Gowanus at a Turning Point

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As an early phase of the Gowanus Canal cleanup begins, longtime residents and new arrivals alike are looking ahead and weighing costs and benefits

The Gowanus Canal is filthy—famously so. It’s thick with 150 years worth of coal tar, sewage, heavy metals, and more. You can smell it from any street nearby, especially after it rains. And if you stand on the roof of 365 Bond Street, you can look over the edge, right down at the black, oily water.

That’s what Brad Vogel was doing on a recent Saturday. The 33-year old attorney had just returned from a last minute trip to New Orleans, and he was wearing what looked like a few days’ worth of stubble. His gray T-shirt and jeans matched the thick clouds and the industrial palette of the neighborhood below.     

Vogel and his boyfriend moved into 365 Bond St. a year ago. It was a compromise between their respective tastes. Vogel, who worked in historic preservation for several years in New Orleans, likes his surroundings old, industrial, gritty. He was drawn to Gowanus, with its history of manufacturing still visible on most streets. His boyfriend, on the other hand, wasn’t thrilled about Gowanus, but wanted to live in a new building with modern amenities, such as “landscaped rooftop terraces with sundecks and BBQs, a world-class fitness center with yoga and spin studios, library and club room with fireplaces” and more—all of which 365 Bond St. has, according to a press release announcing the building’s opening to renters. So that’s how Vogel found himself here, on this landscaped rooftop terrace, gazing admiringly at one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

“It’s an island,” Vogel said of 365 Bond. The 12-story luxury building sits in a relatively low-lying neighborhood that wears its industrial past unselfconsciously, for the most part, and still has its share of manufacturing. And it’s true: 365 Bond—the first residential development on the canal itself, which opened to renters in March 2016 (to be followed by 363 Bond, its luxury cousin next door)—does stand out. At least for now.

But with developers sitting on real estate all over Gowanus, waiting for it to be rezoned, some people are wondering how long it’ll be before you can stand up here, look around, and see landscaped rooftop terrace after landscaped rooftop terrace. How long will it be until Gowanus is unrecognizable? And who will get to live there?

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Linda Mariano is standing by the canal, trying to talk to a large man in a neon yellow vest and yellow helmet, who is leaning over the railing. He walks away, apparently annoyed. “You’re getting paid to do this job—so tell me what you’re doing for your job,” Linda says, when the man is almost out of earshot.

She’s dressed in all black—pants, long-sleeved shirt, and sandals—and a Nikon camera hangs around her neck. Her graying brown hair is pulled back in a bun, loose strands blowing in the wind and falling over her face.

It’s almost noon on Wednesday, October 5th, and several workers are on a barge, guiding a loading hopper into place in the canal’s 4th Street turning basin, next to the Whole Foods parking lot. The barge, which reads POSEIDON: 866-99 BARGE, on the side, is outfitted with a yellow Komatsu excavator, and moves slowly through the dark water. It’s the first day of preparation for a pilot dredging of the turning basin, a preliminary step in the long-awaited Superfund cleanup of the canal.

The federal Superfund program is the result of a 1980 law directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify the most toxic places in America and remove hazardous materials, so they’re no longer a danger. The Gowanus is one of some 1,300 active Superfund sites around the country, including another in NYC—the similarly polluted Newtown Creek, which runs between Brooklyn and Queens and contains about 30 million gallons of oil, as well as some water.  

When the Gowanus was chosen for Superfund designation in March 2010 (a few months after the Newtown was), it was partly thanks to lobbying by Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG), a group Mariano cofounded in 2002. FROGG began as a campaign to save a single building, 460 Union St., known as the Green Building, a Civil War-era structure. A developer had applied for a zoning variance from the Board of Standards and Appeals, in order to knock down the Green Building and build condos. “And I went berserk,” says Mariano. “I said ‘This is not going to happen.’ And I went door to door with a petition against tearing down the building.” The board eventually denied the variance, and Mariano says the people who joined in on that first campaign are still working together today, to “help our neighborhood be as good as it can be.”

