Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
December 7, 2015 Environment

The Gowanus Canal

The fight for Brooklyn’s coolest Superfund site.


Visitors strolling through Brooklyn’s trendiest neighborhood expect to see fashionable restaurants, art galleries, and pop-up beer gardens. What they don’t expect to find is a widespread celebration of chemical toxicity centered on New York City’s most polluted body of water: the Gowanus Canal. Nearby streets feature murals of postapocalyptic sea creatures; bars have playful names, such as the Gowanus Yacht Club. A filthy marine-themed sculpture adorned with poetry welcomes visitors to “Brooklyn’s Coolest SuperFUNd site.” Boat tours are periodically offered, and restaurants in the area name their cocktails and ice creams to evoke the greenish-oily water and dark mélange of soil and tar at the bottom of the canal. A vibrant cultural scene has fully appropriated a poisonous geographical feature. In 2014 the canal hosted an “immersive” theater production called The Dreary Coast in which a select group of spectators and participants floated down the canal after dark, evoking the mythological journey across the river Styx to the afterlife.

In 2010 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site, a designation reserved for the most chemically contaminated places in the country. Most of these sites, though publicly listed, are consciously kept low-key; landowners and neighbors prefer to avoid publicity.

Ironies abound when it comes to Gowanus: it is a toxic site in one of the richest cities of the world. It’s a decayed 19th-century symbol of industrial progress now facing a 21st-century version of urban progress. Gowanus sits at the intersection of contamination, a real-estate boom, and looming climate change. Industry and water defined the neighborhood from its beginning. In the future will Gowanus be a model, good or bad, for how cities will live with water and pollution?

Condemned Lowlands

In the past New York flourished because of its proximity to ocean and rivers, which became the lifeblood of its commerce. That proximity also offered a greater exposure to the hazards of flooding and disease and, with the increase in population, the “discomforts” of being downstream from others. Residential patterns even before the 19th century reflected an awareness of these hazards. The more desirable places to live were often inland and uphill, in contrast with the lowland waterfronts, considered swamps of the physical and moral corruption associated with ports and inhabited by those near the bottom of the social hierarchy. The growth of sewage systems, railroads, canals, and land-reclamation projects in the 19th century only entrenched these divisions. When the Victorian neighborhoods of what is now Park Slope, Brooklyn, were developed, it was self-evident that the brownstones would be perched on the hillside, while their refuse would flow into the Gowanus Creek marshes at the foot of the hills.

Before the Gowanus was an industrially polluted canal, it was a filthy sewage outlet. As the city grew over the second half of the 19th century, its industries, which would simply bury their waste next to their residential neighbors, faced pressure from locals to relocate. Bad odors produced by these businesses were particularly feared as a cause of disease (at least until the rise of microbial explanations of disease in the 1870s), and so as a matter of public safety the city encouraged industrial relocation to lowland areas, such as Gowanus. And as industry grew, so too did its need for large amounts of water, while the rapidly growing commerce in raw materials and finished products—from molasses to sugar, coal to artificial dyes—depended on water transportation. The swampy creek was gradually converted into a canal surrounded by reclaimed land. In its heyday more than 100 ships moved cargo through the canal every day.

In the early 20th century author H. P. Lovecraft described the busy human landscape of the Gowanus watershed, the notorious Red Hook neighborhood, as a “babel of sound and filth, [which] sends out strange cries to answer the lapping oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.”

The dominant industries along the Gowanus Canal, and the main cause of its contamination, were 19th-century coal-based industries. Several plants along the upper canal took in coal and, using vast quantities of canal water, converted the coal to coke, liquids, and gases. The manufactured gas was a new urban amenity, used for heating, illumination, and powering factory engines. Coke was used in the making of steel and was also converted into gas. Wastewater and coal tars, the less valuable liquid by-products of these processes, were largely dumped into the canal, which was already a steaming stream of sewage and industrial refuse colored reddish-purple from its oily surface and the blood of Brooklyn slaughterhouses.

In the late 19th century, people viewed coal tar mainly as a nuisance for its sheer volume. But in the 21st century, coal tar, now known for its many carcinogens, led to the area’s Superfund designation. Since coal tar is denser than water, a growing layer of it accumulated at the bottom of the canal and permeated the surrounding soil. The nasty colloidal mix of coal tar, filthy water, and soil that lines the bottom of the Gowanus is described, even in technical publications, as “black mayonnaise” and is more than 20 feet deep in some sections. Much of the land along the canal is contaminated by seepage from the water and by industrial activity.


