All Eyes on Gowanus

Reproductions of local artist Regina Perlin’s work appear in The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus: Legacy, Industry, and Artistry.


By Trudy Whitman
Hills & Gardens

They arrived the same day: an email from a friend who knew I had left Brooklyn for a few weeks suggesting I read a July 29 article in the New York Times about the Gowanus Canal, and a postcard invitation to a book party at the Brooklyn Historical Society last week for The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus: Legacy, Industry, and Artistry (Walsworth; $40).

The email was sent by someone familiar with my coverage in this column of the rezoning of the Gowanus Canal corridor as well as of the federal Superfund designation of the waterway, a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and sewage overflow. The invitation was from Regina Perlin, a local artist I have highlighted in the past. Perlin used to be a fixture in Cobble Hill, engaged in painting street scenes and storefronts en plein air. Her recent absence was explained by the postcard — she had moved her easel, brushes, and floppy sun hat southeast, attracted by the odd beauty of the Gowanus neighborhood. Her paintings, as well as those of several other artists and many arresting photographs, are included in the book by Leslie Arlette Boyce and Brian Merlis. Perlin said she finds the Gowanus a “compelling vision” because of how “open skies, flowing waters and quaint bridges” simultaneously mix and conflict with “an aging urban setting” of “water towers, old crates, and discarded rusting objects.”

The New York Times calls The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus a “spellbinding retrospective, punctuated by maps, historic prints and photographs.” According to promotional materials, the book is the first hardcover contemporary text about the canal’s history including “its current state of flux.”

The Times article my friend encouraged me to read is all about that peculiar state of flux. In it journalist Marc Santora discusses New York City’s promise to remediate contaminated land in the environs of the canal, a pledge that had developers licking their chops as Brooklyn property gained value and prestige. But when the Gowanus Canal was designated a Superfund site in 2010, visions of gondolas floating between expensive condominiums lining the shores of the canal quickly evaporated.

“A different kind of development, which had been slowly but surely transforming the neighborhood before developers got interested, is now taking advantage of the halt in large-scale building,” wrote Santora.

Dumbo-like, Gowanus has attracted trendy bars and restaurants, artist co-ops, exercise facilities, designers, and light manufacturing. From all appearances, this interim enterprise is determined to wait out — and maybe even prosper after — the decade or so it will take to clean up the canal.

Meanwhile, the neighborhood awaits the opening of a Whole Foods grocery scheduled to launch next year at Third Avenue and Third Street. And the city, defeated in its campaign to make Superfund go away, continues the renovation of the scary Smith and Ninth Street subway station as well as the replacement of the crippled Gowanus flushing tunnel. As I have reported before, the $140-million flushing tunnel will reduce sewage overflows into the canal by an estimated 34 percent.

Santora concludes that the Gowanus is a big, fat, dirty test case of how a growing urban population confronts and ultimately utilizes sites that have sat for decades as neighborhood embarrassments and environmental conundrums.

If you clean it, perhaps they will come.

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