The Gowanus Canal: A neglected and misunderstood waterway

October 23, 2015 By Scott Enman Special to the Brooklyn Eagle
Stagnant water level with low tide sits in the westernmost portion of the Flushing Tunnel, which is the only section without the sewer installed. Photo by Steve Duncan
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At approximately 10 a.m. on Saturday, clean-water advocate Christopher Swain did the unthinkable. He swam the entire length of what is arguably the dirtiest body of water in America: the Gowanus Canal.

Decked out in a vibrant yellow protective diving suit complete with earplugs, waterproof gloves, flippers, goggles and a green swimming cap, Swain emerged slowly into the discolored water as hordes of news crews and disgusted bystanders peered on.

Swain, who has plunged into several dirty waterways, says the purpose of his swims is “to put threatened waterways squarely in the public eye, and to support protection, restoration and education efforts.”

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“They say I’m crazy,” said Swain, “but I think it’s crazy that we let the Gowanus get to this point. We’re the greatest city in the world, and we can’t even clean up a canal.”

Although many viewed Swain’s perilous swim of the 1.8-mile canal as foolish, one thing is for sure: he brought attention to a canal that has long been neglected in the heart of Brooklyn.

That negligence can be seen first-hand by taking one look at the oil-blanketed water or by inhaling the pungent fumes that are emitted on summer afternoons.

Just ask the man whose entire body was below the infamous water.

“The Gowanus Canal is arguably the dirtiest waterway in the country,” said Swain. “It’s home to pathogens, bacteria, viruses, blood-borne pathogens, dog poop, gas, oil from the streets, ‘evidence’ thrown off bridges and the notorious black mayonnaise that lines the bottom.

“I went through a nasty patch of pollen, some brown spots and the rainbow sheen of coal tar, which was disgusting,” he continued. “The biggest thing was the foam, near the Flushing Tunnel.”

That repulsive foam is actually a byproduct of the Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel.

Joseph Alexiou, a journalist, historian and author of “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” explained the source of the foam.

“On particularly polluted days,” said Alexiou, “the movement of the [Flushing Tunnel’s] propellers drums up the pollution and turns it into foam that sits on top of the canal.”

The flushing tunnel, which was built in 1911, is a 12-foot-wide passageway that sits at the head of the canal below Degraw Street in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill, between the Gowanus Canal and the New York Bay.

The Flushing Tunnel was designed to flush the polluted water from the canal into the Buttermilk Channel, the section of New York Bay between Red Hook and Governors Island.

The flushing was successful until the pump broke, causing the canal to become stagnant and contaminated yet again. Then the flow of the tunnel was reversed to bring water from the Buttermilk Channel into the Canal to rinse the canal with clean water again.

Interestingly, the Flushing Tunnel has a sewer pipe installed inside the tunnel. The sewer pipe moves waste from Park Slope and Carroll Gardens toward Red Hook.

Many in the community believe that it’s only a matter of time before the sewer pipe bursts from the millions of tons of water that hit the pipe regularly.

“The Flushing Tunnel,” said Alexiou, “was supposed to make the canal clean again, but it never quite achieved that. What it does do is pull water from the Buttermilk Channel and it oxygenates the water in the canal that is full of chemicals and sewage where there isn’t much pure oxygen. That oxygen in the water allows bacteria and other living things like fish to thrive.”

The chances of finding any creatures larger than fish, however, are slim to none.

In fact, the canal is so inhospitable that in 2007, a baby minke whale named “Sludgie the Whale” that had been found swimming in the mouth of the canal eventually died.

More recently, in January 2013, a dolphin was spotted in the canal’s waters before passing away. Rescue workers at the time had refused to enter the contaminated waters to save the animal.

The canal, however, wasn’t always the eyesore it is today.

“The canal was originally a tidal estuary surrounded by miles of salt marshes,” said Alexiou. “It was a thriving ecosystem that we know as a wetland and it was home to all kinds of animals and things that grow … Eventually, it was used for boats, fishing and oystering by Native Americans, and later, colonists.”

In his book, Alexiou includes a quote describing the lush Gowanus landscape from the perspective of Jasper Danckaerts, a Dutch missionary.

“It was not possible to describe how this bay swarms with fish,” Danckaerts wrote, “both large and small, whales, tunnies and porpoises, whole schools of innumerable other fish, which the eagles and other birds of prey swiftly seize in their talons when the fish come up to the surface.”

Alexiou explained that the Gowanus gradually became polluted over time as Brooklyn developed.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the city decided to drain the fields around the Gowanus and convert the salt-water marshes into usable city lots. Brooklyn started to expand toward Red Hook, which was converted from a collection of islands to filled-in land. The borough would grow around the canal area, which was used for transportation and for dumping sewage and rainwater.

“Early on, sewer pipes that connected toilets, sinks and all the industrial waste that exists in the world were connected directly to the canal,” said Alexiou. “This was known as a combined sewage system.”

According to Alexiou, the only emergency exit for combined sewage overflow was and still is in the canal. As much as 400 million gallons of raw sewage are dumped into the canal every year.

“What happened is that the sewer got connected to the canal and has never been disconnected; and so as early as the 1850s, there were complaints about raw sewage in the canal. And then, by the 1860s, a bunch of industries arrived along the canal and they would dump waste directly into the canal — and that went on from the early 1860s up until World War II.”

In a Ted Talk, Alexiou described the importance of the Gowanus Canal in American History, and, more specifically, the role it played in the Revolutionary War during the Battle of Brooklyn.

“When the British chased the Americans down to the Gowanus Creek… the British stopped,” said Alexiou. “This barrier of the Gowanus allowed the Americans to have a day-and-a-half to organize a daring, dead-in-the-night escape across the East River and allowed the American army to reconstitute so that they could fight another day.

“What if there was no Gowanus creek?” Alexiou rhetorically asked. “No boggy barrier blocking the British? Is it so presumptuous to suggest that if there was no Gowanus Creek we might have been divided and conquered? Is it so ridiculous to suggest without the Gowanus Creek, there would be no America?”

While that notion may be unlikely, what isn’t questionable is the significance of the role that the canal has played for Brooklyn.

“The Gowanus as a body of water is the oldest living piece of New York history that dates back to before the colonial area,” said Alexiou. “The name Gowanus is older than the name New York or New Amsterdam which, was the first name of New York, and it has experienced the entire growth of this country from some of the earliest settlers that arrived here.

“There are not many places in America that can boast that kind of history. We can follow American history by following the things that happened along the canal.”

Alexiou brings to light a shocking contrast involving the canal nowadays.

“As for today, the Gowanus Canal is in one of the densest parts of the country, in New York City between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, which are two of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City — which makes them two of the most expensive neighborhoods in the entire world.

“So, you have this toxic waste site — an open sewer — that you would find in a third world country running through some of the most expensive real estate in the entire world.”

As for the future of the canal, Alexiou and Swain have startlingly different predictions.

Swain, before entering the canal, yelled to the masses, “Someday, this will be a jewel.”

Alexiou provided a bleaker, perhaps more realistic outlook.

“I doubt the canal will ever [be swimmable] in either of our lifetimes unless our technology improves dramatically or we get a huge influx of money to cleanup a pollution that is at a world scale of toxic waste,” said Alexiou.

“It will never be fully swimmable because it will never stop all the raw sewage from flowing into the canal. It will be much safer because it won’t be toxic waste, but you can still catch all kinds of horrible diseases from swimming in sewage like cholera.”

Alexiou, on second thought, revised his statement:

“The canal will be swimmable when they cure cancer.”

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