After World War II the areas around the Gowanus Canal declined into a neglected, half-vacant corner of Brooklyn. Sewage pipes continued to dump their overflow into the canal, whose waters were left stationary by the broken pumping station at its upper end. New Yorkers growing up in this era associate Gowanus with the smells of stagnant sewage. The coal-based industries responsible for the majority of the canal’s chemical pollution moved out, leaving vacant buildings and empty lots lining the canal. The blocks immediately around the canal, which remained zoned for industrial use, were increasingly used for materials and scrap storage and large-scale parking. Even the area’s role as part of the city’s port system faded with the transition to container shipping.

After several decades of decline, in the 1980s New York exploded as a uniquely desirable city. The low-cost tenement brownstones and projects directly north of the Gowanus Canal were encircled by some of the most rapidly increasing real-estate prices in the city. Soon New York’s urban professionals, stereotyped as “yuppies” and “bohos,” began to move into the old tenements.

But over the following 30 years the industrially zoned Gowanus neighborhood remained a low-key haven surrounded by the bustle of a revitalized Brooklyn. Creative projects moved in, such as BC Studio, where “industrial” bands, such as Sonic Youth, recorded their albums in the 1980s. BC Studio semisquatted in abandoned, half-flooded buildings as it connected to the New York cultural scene. Proximity played an important role in this juxtaposition of derelict postindustrialism and contemporary culture: the canal is a surprisingly short distance from what were then the elite cultural centers of downtown New York. Gowanus was protected from the city’s real-estate pressures by stench and desolation and exuded an aura of hardcore adventurousness.

Even after the founding of the EPA, the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, and the recognition of the Gowanus Canal as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country, the city preferred to ignore the stinking results of the area’s overburdened stormwater and sewage system. As nearby residents worried about health risks and continued to endure the canal’s unpleasantness, their frustrations grew. At the same time, their appreciation for the polluted canal was growing. The canal’s mid-19th-century origins gave it a pleasingly human scale; its decidedly vintage piers and bridges added to the effect. And on good days it took some effort to smell the canal. Many of the surrounding industrial buildings, often abandoned, were architecturally magnificent, while the desolation itself was a welcome refuge from the overcrowded city around it.

The supercharged real-estate market of the early 2000s, which transformed traditionally working-class sections of northern Brooklyn, did not affect the Gowanus industrial area beyond attracting some of the artists and small-scale manufacturing businesses displaced from other areas. But by the mid-2000s there were plans for high-rise condo units along New York’s other toxic canal, Newtown Creek, which benefits from magnificent views of Manhattan. In the mad market before the subprime crisis, people appeared willing to pay millions to live alongside highly contaminated sites. Crucially, the Bloomberg administration rezoned parts of Newtown Creek to allow for residential use, implying that a cleanup would be done as part of new development.

In fact, the city had proposed a big cleanup in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, so avoiding EPA involvement. The New York City administration, like that in many other cities, was more afraid of a Superfund designation than of toxic substances: the designation carries with it a loss of authority, as the EPA and the state become closely involved in what might otherwise be a city-led process. Also, Superfund sites hold a unique place in American public imagination—think Love Canal—and city administrators, developers, and some neighbors feared the word Superfund would permanently poison neighborhood real-estate prices.

In the end the impending threat of large-scale luxury developments for Newton Creek—and by association, Gowanus, as it was the logical next step for developers—galvanized residents. Between 2006 and 2008 neighbors’ associations, through their congressional representatives and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, formally petitioned the EPA to consider the two canals for Superfund designation.

In the Gowanus area several factors combined to create the petition: frustration with the slow pace of cleanup plans; locals’ increasing appreciation for the natural and built environment surrounding the canal, which had been protected by its toxicity; and resistance to any potential ritzy real-estate developments that might displace the established community.

The Bloomberg administration did its best to oppose a Superfund designation, going as far as promising an alternative cleanup, one quicker and costlier, if only the EPA designation was avoided. In Gowanus the administration raised the stakes by approving a privately funded plan for a grandiose high-rise condo complex, complete with renderings of happy joggers and water taxis on the canal. As time for a final decision approached in 2010, the site’s developer raised the stakes by announcing its plans would be canceled if the Gowanus was declared a Superfund site. Unfortunately for the Bloomberg administration and the developer, the community’s response to the EPA’s proposed designation and cleanup plans was one of overwhelming support, the most positive response in the EPA’s history.

