Chief Sleep and the Stinky Canal: How Gowanus Got Its Name

Barges float along the Canal and pass under the Culver Viaduct, 1935. Photo by Seymour "Zee" Zolotorofe via The Sixth Borough

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Brownstoner takes on Brooklyn history in Nabe Names, a series of briefs on the origins and surprising stories of neighborhood nomenclature.

Despite the oily presence of its Superfund namesake — the severely polluted Gowanus Canal — this once-industrial neighborhood has experienced a residential renaissance, thanks in part to the nearby sky-high property values of Park Slope.

Quirky mom-and-pop museums and pastry shops abound in Gowanus, as well as recent corporate developments like the Whole Foods Market at 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue. High-rise condo towers are sprouting along a not-long-ago upzoned 4th Avenue, replacing auto-body shops and other blue-collar businesses.

gowanus canal

The Gowanus Canal and the Culver Viaduct, January 21, 1978. Photo by Dinanda Nooney

The nabe and its eponymous canal are thought to be named after a long-passed resident and Native American chief, the Canarsee sachem Gouwane. The late leader’s name is often translated as “sleep” or “the sleeper.”

A separate theory purports that the neighborhood was named for the Dutch word gouwee, meaning bay.

Today, Gowanus is a confluence of industrial relics and chic new retail stores. The formerly ubiquitous smell of eggs that wafted from the canal has been greatly diminished in recent years, yet the industrial aura remains, if lesser than before.

gowanus canal

Canoes under the Culver Viaduct in 2013. Photo by Hannah Frishberg

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