Brooklynite’s new book explores history of Gowanus Canal

Brooklyn BookBeat

October 1, 2015 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
In his new book, Joseph Alexious shares the delightful and little-known history of the Gowanus Canal. Photo by Brad DeCecco
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Earlier this year on Earth Day, environmental activist Christopher Swain did his best breaststroke in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. Swain, who regularly swims in the world’s dirtiest waterways to raise water pollution awareness, decided to mark his cause this year by swimming in the Gowanus, the epically polluted and newly minted Superfund site.

A bath of toxic chemicals, sewage and a heavy concentration of flesh-eating bacteria awaited Swain. Donning a dry suit, swimming cap, goggles, gloves and shoes, and his face slathered in water-resistant oil, Swain spent 40 minutes in the canal and later described the experience as like “swimming into a dirty diaper” and “the water was 50 degrees and tasted like blood, poop, ground-up grass, detergent and gasoline.”

For more than 150 years, the Gowanus Canal has been called a cesspool, an industrial dumping ground and a blemish, but it’s also one of the most important waterways in the history of New York Harbor. Yet its true origins, man-made character and importance to the city have been largely forgotten.

In “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal” (NYU Press, Oct. 9), Brooklynite, author and journalist Joseph Alexiou shares the delightful and little-known history of this small waterway in Brooklyn. Stretching 1.8 miles from the Upper New York Bay northward through the area of South Brooklyn known as Carroll Gardens, the canal began its life as Gowanus Creek, a saltwater estuary surrounded by mile-wide salt marshes where fish, eels and dinner-plate sized oysters made their home.

The creek flowed through a desirable slice of land that was snatched up by the Dutch West India Company in the 1630s. The Dutch farms, ponds and gristmills that lined the creek’s shores were sold, drained and closed by 1853 when the city decided to make the creek a canal to not only serve as a conduit for transporting building materials and commercial goods, but also as an open sewer that collected raw sewage and rain water run-off. The canal ceased operation as an industrial waterway in 1960, but remained a polluted blight to the surrounding community. Multi-million dollar condos, trendy bars and restaurants and even a Whole Foods have sprung up along the canal, which was awarded Superfund status in 2010.

Part urban history, part environmental history, Joseph Alexiou brings the story of the Gowanus Canal and its surrounding community alive. Highlighting the biographies of 19th century real estate moguls like Daniel Richards and Edwin C. Litchfield, Alexiou recalls the forgotten movers and shakers that laid the foundation of modern-day Brooklyn. As he details, the pollution, crime and industry associated with the Gowanus stretch back far earlier than the 20th century, and helped define the culture and unique character of this celebrated borough. The story of the Gowanus Canal, like Brooklyn itself, is a tale of ambition and neglect, bursts of creative energy and an inimitable character that has captured the imaginations of city-lovers around the world.

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Joseph Alexiou is the author of the sixth edition of “Paris for Dummies” and a licensed New York City tour guide. His writing has appeared in the New York Observer, Gothamist and New York Magazine’s Daily Intel. 

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