Out of tragedy comes comedy—at least it does in the best possible scenarios. And such is the case with Brooklyn’s favorite tragicomic waterway, the Gowanus Canal, which has inspired a souvenir shop that’s just a hop, skip, and a whiff away from the toxic superfund site.
The Gownanus Souvenir Shop, run by residents Ute Zimmermann and Joel Beck, will have a soft-opening this weekend and sell Canal-inspired gifts and art, made by more than 30 local makers-of-all things. Zimmerman says the objects, literature, and art are not only an homage to the canal’s present fetid iteration, but also to its actually very rich and diverse history: the pristine condition in which it, by all accounts, came into this world; early colonial enterprise; the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War that the canal was, in part, host to; big industry; the dumping of a very different kind by local mafia members; and the current era of hawkish real estate speculation.
The space has a museum-plus-giftshop-like feel, and you enter it at the end of a classic box-strewn alley just off Nevins Street—this despite its Union Street address. Zimmermann says for the past ten years it had been a non-profits arts organization. At one point the owners told her a postcard featuring the Gowanus Canal was their best seller and, as Zimmermann tells us, “In that moment I’m like, ‘Ding!’ In the last four years the canal [has] become a tourist destination, so let’s have fun with this.”
The souvenir shop is a for profit business but Zimmermann’s focus is supporting local artists, and she plans to host fundraisers for area non-profits. And, what’s that? You need a T-shirt? A water bottle? A jaunty cap? You can get one of these items at the Souvenir Shop from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, who will get one hundred percent of the profits. (You can also get a lot of stuff that won’t benefit the Conservancy, like Canal comic books and Battle of Brooklyn boats made from garbage, which are also pretty cool.)
Eventually, Zimmermann plans to host a Halloween party and something fantastic called a Miss Gowanus Contest (which really used to exist, we are thrilled to hear). The reigning queen will be the lady or man with the most unappealing sea-monster getup. Possibilities for thematic events, Zimmermann points out, are endless.
Her favorite gift on offer? “I love the flask–it’s custom made for us and says, ‘If you dare, pick your poison.'” Due to the history of casket-makers in the area, the flask pictures a casket with two dates: 1849, when the canal was built, and 2016, when the intensive cleanup process of its dirtiest foundation–“black mayonnaise” composed in part of asbestos chips, arsenic, copper, lead and mercury–begins.
With all the smells, ill-advised swims, and disclosures of poison and disease found in the canal, someone had to break the tragic tension and build a business based upon its inherent comedy. So thank you, Zimmerman for doing so. We look forward to all the laughs and non-toxic gifts.
Gowanus Souvenir Shop, 543 Union Street (entrance on Nevins Street, down the Alley), is open Thursdays and Fridays from 3pm – 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays, from noon to 8pm.