The Gowanus neighborhood was originally a tidal inlet of small creeks in the original saltwater marshland of South Brooklyn. These marshes and meadows teemed with fish and other wildlife and early settlers named it "Gowanes Creek" after chief Gowanes, leader of the local tribe of Native American Canarsees, the Algonquin-speaking Delaware Native American who lived and farmed on the rich shorelines. Both Henry Hudson and Giovanni da Verrazano navigated the inlet and a critical portion of the Battle of Brooklyn was fought nearby, when American troops fought off the redcoats long enough to allow George Washington to retreat.
In 1636 the Dutch made initial purchase near Gowanus Bay and three years later, the earliest recorded real estate sale was made between settlers: land for a tobacco plantation. In the 1600s, many Dutch farmers, who settled along the banks fished for the large, succulent oysters and shipped them by barrel back to Europe, making Gowanus oysters Brooklyn's first export. The creek was close to sea level and the six-foot tides of the bay forced salt water up into its meandering course to create a brackish mix of water that was ideal for the bivalves. By the middle of the 19th century, the City of Brooklyn was the fastest growing city in America and had incorporated the creek and farmland into the larger urban fabric. A linear village had been established along the shore/Gowanus road that paralleled the east shore of Gowanus Bay.
As the need for navigational and docking facilities in the burgeoning port of New York City grew, in 1849 the New York State Legislature authorized the construction of the Gowanus Canal (completed in the late 1860s). Despite its relatively short two-mile length, the Gowanus Canal soon became a hub of Brooklyn's maritime and commercial activity. Factories and residential communities sprang up because of its construction. In fact, much of the brownstone quarried in New Jersey and the upper Hudson were placed on barges and shipped through the canal to create what we now refer to as "Brownstone Brooklyn".
The Gowanus Canal became one of Brooklyn's key locations for concentrating heavy industry, including coal gas manufacturing plants, oil refineries, machine shops, chemical plants, a cement maker, a sulfur producer, a soap maker and a tannery. The growth of this industrial corridor along the banks of the Gowanus Canal ushered in new land speculation in the first part of the Twentieth century. Large working class residential areas, populated for the most part by families of Irish and Scandinavian decent, were developed around the industrial core. The neighborhoods of South Brooklyn were growing at a remarkable rate, with as many as 700 new buildings a year. These new buildings required a sewer connection that ended up discharging raw sewage into the Gowanus Canal. By the turn of the century, the combination of industrial pollutants and runoff from the storm water and the new sewage system had rendered the waterway a repository of rank odors, known to residents as "Lavender Lake".
With property values increasing from the expanding residential neighborhood, the noxious problem of the Canal had to be addressed. The solution was to circulate the stagnant water in the Canal with a pumping station, constructed in 1911. A tunnel was constructed connecting the head of the Canal at Butler Street straight east to the Buttermilk Channel. The 12-foot diameter brick-lined tunnel stretched 6,280 feet, four times the distance between the Brooklyn Bridge towers. An enormous ship's propeller was to push the putrid waters out of the inland end of the Gowanus Canal and expel them into the relatively cleaner waters of the harbor. For Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, June 21,1911 was a glorious day. The Flushing tunnel was activated as 350 dignitaries applauded from a barge as a young woman tossed red carnations on the still water.The Gowanus/Brooklyn-Queens Expressway led to the eventual decline of the Gowanus Canal. The construction marked the beginning of truck distribution and in 1955 the Army Corps of Engineers gave up the regular dredging of the Canal as no longer cost effective. New York's loss of industrial jobs during this period was evident on the Canal and by the late 1970s it was estimated that over 50% of the property in Gowanus was unused and derelict. The Gowanus Canal had outlived its usefulness. The final blow to the canal happened in 1961 when the flushing station broke and was abandoned for the next thirty-seven years.
The seventies ushered in a new sense of urbanism in South Brooklyn. The "Brownstone Revival" drew the middle class back from the suburbs to the neighborhoods of the Gowanus. This movement was combined with a new appreciation for environmental issues that continue to be the driving force for reviving the Gowanus Canal today. These efforts have resulted in the Red Hook Wastewater Treatment Facility's construction and in 1989 raw sewage was no longer flushed directly into the Gowanus Canal. However, on almost every rainy day, much of New York's sewage runs untreated, combined with street water runoff, into the surrounding waters, the Gowanus Canal included. Although the flushing pump is now circulating the water through a tunnel, there is limited current in the Canal and at low tide, the summer stench at low tide can be quite pungent.
