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.
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.
“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.
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 is now on view at the Brooklyn Public Library.
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