As you likely have heard, the Gowanus Canal is filthy. Made by man’s own hands in the 1860s, it was designated a Superfund site in 2010, and granted $506 million to fund its cleanup. But before the polluted stew that inhabits the foundation of the canal (called “Black Mayonnaise” and composed of, in part, chips of asbestos, plus some arsenic, copper, lead, and mercury) can be dredged and removed next year, the industrial garbage that’s been dumped into the water over the years has to be plucked out of it first.

This effort, at the Fourth Street turning basin, near Whole Foods, was completed last week, according to DNAinfo. That work took contractors approximately four weeks, as, systematically, they removed debris from the waterway beginning with the largest-sized objects and worked toward the smallest. While there were no invaluable treasures found in the process (rumor had it that the Andrea Doria, a wreck that supposedly contains a large sum of valuables, could have been spotted), there was no shortage of oversized crap to remove: In sum, sonar scans had detected 36 “large objects” that had to be removed from the murky waters. Among them were “two boat wrecks, eight support pilings, a tree, and 25 other items that measured greater than five feet across,” according to both DNAinfo and the Environmental Protection Agency. Plus, said one EPA official, there were “unexpected big boulders,” which, really, sound like the least unsavory junk associated with the Canal since it first became a wet dump.

As the object cleanup progressed, visitors were invited to stop by and watch, for some light and hopefully not that dirty entertainment. That said, it was not all fun and games: visitors had to sign “liability releases,” according to DNAinfo, and listen to a safety briefing “that included instructions on how to flee the site in the event of a sudden fire or chemical spill.”

Those in attendance could feast their eyes on the infamous junk, which had been hosed down with great force and put on display in a cordoned off area labeled, ominously, the “exclusion zone,” accessible by “qualified” workers only. On view at this party were: a boat-cum-pile of crushed fiberglass, old warped metal, and, adding a nice cinematic touch, a bunch of big tires.

But the waterway’s real pièce de résistance, of course, is the black mayonnaise, and contractors—knowing this—did not deprive guests of the pleasure of looking at it. As reported by DNAinfo:

A couple of bus-sized mounds covered in black plastic lurked in the back of the roped-off viewing area. They were samples of the infamous sediment from the depths of the canal, known as “black mayonnaise.” The sludgy sediment had been mixed with concrete and turned into solid chunks so it could be safely trucked away from the site, officials said.

Lest you are sad you missed not just seeing but also smelling the contaminated mayonnaise for yourself, fear not: construction manager Ron Prohaska reported, evocatively, that whiffing some freshly-excavated mayonnaise recalled “decaying material.”

But to repeat, this effort was only a preliminary cleanup step, and will be followed by the removal of 587 cubic yards of that extremely dirty sediment, which will be undertaken by people on barges moving up and down the canal next year.

Which is all marvelous news—at least, will soon turn into marvelous news, in the form of a cleaner waterway—for the residents of the luxury apartments newly and soon-to-be built along the canal. As DNAinfo reports, while the site of said garbage-show is a vacant lot underneath the Smith and Ninth Street Subway, that, too will turn into a 774-unit residential complex, spread throughout eight buildings—and there are rumors of a hotel that could potentially be installed next to it.

So for now, we can know this: If for some reason the cleanup slows but all that development continues, those inside the shiny new towers might not have clean water in their backyards, but—as the EPA has shown us to expect—they’ll at least be given a good show in the meantime.


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