Gowanus Canal: Super Fun Superfund Site

In South Brooklyn, open-air dance parties are occuring this summer in a place where people perhaps least expect to encounter fun — the banks of the toxic Superfund Gowanus Canal. The summer event space, Bklyn Yard, hosts DJs, provides drinks and food, and offers play areas for kids, writes The New York Times. Meanwhile, the clean-up of the toxic canal zone is expected to take more than a decade and cost between $300 and $500 million.

The Gowanus “micro-neigborhood,” surrounded by Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Park Slope is filled with “half-empty warehouses and semi-derelict factories,” post-industrial scenes that give the area a “special cultural edge, like a miniature Baltimore or Detroit.” Except, in this case, The New York Times writes, terrifying pollution is substituted for crime. Still, the site attracts many locals: Jennifer Prediger, a producer of environmental videos, said: “There’s no place in Brooklyn, or in New York City, that feels kind of more pleasant than being right here, which is odd given that that is a toxic waterway. But it’s actually quite lovely. It’s the loveliest toxic waterway I’ve ever spent time on.”

The anything-goes, partially derelict area provides opportunity for creative minds — David Belt, a local architect, recently converted dumpsters into swimming pools in a Gowanus lot (see above). He also created, “Glassphemy!”, an installation that enables visitors to hurl glass bottles at each other. Belt said: “There’s kind of the feeling that you can still discover something special, that you’re using your own aesthetic to interpret. Everything isn’t, you know, a condo with a silly name.”

Superfund designation for the area means that the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) will take over the clean-up from the city. The E.P.A.-led clean-up will largely focus on the canal and toxic soils, but not the sewage overflow problem, which is at the root of the water pollution problem. Right now, sewage from the neighborhood runs directly into the canal. The city is responsible for addressing this issue and has plans that will deal with some 34 percent of the runoff. However, until the sewage issue is dealt with, the water will continue to be a flowing “toilet bowl,” making more high-end residential development along the canal unlikely.

Locals hope the Superfund clean-up will catalyze eventual redevelopment of the neighborhood. Artists “priced out of the East Village” are already moving to the neighborhood. There is also demand for more funky retail space, affordable offices, residential housing, as well as accessible event space. As an example, the old Jewish Press building, an “enormous, disused, nearly windowless structure” could become a theatre.  However, there’s also fear that once the site is cleaned-up, the city and developers will create high-end housing, pushing artists out of the neighborhood in the process.

While the water in the canal was once diagnosed to have high levels of gonnorhea, this hasn’t kept locals from providing free canoe tours. One canoe tour operator said: “We saw some oil slicks, we saw some beer bottles floating. We saw a wineglass floating, which was pretty fantastic. Somebody had a great time! It’s amazing how the industrial space becomes grown over with all this green that refuses to be held back.”

Read the article and see a slideshow of the area.  

Also, check out the temporary oxygenation system in the canal, which pulls cleaner water from the head of the canal, “supersaturates it with dissolved oxygen,” and then pumps it back into the canal using 2,500-foot-long pipes.

Image credit: (1) Anthony Clune (artist) / Flickr  (2) The New York Times

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