Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal is Joseph Alexiou’s ode to one of New York’s filthiest waterways. The history buff’s book details over 300 years of Gowanus history, from marshland to high rise.
Brownstoner talked with Alexiou about the origins of his love for the polluted canal, and historic parallels between today’s Brooklyn and that of a century ago.
Brownstoner: What is your book about? Could you give us a brief summary?
Joseph Alexiou: The book is about the story of the Gowanus Canal and its phases from pre-colonial Native American land to one of the most important industrial waterways during the 19th and early 20th century, and then a toxic water site and open sewer. It’s actually been an open sewer since it was dug, basically.
My book is a history of Brooklyn as told through the lens of the Gowanus Canal. It’s the story of how the canal got to be the way it is.
At the end I kind of ask the question of what we’re supposed to do with our post-industrial neighborhoods. Gowanus is a really unique one as far as Superfund sites go. It’s really one of the most compelling Superfund sites in America.
How did you choose this topic, what about the Gowanus first inspired you?
There was a very specific moment when I became interested in Gowanus — when Sludgie the Whale swam into the canal and it was kind of a media meme for the day. This whale in the Gowanus became national news, and people at work were like, “Hey, don’t you live near there?” Even Bloomberg was like, “My thoughts are with the whale.”
I started asking, “What the hell is the Gowanus, why is it so polluted?” As I got into journalism on my own I realized the Gowanus was a great subject for a story, this profoundly polluted canal. It was this intersection of environment and urban planning and real estate because all of a sudden the area went from being derelict to artistic, the new hottest Brooklyn ‘hood. People have been saying this about Gowanus forever and ever, and it’s like, “Honey, it’s been the new hot neighborhood since 2004, depending on how much chutzpah you had to walk through it.”
The whole story of the canal is a New York story from top to bottom.
What surprised you most about your research findings?
I was surprised at how much information there was out there, how deep it goes. How much free research there is in New York.
The other thing that really interested me is Brooklyn during the 1830s. By 1850 it was growing rapidly, faster than Manhattan in some ways. There were these development wars and taxes and the echoes of that struggle are so loud and clear in today’s real estate in New York, especially when it comes to environment and change. So you can use this canal and the dynamics of it to see the history of Brooklyn. It was a really important industrial engine with a strong connection to the city’s growth. I tried to write a biography of this stupid canal.
Did you find any parallels between today’s Gowanus real estate rush and that of the 1860s when Brooklyn was industrializing?
Oh my god, it’s the exact same thing. What you have is these very shortsighted developers who have interest in making money quickly, and there’s these city politicians — some are more savvy than others because they know they have only so much money to fix these problems that are so much bigger than them. You’ve got politicians making misguided decisions of what it means to build on this site which was once basically a swamp, and they make the same mistakes people made 150 years ago. But the difference is 150 years ago people didn’t know any better.
Do you have any predictions for where the Gowanus, and Brooklyn as a whole, will be in the future?
It’s really hard to say. I know the politicians are scared out of their minds because the community is really loud and obnoxious. I do have hopes as far as what will happen. I would say the future is truly cloudy and unclear right now. As I look down on Brooklyn from my window I see nothing but cranes. I see all these really huge developments.
The thing about building around the Barclays Center or within a three-mile radius around Gowanus is the area is a watershed. It’s where water goes when it rains. So if you put up a tower on top of a hill and the bottom of the hill is the Gowanus Canal… I see a lot of problems happening and a lot of interesting things happening and a lot of mistakes will happen, and I really bet you the Trumps will get involved. There’s a Trump connection to Gowanus, among the people that know.
Besides the Gowanus, what do you love about Brooklyn?
I moved here because of the Euro vibe, the proliferation of cheese shops and that kind of thing. I liked that it was cheaper, like so many people. I liked that I got to get off the train after work and it wasn’t as overpowering as Manhattan. I feel like I can breathe more here. I love the history of Brooklyn and its identity, its conception and how it retains that. I love how you can see glimpses of its autonomous past and you can see that in its institutions. Queens doesn’t have that. Brooklyn has not been totally squashed by its municipality.
Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal is being released on October 9. Alexiou will host a book event and reading tour at the Brooklyn Historical Society on October 13 and also plans to set up a table on the Carroll Street Bridge to peddle his wares.
[Photo by Brad DeCecco]