Six To Celebrate- Gowanus

Linda Mariano is the voice of preservation in her neighborhood of Gowanus. Linda is the co-founder of a local non-profit which centers on community preservation and has been successful in receiving two grants in the past year, one from the National Trust and the other from the Preservation Fund for New York City that will foster continued preservation efforts. With these funds, a survey of the area will be possible for the purpose of getting listed on the National Register as an urban industrial district. Linda co-founded FROGG (Friends & Residents of Greater Gowanus) in 2004 and the organization serves as the community’s voice in the midst of developers, the EPA and other large entities that have a stake in Gowanus. Gowanus has been determined a Superfund site, which could mean large-scale redevelopment in the area. The FROGGs work to ensure that growth is appropriate and mediated and that the character of the neighborhood is not diminished. Linda was instrumental in “saving” at least one building in her neighborhood, and she keeps a close watch on her blocks.

History of Gowanus

The Gowanus community is centered around the Gowanus Canal and is predominantly comprised of historic industrial architecture directly related to the canal. This area is located between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, and is considered part of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront. The canal itself is 2.5 miles long, 100 feet wide, and stretches from Gowanus Bay in New York Harbor to Douglass Street. The structures that line and surround the canal are generally six stories or less, lending a low-scale, nineteenth century industrial character. This area continues to be mixed-use manufacturing with periphery residential enclaves.

Before the Gowanus Canal, there was Gowanus Creek. By 1840, industry had penetrated Brooklyn and the creek was drained and straightened for barge access to New York Harbor. After years of stymies and deliberation, in 1866, New York State officially approved plans for the completion of the Gowanus Canal. The City of Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Improvement Company worked collectively to complete the canal and its infrastructure such as docks, basins, and bridges by 1869.

The canal became the center of industrial growth in Brooklyn, and by 1880, there were 31 firms operating lumber, coal, hay, grain,oil, and building materials along the canal. By 1890, these industries expanded to include gas and electric utilities which required coal and coke, whose largest customer was the Brooklyn Rapid Transit — a new company in 1896. Industrial development spurred residential housing surrounding the canal basin for canal workers, mostly of Irish and, later, Italian descent.

The Gowanus Canal was most heavily used between 1900 and1930. As industry and traffic increased, so did pollution. A flush tunnel was incorporated into the canal in 1911 in efforts to mitigate the heavy pollution caused by industry. Regardless, after World War I the Gowanus was the busiest — and most polluted — canal in the United States. The canal’s peak was in the 1920s, with an annual rate of 25,000 vessels per year, with over 50 different manufacturers using the canal for transportation. By comparison, the canal currently only hosts 1,000 vessels annually.

After World War II, use of the Gowanus Canal significantly declined. A completed urban environment after the war decreased the demand for building materials which was a major industry of the canal. A declining use of coal as an energy source also adversely affected business. Further, the completion of the Gowanus Expressway in 1964 supplanted water transportation. Subsequently, active waterway sites at Gowanus decreased by 50% during this time period.

The Gowanus Canal was the center of industrial growth in Brooklyn, and is one of the most spectacular pieces of industrial infrastructure in New York City. The canal was the impetus of the transformation of rural Brooklyn to industrial giant in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, the main canal remains completely intact, and over two-thirds of its walls are timber and date to its initial construction. The design and materials of this waterway are exceptional, extant examples of nineteenth century engineering and construction. Additionally, vestiges of industry dot the banks of the water, with much surviving vernacular workers’ housing surviving as well. The Gowanus Canal and pollution have always been synonymous and in 2010 the area was designated as a Superfund Site. Over a century of pollution will be cleaned up, which will likely spur reinvestment in the area. Gentrification is already evident and some out-of-scale and out-of-context structures have been built. To protect this mammoth industrial relic and neighborhood, the local community, through a non-profit FROGG is currently working to place the Gowanus Canal Corridor on the National Registerof Historic Places so that its urban industrial character is preserved.

~Written by Kelly Carroll~

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