Curiouser and Curiouser: Gowanus, Brooklyn’s Curious Canal


Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal
by Joseph Alexiou
(New York University Press)
Have you heard a waterway hiss? Have you seen solid poo break asunder and dissolve? No? Well, then: Walk down Brooklyn’s Bond Street, turn onto Douglass, and stop—please—at the water’s edge. That stench that stanks, that fizzling miasma, is the Gowanus Canal, the notoriously toxic channel of chemicals, sludge, rotting mammals and, reportedly, even some actual H2O. It is also, despite all appearances, one of the most storied bodies of water in the country.

In Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal, Joseph Alexiou handles this complicated waterway’s history with admirable finesse, dogged research, and an enthusiasm as infectious as his subject. Alexiou tracks the canal’s development from a meandering creek surrounded by a saltwater marsh, known all over the American colonies for its delectable oysters, to its current state as a federally designated Superfund site described recently, by a masochistic environmentalist who actually took his body and put it in the thing, as tasting like “blood, poop, ground-up grass, detergent and gasoline.”

Reading Alexiou, it’s hard not to see how the waters of the Gowanus have reflected back to the city as a whole—and now the borough of Brooklyn specifically—images of itself in its successive stages of life. Fine poetry it would be to suggest here that if you look deeply enough into the Gowanus you can still see the Brooklyn that once was—Dutch farmers and their slaves, hundreds of Continental soldiers dying in the swamps during the Battle of Brooklyn, barges full of goods and no-goodniks from the Erie Canal, coalyards, tartar-sauce factories, gas-works, maniacal street battles between Irish and Italian gangs, young Al Capone (who grew up two blocks away) dropping his very first bodies—but I have no interest in being brought up on manslaughter charges should you accidentally tumble in. Rather than the murky green depths, get a cup of coffee at the canal-adjacent Whole Foods (and, ahem, a tiny cheesecake; they’re only $3.50 and so cute!), take a seat outside, and dive into Alexiou’s book.

The canal transformed from its first iteration as a creek, not at once, but gradually over time, as individual property-owners decided to drain their land and construct walls to keep the water away. Eventually, in the middle of the 19th century, Brooklyn’s largest property owner, Edwin C. Litchfield (of Prospect Park’s Litchfield Villa fame), organized a public commission of what we now call “influentials” to smooth out the hills leading upland west of the waterway (now Park Slope) and to finish the work of canalizing the channel, thereby allowing businesses along its banks—several of which Litchfield himself owned or controlled—to move freight more cheaply and regularly. Not incidentally, draining the marshlands surrounding the channel allowed Litchfield to develop his massive land-holdings into residential subdivisions, where, it seems safe to say, a goodly portion of you, this magazine’s readership, now abides.

Though Alexiou, whose only previous book is the sixth edition of Paris for Dummies, has an endearing tendency to wander far beyond the canal and even the recognized boundaries of the neighborhood that bears its name—and let’s not even address the issues with what those boundaries are; most of the book takes place in the BQE-bisected area that a friend of mine charmingly calls Anus-Hook—Alexiou always brings the narrative back to the “large, open sewer” denounced by a local medical journal in 1876.

“The battle for Gowanus is hardly ended,” reads the epilogue. “It remains the subject of great debate over ownership, authenticity, and the future of American cities and their post-industrial spaces.” Even if it hasn’t been of much commercial importance in almost a century, the Gowanus undoubtedly remains one of the most interesting places in New York City today, and, in Alexiou, it has chosen its biographer well.

All the more unfortunate, then, that the book is marred on almost every page by proof-reading errors that could have been caught by any average fourth grader promised a jelly bean for each corrected mistake. It detracts not in the slightest from the value of Alexiou’s book, which deserves a readership coterminous with the watershed whose history it so engagingly describes, to suggest that its copy editor be taken to the end of Douglass Street and vaulted, without protective-wear or ceremony, into the Gowanus Canal.


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