Have I mentioned that our house is a half block uphill from the Gowanus Canal? Growing up, I always lived near the water, so it makes sense I’d buy a house by water. Then again, when I was a kid, water meant the ocean — a little cleaner than this mess of oil, mercury, coal tar, and assorted other contaminents. Still, on a hot summer’s day, you may see folks dipping a hook in the canal. I just hope they don’t eat what they catch. Who knows, maybe they’re not aiming for the fish. In Jonathan Lethem‘s brilliant novel, Motherless Brooklyn, a character describes the Gowanus as “the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns.”
Gowanus was originally home to creeks you could paddle through saltwater marshes. But industrialization hit early: Brooklyn’s first grist mill was built here a good century before the Revolutionary War. By 1869, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had built the mile-and-a-half long industrial canal.
The canal became a hub for commercial shipping and a mecca for manufacturing: stone and coal yards, cement works, tanneries, and factories producing paint, ink, soap, sulfur, and chemical fertilizers — leaving the stinky mess of water and air pollution we love to this day.
Now that all that heavy industry has gone, what’s left is a funky, low-rent, beautiful-ugly back water, hospitable to artists and artisons of all kinds. Rick and I love to walk over on summer evenings and get fresh watermelon lemonade at one of the little bakeries. But things may change. The canal has been named a Super Fund site, and apparently preliminary studies are underway.
I wonder what they’ll decide to do with all the guns?