There’s some activity on the barge. A worker in a neon yellow T-shirt, shades on top of his head, climbs into the excavator and plants himself in the seat. Arms on the armrests, Gatorade bottle wedged in a cushion, he could almost be watching the Jets game in his living room, if it weren’t for the rumble and black smoke of the machinery, and the unmistakable stench of the Gowanus at low tide. He shifts a lever down and the machine swivels toward the far side of the canal, lowering its orange bucket into the water. A long moment later, the bucket emerges full of sludge and debris, black water running over the sides, and deposits its payload in the hopper barge.

“I love this machinery stuff,” Mariano says. “It’s like looking at dinosaurs.” That aesthetic bent explains her devotion to the neighborhood as well. “I’m partial to industrial areas”, she says. “I think that’s what made this country. People made things that people could use. They fed their families.” Gesturing to a long conveyor at the Ferrara Brothers cement factory across the canal, she says: “That’s what you see here. Some of these companies have been here for several generations.”

Mariano herself has been in Gowanus since 1974. When she and her husband bought their house, for $10,000, it was a real fixer-upper. For one thing, Mariano says, it had no windows. She laughs and recalls that when her father-in-law first came over, he walked around the house screaming “You morons! You morons! You morons!” But Mariano and her husband stayed put and restored the house.

And, like that house, Mariano saw beauty and potential even in the ultimate fixer-upper: a canal that has long been synonymous with filth and ruin. “It’s the 21st century,” she says. “I think we deserve clean water.”

As the excavator submerges in the water again, Mariano waves to a trio walking over whose passion for a clean Gowanus she says rivals or exceeds her own. Brian Carr is an attorney with the EPA; Natalie Loney, a Community Involvement Coordinator; and Christos Tsiamis, the project manager overseeing the cleanup. There’s an air of excitement (mixing with the fumes)—a sense of achievement at seeing a step of the cleanup physically begin. “Who would’ve thought we would see this day?” Loney says. “Pinch me,” answers Mariano, and Loney playfully obliges.  

In a black polo shirt, buttoned all the way up and tucked into her blue jeans, and with long dreadlocks falling down her back and and over her shoulders, Loney watches the workers on the barge and takes stock of the Superfund project. She mentions the Newtown Creek cleanup, which is in an earlier phase, and says the Gowanus work, by comparison, has moved quite fast, from planning to this first step of remediation. “It’s been breakneck,” she says, snapping her fingers for emphasis.

Tsiamis is looking through his shades at the body of water he’s labored over for years now. He’s wearing khakis and a bright blue polo shirt, with a backpack slung over his right shoulder. “This is preparation work,” the Greek-born chemical engineer says. He’s a little frustrated—though it hardly shows—by a misleading press release that went out earlier in the week without his approval, and led to some reports that the pilot cleanup itself was beginning. First, he says, they have to dig out sediment on the sides of the canal, and fortify the bulkhead walls—which is why they’re starting now, at low tide. Then the pilot can begin.

The EPA team is careful about giving definitive dates, but it’s clear the whole cleanup will take years. During that  time Gowanus will be noisier and smellier than residents are accustomed to, if the work today is any indication. When it’s all done, however, the water will be clean…ish. As Loney explained in a 2014 Tedx presentation, the canal will always remain a Superfund site, with continued monitoring, because the ground along it is contaminated as well, and will leach toxins long after the work is done. And skepticism remains about the city’s ability to manage the sewage that continues to flow into the canal.

But with a cleaner waterway on the horizon, and developers eager to build more luxury towers like 365 Bond, the future of Gowanus is ultimately a matter of zoning and city planning. Mariano, for one, opposed the construction of 365 Bond to begin with, and recalls the “big old beautiful warehouses” that occupied the lot previously. Pointing at the tower that rose in their place, she says the zoning variance to build it should have never been granted. “You can thank de Blasio for that,” she adds.  

In the face of what she sees as politicians’ coziness with the real estate industry, Mariano plans to continue fighting to preserve the neighborhood’s character—its infamous stench notwithstanding. Whether that preservation can extend to affordability is an open question. As rents go up, residents who aren’t homeowners get priced out, which is unfortunate, Mariano says, but a “natural phenomenon.”

