brooklyn Public Library. 

Follow Carey Dunne on Twitter @CareyDunne

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