Around this time the semiabandoned industrial area immediately surrounding the canal took off. Music venues, bars, restaurants, climbing walls, salons, and gyms started popping up, benefiting from the area’s location right between the two desirable neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. Newcomers mostly respected the industrial architecture of the neighborhood, though they also competed for space with the small workshops and creative industries that made up its heart. Locals watched events closely; while generally positive about the revitalization, they were fearful that Gowanus’s growing visibility would attract developers.

Ultimately, people believed the neighborhood’s future hung on its Superfund designation. Local organizations, such as the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, geared up for the expected battles between developers and locals.

Embracing a Toxic Identity

In March 2010 the EPA formally designated the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek Superfund sites against the wishes of the Bloomberg administration. As promised, the developers of the high-rise condo project canceled their plans. To local activists this offered the best outcome for the canal’s environmental future and for the preservation of the neighborhood’s character. As the cultural resurgence of the area continued, its toxic identity was openly embraced. New businesses sprouted, many with ironic names, such as “Lavender Lake”—a nickname for the purplish-colored, blood- and oil-infused Gowanus waters from the early 20th century.

In the meantime the EPA’s engineers were walking right into territory filled with high-stakes real-estate developers, hostile city administrators, and politically savvy activists emboldened by their recent successes. But the EPA’s meetings with local community representatives also included artists, small-business owners, elderly residents, and people from the surrounding housing projects; the latter group, while fewer in number, represented a significant portion of residents closest to the canal and who had concerns that extended beyond the contaminated canal itself. The EPA’s cleanup plan, which was released in 2014, would deal with both the canal’s contamination and the area’s sewage problem: city sewage was still released into the canal, and after heavy rains it backed up into the low-lying units of some of the housing projects.

At the same time, the vanquished Goliath of high-rise condo developers turned into a thousand-headed Hydra that quickly adapted to the “toxic” Gowanus. In the summer of 2012 a new developer, the Lightstone Group, took over the canceled high-rise project, modifying it to offer rental apartments, with a portion of them reserved for low-income residents.

Throughout the United States the switch to rental units has now become commonplace in areas of known environmental hazards. While it may be hard to find people willing to buy in such locations, for the right price people will accept an abstract, low-level risk to live for a few years in one of the most convenient and vibrant parts of a city. But in New York the offer of low-cost units was met with ambivalence. It defused some of the gentrification rhetoric that drove much of the opposition to Bloomberg’s plan, but it also drew criticism for deliberately putting low-income residents in harm’s way. Over the next few years the proposed Lightstone development became the focal point of neighborhood discussions on just how residential Gowanus should be.

Eventually the high-rise developers found common cause with representatives of the housing projects and the new de Blasio administration around the issue of affordable housing, overcoming the complaints of groups seeking to keep the area entirely low-rise and primarily industrial. And in the meantime new neighbors were moving in.

Despite opposition, the upscale supermarket chain Whole Foods was building its first location in Brooklyn, right on the edge of the canal. The grocery chain, like other developers, would have to deal with the property’s contaminated soil under a separate Brownfields cleanup framework. By 2012 it was clear that the Gowanus neighborhood, regardless of its flaunted toxicity, had arrived.

Zone A

All groups with a vested interest in the future of Gowanus appear to have come to terms and even embraced the canal’s toxic identity. But another danger lurks in the water, one rarely discussed during the neighborhood’s resurgence: the Gowanus watershed is one of the areas in the city at highest risk for flooding. It lies at the center of a bowl formed by sloping neighborhoods and is directly exposed to high-water surges coming up the canal. Much of the area that people self-identify as Gowanus is at sea level and is classified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as zone A, the highest-risk category for flooding.

Insurance companies charge exorbitant premiums or deny insurance altogether in these designated areas, leaving many potential property buyers and new businesses unable to get loans. But in New York’s housing market some people are always willing to take the risk, especially when a natural catastrophe, such as a hurricane, is rare. By 2011 the Red Hook neighborhood directly downstream from Gowanus was seen as the next Williamsburg (the now gentrified heart of northern Brooklyn) despite being one of the largest continuous expanses of zone A terrain in the city.

