Go-Go-Go Gowanus!

Why is someone trying to mess up the filthiest place on Earth?

By Jim Knipfel

If I had to choose one New York landmark, one place in the city above all others I would insist any tourist from Ohio or Louisiana visit, it wouldn’t be the Empire State Building, ground Zero, or even Coney Island (not anymore, anyway). Nope, it would be the Gowanus Canal.

First constructed in the late 19th century as massive factories began cropping up on the shores surrounding New York Harbor, the 1.8 mile-long industrial waterway courses south through west-central Brooklyn, just a few short blocks from smug and affluent Park Slope. Today it’s a fanciful bubbling stew of factory runoff, oil, heavy metals, assorted other toxins, and my personal favorite, Combined Sewage Overflow. In recent decades it’s come to be hailed the world over as The Most Polluted Body of Water in America (woo-hoo!)

The Gowanus has become a richly fabled place, with strange tales of mysterious lights at night and packs of wild dogs prowling the shores. The occasional wayward dolphin will find its confused way into the canal but, well, they never last long. This past year an environmental activist attempted to make a point by swimming the length of the canal, but we haven’t heard anything from him in a while. In the late ’90s scientists reported discovering signs of life in the black toxic sludge at the bottom, but added the emerging life forms were “nothing Nature intended.” Every few years the city promises they’re going to take drastic action to finally clean up the federal Superfund site—even releasing artist renderings of the charming parks and picnic areas they planned to build along the shores—but thank goodness they haven’t gotten around to it yet.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I love the Gowanus, or how many happy hours I’ve spent staring into its fetid, iridescent green almost-water. To me, it’s not only a place of astounding and unearthly beauty, it’s a symbol, the last gloriously, untouchably filthy thing in New York.

But just like Giuliani selling off Times Square to Disney and Adidas, and Bloomberg after him selling off the rest of the city to any major international corporation that wanted the chance to turn NYC into a suburb of Des Moines, it seems some heinous fiend now has a plan to destroy my beloved Gowanus.

With funding from the city, landscape architect Susannah C. Drake is presently creating something she’s calling (and has since trademarked) Sponge Park. Scheduled to open next spring, the 2100-square-foot patch of green will be located along the banks of the canal near where it dead ends at 2nd Street. With a foundation of soil, sand, and pebbles combined with flood-resistant plants like sedge grass, asters, and Rosa rugosa, the little park has essentially been bioengineered to soak up and hold much of the chemicals, oil, dog shit and other toxins that mix with rainwater during any heavy downpour before flowing straight into the Gowanus. If her plan works, if Sponge Park really does effectively strain the runoff, easing the stress on the city’s already overburdened sewage treatment plants, there are already plans to build similar parks at several other locations throughout the five boroughs. But the Gowanus is the real test.

Yeah, I’ll give it a couple years, because here’s the thing. Sponge Park will do nothing to clean up the canal as it stands—it’s purpose is simply preventing things from getting, um, “worse.” And in a couple years time, considering we’ll be dealing with soil and plant life alike infused with oil, shit, piss, and assorted other unknown chemicals, that pretty little park is gonna smell something lovely. Especially on those warm, humid summer days.

So maybe I overreacted when I first heard the news. In time, Sponge Park may well become the perfect place to spend a few relaxing hours taking in all the charms and beauty industrial decay has to offer. Maybe I’ll even bring a little picnic.

Published December 24th, 2015

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.