A different kind of heavy metal in the Gowanus Canal

April 20, 2015 By Kathy Willens Associated Press
Event founder, banjo player and folk music promoter Eli Smith tosses a banjo during the fifth annual Brooklyn Folk Festival's Gowanus Banjo Toss, on Sunday in Brooklyn. About two dozen people participated in the annual event. Smith who conceived the event said, "I love the banjo, but sometimes I have the perverse desire to see it thrown into a body of water." AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Several dozen competitors from around the world took turns Sunday hurling a sacrificial banjo into a polluted urban canal to see who could throw it the farthest.

Tyler Frank of St. Louis bested all other male competitors with an 85-foot throw. On the women’s side, Nada Zimmerman of Innsbruck, Austria, tossed the banjo 67 feet into Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. The winners received a new banjo from the event’s sponsor, the Brooklyn Folk Festival.

“This is the only existing throwing banjo on the planet,” said judge Geoff Wiley, holding a well-worn banjo left behind in a folk music venue. A long rope with pre-measured segments is tied around the banjo’s neck so Wiley can retrieve it from the canal. He then measures the distance of each competitor’s toss to determine the winners. Wiley repairs and fortifies the instrument after each year’s competition.

Event founder, banjo player and radio host Eli Smith, who tossed the banjo a personal best 52 feet on Sunday, conceived the event in 2010, although the first competition wasn’t held until the next year.

“The whole concept is absurd, but people have become enthusiastic about it,” Smith said. “I love the banjo, and yet I have a perverse desire to see it thrown into a body of water.”

Once a major transportation route for the then-separate cities of Brooklyn and New York, the Gowanus Canal was home to coal yards, chemical factories and fuel refineries that left behind severely contaminated water. Years of storm runoff discharges, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants turned the Gowanus into one of the nation’s most contaminated waterways. It was named a Superfund site in 2010, meaning the government can force polluters to pay for its restoration.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, contaminants include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics. Sunday’s competition gave new meaning to the term heavy metal.

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