According to the Department of Environmental Protection's original 1982 plans, the flushing pump was scheduled to be activated in 1988. Due to bureaucratic delays, the equipment was repaired in the spring of 1999. The new pump can flush between 200 and 300 million gallons of oxygenated water through the Canal each day. In other words, the entire volume of water is replaced six times daily. The reactivation of the flushing tunnel has reduced the smell long associated with the area. Geese, egrets, horseshoe crabs, blue crabs, fiddler crabs, baby flounder, shrimp, mussels, killifish, and jellyfish have decided to join the canoes, kayaks, and others enjoying the emerging waterfront neighborhood. Although the condition of the water in the canal has radically improved recently, the underlying sediment which hasn't been dredged since 1975 remains contaminated. Fortunately, funds are being raised, mostly citing the fact that people are canoeing the waterway, and the future may bring significant water quality improvements.
In 1999, Assemblywoman Joan Millman allocated $100,000 to the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC) to produce and distribute a bulkhead study and public access document. The following year, GCCDC procured $270,000 from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to construct three street end public open spaces along the Gowanus Canal through the city’s Green Street program. An additional $270,000 was funded by Governor Pataki to create a revitalization plan in 2001 and then allocated $100,000 of capital funds in 2002 to implement a pilot project on the shoreline. In 2003, Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez allocated an additional $225,000 to create a comprehensive community development plan. In 2002 the US Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) entered into a cost-sharing agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to collaborate on a $5 million Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study of the Gowanus Canal, studying possible alternatives for ecosystem restoration such as dredging and wetland and habitat restoration. The DEP also initiated the Gowanus Canal Use and Standards Attainment project which aims to improve water quality in accordance with the community’s goals for the canal's future use.
In 2008, the State of New York requested the waterway be added to the National Priorities List (NPL) in part, because developers had intentions to remediate and reuse shoreline properties. The City argued that if the Gowanus Canal was added to the list, the waterway would not qualify to receive restoration funds made available by the NY & NJ Harbor Deepening Navigation Project. The City also argued that they could implement the remediation faster than the timeline promised by the EPA who promised to complete the project by 2019. The example cited was the LA River, where the State of California elected to withdraw their nomination request to the EPA and instead, allow the City to obtain Federal funding for a work plan to be completed with local resources. New York State ignored the City's request and on March 2, 2010, the EPA designated the Canal to be a federal Superfund site under CERCLA and placed the property on the CERCLA National Priorities List (NPL). Concerns raised at the time that the EPA had no intention to reduce the Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) problem that discharges contaminants from streets, roofs and sewer pipes into our waterways during most rainfall events were dismissed by the EPA.
Fortunately, the EPA modified their stance and agreed to include a requirement for infrastructure improvements by the City to avoid CSO discharge during up to 85% of annual rain events that occur 30-50 times annually. In short, after the project is completed, in a best-case scenario, contaminants will discharge to Canal waters 5 times each year. The City is obligated to construct such a facility by 2028 but the EPA announced dredging will commence in 2017. It is unknown how much recontamination will occur during the decade between the two projects.
According to the Final Scope of Work and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the existing zoning regulations and associated current patterns and trends applicable to the Head End Site, the Owls Head Site, and the study areas are assumed to remain in place in the 2028 analysis year. The appendix to the City's January 2016 Gowanus Storm Surge Mitigation Report includes many potential development sites that are not included in the DEIS document describing the DEP facilities and proposed Land Use actions. In September of 2017, the EPA revealed the Potentially Responsible Parties that are being pursued to finance the mitigation effort but no details were provided regarding settlements, what properties are included and the EPA has not updated or disclosed any justification for the $506M estimate that was forecast in 2008.
At a public meeting where the EPA was to present details of the pilot 4th Street dredging project, the only project details revealed was that the work was delayed over a month and that the EPA would not construct the canal shorelines in compliance with the 2015 CAG resolution. The resolution recommended that contiguous steel or wooden bulkheads would not be compatible with the community's vision for the future beneficial use of the cleaned waterfront. The EPA representative's response when the safety concern over potential drowning was raised was "Don't Fall in".
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club supports the allocation of additional funding for capital projects to improve safe access and use of the Gowanus Canal and to someday completely stop the continued pollution of our estuary. We vow to support and expand maritime and recreational uses while concurrently working to restore this once neglected Canal back to the oyster-supporting waterway the Canarsie Native Americans once enjoyed.
However, on rainy days, combined sewage and rainwater overflow into the canal, dilapidated bulkheads and properties need to be repaired and discussions on the future of the neighborhood continue. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club asks that you get involved and help us address these issues. We invite you to paddle with us to see the industrial shoreline and the five unique bridges of the Canal, and experience a estuary being restored.