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Some of those residents, however, are digging in for a fight, against a City Hall whose housing policy they say leaves tenants and small businesses behind. In a report published in March, the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice laid out a blueprint for Gowanus that details what is needed, in their view, for the neighborhood to thrive. That includes revising the standards for affordable housing, strengthening protections for renters, and improving conditions in public housing; addressing what they describe as de facto school segregation and discriminatory policing and “ensuring that the influx of newer, whiter and wealthier residents does not result in the over-policing of the existing community”; and planning for the consequences of climate change, given the neighborhood’s vulnerability in a high-risk flood zone.

The Coalition—comprised of local advocacy groups including the Fifth Avenue Committee, the Gowanus Alliance, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, along with resident associations of the neighborhood’s three public housing projects, and some local church groups—contends that when it comes to rezoning, “privileged voices and real estate interests hold disproportionate power.” Linda Mariano shares that view. “Money speaks,” she says. “Money, corruption, and greed.”

With big changes looming for Gowanus, the Coalition is demanding that longtime residents have a role in the planning. “The Gowanus neighborhood is slated for significant land use actions and public investment by the City of New York that will change our community and impact surrounding neighborhoods for decades to come,” the group says in its report. “These changes have the potential to address long-standing challenges and problems in our neighborhood or to significantly increase the displacement of longterm residents and businesses and deepen existing inequality.”

Most everyone with a stake in Gowanus—homeowners, renters, and developers alike—has at least one goal in common: a clean, usable canal. But the Coalition wants to make sure that a better, cleaner version of their neighborhood is still one they can afford. “No community should be expected to tolerate a rezoning that fails to address issues of displacement and other critical needs of the people that already live there,” the report says. In other words, these residents envision a Gowanus that is not only livable, but in which they can live.

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Brad Vogel is sitting on a brown leather couch in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment in 365 Bond, against floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the empty lot across 2nd Street. The room is framed by two overflowing bookcases and a shelf displaying, among other things, a small brown globe and an accordion (his great-grandfather’s), which Vogel used to busk with in Madison. In the bedroom there are photos of the couple, and, above the bed, a gold-accented, Pollock-esque diptych that Vogel’s boyfriend painted.

Vogel says that if other prospective new-arrivals are wary of Gowanus, as his boyfriend was, it ultimately won’t dissuade them from moving here. “In a city where people are looking for some shred of authenticity,” he says, “as dangerous and weird as the canal may be, it is… authentic.”

For his part, Vogel has dived headfirst into Gowanus, attending meetings of the EPA’s Community Advisory Group for the neighborhood, among other civic groups. He’s an active member of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, a volunteer-run group aiming to bring attention to the canal through recreation, to help people envision it as a usable body of water. After 15 years operating out of a shipping container, the club has gotten a proper headquarters—on the ground floor of 365 Bond. Vogel, who sometimes leads early-morning tours with the club, says that when it comes to the waterfront, Lightstone, the company behind 365 Bond, set an example that other developers would do well to follow—to “have some aspect of your building that is married to the local landscape.”  

But for all his enthusiasm for Gowanus, Vogel isn’t exactly married to it either. He and his boyfriend have just signed a one-year lease, and while there was an option to sign for longer, he says they’re still at a time in their lives and careers where if they got a job offer somewhere else, they’d consider it.

Looking out the window towards the gray industrial zone and, across the canal, the shoppers filing in and out of the Whole Foods parking lot, Vogel considers the future of his adopted neighborhood, and what type of development he’d like to see. “It’s nuanced,” he says. “If there’s nothing historic or of distinctive neighborhood character on a lot, I don’t think developing that lot is a bad thing.” But, Vogel says: “Whatever you do, we want this neighborhood to be distinctive.”

 

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One Response to “Gowanus at a Turning Point”

  1. Margaret Maugenest
    October 30, 2017 at 12:35 PM #

    Great article. For Gowanus to remain distinctive it cannot follow the example of the Lightstone Project which now towers over it. It has no soul. It’s a sterile, cold, impersonal environment that hovers…and threatens….Please let it not be an example of more to come. Remember the mantra: Gowanus is in a flood zone, a hurricane evacuation route. Dense development there is dangerous and inappropriate.

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