Sunday, September 18, 2011

All (or at least a lot) about Gowanus!

Whew! Hardly a free moment for good old-fashioned longhand blogging any more! I've been thinking I should spare a few words for that enigmatic Brooklyn netherworld known as "Gowanus." Home to the famous (or, um, infamous) Gowanus Canal -- sometimes quaintly called the Gowanus Creek Canal. So -- here you have it: all about the Gowanus, sort of.

You might ask, "Really? there was a creek there once upon a time?"

Yes, indeedy their truly was!

The immediate source for most of my facts is that wonderful virtual cribsheet, Wikipedia. Since you can easily just go read the article yourself, I won't bother with many of the details contained therein. Since I've had the privilege and honor of residing within a few blocks of the canal for many a year now, I feel uniquely qualified to abstract the good bits and present them for you here. Let's start at the beginning.

Before there was a city, there was Salt Marsh and the natural drainage (i.e., the creek) from the Brooklyn uplands. While the present urban, built environment may mask this, the observant will see signs of it all around. It's not for nothing that the Gowanus area is zoned, for Hurricane/flood evacuation purposes, A, B and C. Fifth Avenue in Park Slope is more or less the boundary of flood evacuation zone C, and the slope of Park Slope continues upward from there. The area does indeed flood easily, as I've observed over the years.

So, when early intrepid folk such as Henry Hudson and old man Verrazano made their way into New York Harbor, what we call Gowanus was a teaming marshland, inhabited and fished by a tribe of the Lenape Indians, the Canarsee.

The Dutch were the first Europeans to settle around the Marsh, and early on they named the creek the Gowanese, after Gouwane, a leader of the Canarsee.

The historical record tells us that the first gristmill on the creek was built in 1645, with more soon to follow.

Probably only shortly before the British took over (1664), the enterprising Dutch petitioned their governor for permission to dredge a canal, and thus began the long history of human manipulation of this landscape.

In or around 1700, one Nicholas Vechte built a stone farmhouse in the vicinity, and this house played some small part in the American revolutionary war, to wit: it provided cover sufficient to allow George Washington and most (but, alas, not all) of his men to run (and swim) for their lives across the marsh to Brooklyn Heights, then to Manhattan (they used boats for that part) and thence upstate. We don't often like to consider that the first true battle of the war (after the Declaration of Independence) was a complete rout. But at least George and his men lived to fight another day.

Apparently the "old stone house" was destroyed about 1897. Where it now sits, in the middle of JJ Byrne Park, reconstructed in the 30s, is the site of Washington Park, former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, until about 1891. Washington Park took up the land bounded by 3rd Street, 5th Avenue, 5th Street and 4th Avenue. Apparently the house was moved when rebuilt; otherwise, it would have been in the middle of the ballfield, wouldn't it?

The Dodgers had a second Washington Park, even closer to the Gowanus Canal: between 3rd and 1st Streets, and 3rd and 4th Avenues (Catty-corner from the first Washington Park). They played there from 1898 until 1913, when they moved to Ebbets Field. All that remains of this piece of baseball history is part of wall on long the 3rd Avenue side of what is now a Con Edison facility.

Anyway, back to the canal.

As Brooklyn and New York City grew by leaps and bounds, the Gowanus Canal district became a hub of shipping, water transport and manufacture. The inevitable result of all this activity was pollution -- lots of it. In 2010, the canal was declared a "Superfund" site, much to the chagrin of would-be developers and city officials. Of course, it seems inevitable that the canal will be developed, but I, for one, don't mind seeing it slowed down a bit. As that wise sage the Lorax once said, "Sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!" Besides we all know that few will benefit from this development besides that mysterious class of slash-and-burn opportunists known as "Developers" (with a capital 'D').

(A picture of the canal from the Carroll Street bridge on the morning of Hurricane Irene (August 28, 2011). Everyone just had to go down there and see if it had flooded. It hadn't, quite.)

In the meantime, much is happening in the Gowanus! Especially art! It is presently a happening hub of hip art and culture.

So you must mark your calendars and plan on visiting the Gowanus for this year's Gowanus Studio Tours (aka AGAST), Saturday and Sunday, October 15 and 16, from noon to 6pm. Many great artists and studios will be opening their doors, such as yours truly (me!), at Brooklyn Artists Gym on 7th Street.

There will also be a salon show at BAG, with an opening on Saturday, Oct. 15. I'll have a piece in that show as well. See you by the canal soon!

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