But then, in October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit, and ironically named places like the Lavender Lake pub found themselves immersed in Gowanus water.

Red Hook’s complete inundation during the storm, combined with an increased awareness of the neighborhood’s vulnerability, stopped much of the area’s rise to desirability. In Gowanus, however, construction of the Whole Foods market and Lightstone towers, though delayed, continued with modified plans. Once this first round of construction proves its financial success—completion of the Lightstone towers is expected in 2016—other similar residential plans around the canal will likely move ahead, creating more density in floodable (and currently toxic) areas.

The EPA’s Superfund framework was designed in the 1970s to handle focused, environmental toxicity, such as the coal tar at the bottom of the canal. Addressing larger-scale issues, such as flood protection or the effects of climate change, is not part of the agency’s current mandate. Still, as exemplified by the EPA’s plans to prevent the discharge of sewage into the canal and the flooding of nearby buildings, cleanup projects can be enhanced to deal with issues important to local communities. The EPA’s final plans, unveiled in September 2014, take into account the likely increase in the number of storms like Sandy. At the time of writing, New York City is considering its own climate-resilience plan, which includes public works, interventions in the insurance market, tax incentives, and even the buyout of properties in exposed parts of the city that would eventually be returned to nature. However, if the Red Hook waterfront and Gowanus are an example, storm risks and their insurance implications will favor capital-intensive, large-scale rental developments, while driving out the owners of smaller, older properties and their renters.

If anything, the happenings along the Gowanus Canal highlight the unconventional ways in which people interact with environmental hazards.

Early on, radical voices expected the EPA’s long-term goal to be returning the Gowanus neighborhood to lowland marsh, an idyllic natural oasis in the heart of Brooklyn. The engineering reality in the EPA’s plans is quite the opposite. Completely removing the toxic substances that have infused the soils for more than a century is impractical. As with the majority of Superfund sites, the Gowanus cleanup work is designed to contain the toxic layers. Rather than returning the Gowanus to its “natural” state, the work over the next decade will simply isolate the canal waters from the contaminated soils and black mayonnaise. Since the EPA keeps its mandate in perpetuity, these Superfund sites are expected to remain “unnatural” for the foreseeable future. Much of the mid-19th-century charm of the canal may be replaced by the concrete and metal barriers that will form the bottom and sides of the 21st-century Gowanus. As sea levels rise the feasibility of the EPA’s maintenance plan will be tested. For practical purposes people on all sides have no choice but to behave as climate-change agnostics.

The Gowanus Superfund site puts traditional notions of environmental and cultural conservation on their head. It will be a permanent engineering project. It will also be an area filled with highly desirable property subject to zoning regulations that preserve a cultural character that is a result of the city’s neglect. Current recommendations, if implemented, will forcefully maintain the character of Gowanus, guaranteeing that new residential developments are offset by low-income dwellings and spaces that will remain for industrial or manufacturing use. A new zoning designation, the “Gowanus Manufacturing Zone,” has been created to maintain the “industrial” character while impeding the conversion of the old industrial areas to “big-box” retailers, hotels, and other undesirable arrivals. The most recent cause mobilizing (and dividing) community activists is the relocation of Brooklyn’s parole offices to a new building beside the canal, calling into question what the area’s citizens stand for: coexistence in diverse urban spaces or old-fashioned NIMBY-ism in mutant disguise.

What do the patchwork attempts to deal with the separate environmental threats of chemical contamination and climate change mean for the many other Superfund sites that share Gowanus’s topographical risks—the legacy of a centuries-long relationship between industry and low-lying bodies of water? Such sites are expected to flood ever more frequently in the next century, and some may end up permanently underwater.

If anything, the happenings along the Gowanus Canal highlight the unconventional ways in which people interact with environmental hazards. The real-estate market has so far found ways to populate a contaminated, flood-prone watershed, even as millions of New Yorkers participated in the largest ever climate march in September 2014.

The redevelopment of Gowanus may be the framework for new forms of dwelling, high-rent residences superimposed on cheap or unmarketable land. These are places in which individual risk is explicitly traded for the convenience of a desirable location. In 21st-century Gowanus its inhabitants may even embrace an identity as “maritime creatures.”

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