Confessions of a Neighborhood Blogger

Gowanus Your Face Off: Looking beyond the open sewer to a promising neighborhood

By Julie Inzanti  | August 7, 2013 - 8:57AM

Gowanus Your Face Off --the subject of this edition of Confessions of a Neighborhood Blogger--was founded almost five years ago by Ben Aufill, a producer and designer who has lived in the area since 2008.  

Gowanus -- in case you don't know -- is a neighborhood in Brooklyn that wraps around the Gowanus Canal between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

The Gowanus Canal, according to the EPA, has become one of the most, "extensively contaminated water bodies." But even that terrifying news doesn't stop New Yorkers from creating a community in an otherwise uninhabitable area.

Aufill's blog focuses on the local happenings of the Gowanus neighborhood, including updates about businesses, retail, manufacturing--and pretty much anything having to do with the Canal.

1. What would you tell someone moving in?

What would I tell them? I'd first ask if they were informed about the Gowanus Canal. Specifically if they were aware that the Gowanus Canal is still an open sewer, where recently this summer, the Gowanus Canal exceeded the maximum measurable sewage pollution and that this sewage issue has been going on for over 100 years. I'd make sure they knew that the canal is a Super Fund (meaning very polluted) site and contains metals, volatile organic compounds, petroleum related compounds, PCBs, pesticides, and heavy metals.

[Above] A sign near the Gowanus Canal warning of untreated sewage discharges into the canal during or following rainfall.

If they were aware of these thing then I'd tell them about the great local businesses that can actually produce items because they don't have to spend an arm and leg on rent.

2. Where are the best deals in the neighborhood in terms of real estate? What about in terms of dining/entertainment?

Gowanus prices have gone through the roof and no one should consider paying tons of money to live next to a polluted waterway.[Ed.'s note: According to StreetEasy, the median rent in Gowanus is $3,200 per month.]

Up away from the Canal are several amazing places to eat and/or drink: Runner & Stone, Fletchers, Cotta Bene, Canal Bar, Halyard Bar, Lucey's Lounge, and Four & Twenty Blackbirds, and more!

3. What's the most coveted location within the neighborhood to live?

The neighborhood is too small to have a specified coveted place. I'd stay away from the Canal.

[Above] It's not every day you get to race boats on a Superfund site.

4. Is there a dream building in the neighborhood?

The coolest building, which you actually can't go in yet, is the abandoned Central Power Station of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit aka the Bat Cave. It has huge rooms with amazing graffiti and really speaks to the cool industrial grittiness of the neighborhood.

The other building is the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company building, which is at 3rd Ave & 3rd Street. Up until Whole Foods began building in the area, the building sat abandoned and alone. Many people thought that it was a old house because of its ornate design, but the truth is it was just an office building.

5. Any buildings that feel out of place with the feel of the neighborhood?

At the moment there are no out of place building except some of the condos on the Carroll Gardens side of the Canal, on 3rd Avenue near Bond. They just don't look like the  industrial backdrop that gives Gowanus its charm. I assume the Whole Foods building when it is complete... but the Whole Foods isn't finished, so I don't know if they are going with their typical design, which would look very strange next to a polluted canal.

6. Any real estate related controversy brewing or currently happening in the neighborhood?

Yes, there are lots of real estate related controversies brewing. Mostly in and around the Gowanus Canal where people are buying places along the polluted Gowanus Canal in the hopes of having huge condos. Clean-up by the EPA will take more than a little bit of time and the Super Fund declaration by the EPA actually sent Toll Brothers running from their very large investment along the Canal.

7. How was the neighborhood  impacted by Hurricane Sandy and how has the neigjborhood recovered?

During Sandy the Gowanus Canal breached its banks, which was a shock to those who had lived in the area for generations. Bond Street and 2nd Ave were filled with water and streets connected to Gowanus bridges on the Park Slope side experienced flooding, some all the way to 4th avenue.

Specifically the entire area where the Whole Foods is currently being built now was filled with several feet of water. There were many reports of basements filling in the area.

What was particularly bad (and will be bad in the future) is the dirty water that came out of the Canal left dangerous chemicals behind in first floors of businesses along the Canal.

These chemicals will not go away anytime soon. It's a wonder why people would build along the Canal. You can expect leftover chemical waste and sewage to fill the first floor of Whole Foods during the next superstorm, since there is no protective wall  planned around the store at this time.

The neighborhood has been extremely resilient after the storm, although many businesses simply never moved back into their spaces along the Canal. Like all of NYC, we have made do. 

8. How has the neighborhood changed in the past five years? Any projections on how it will change in the next five?

The population has increased dramatically. There use to be no one on the streets during the day, but now there are tons of people. The places away from the canal, like Brooklyn Robot Foundry, Film Biz Recycling, Twig Terrariums, Cut Brooklyn, and Brooklyn Boulder are super happening.

[Above] Third Avenue in Gowanus.

9. What do you think your "sister" neighborhood might be?

Gowanus is really the bastard step child of old South Brooklyn (Gowanus, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, and Cobble Hill). It is the last of these neighborhoods to be bombarded by real estate. The industrial natural of Gowanus has really kept this neighborhood from turning into another over popularized neighborhood... it still has so much gritty charm!

10. Which neighborhood feels like the opposite of your neighborhood?

Any place in Manhattan. 

Well, any super rich neighborhood in Manhattan is the opposite of Gowanus.

Gowanus has that old Brooklyn feel. We are the heart of the old industrial spirit, that Brooklyn do-or-die  hardworking, blue-collar, tight family-focused neighborhood. 

11. Would you stay in this neighborhood forever if you could?

No, I can't stay here forever. There is currently no test done on humans in the area, so it is unclear if the gasoline smell or the sewage smell that perforates from the canal is harmful to someone over time. What is known is that the PCBs (and most likely pesticides) cause cancer in animals. So one would assume they are in risk of cancer when living right next to the canal because of what it contains.

12. If not, where would you want to go?

I think it's hard to say where I would go in New York. I'd stay in Brooklyn, but not sure where cause everything costs way too much for no reason other than the exploitation of a large population. 

New York is known for its higher cost of living, but this higher cost of living in regards to rent has been less extreme in the outer boroughs such as Brooklyn until recently.

During the last 10-15 years the mass movement into areas like Brooklyn have pushed families and artist farther and farther away from the shore lines of Brooklyn.

Rich, middle class, and poor, use to live side by side in the city that never sleeps, but now the gap between the top and the bottom is so large that when the rich move in, the rest are forced out.

This shift is happening at the moment in Gowanus. It has happened before, but past attempts in gentrification have failed because of the health issues with the Canal, but now because of the Superfund, which indicates the Canal will be cleaned at some point, real estate is moving in to grab land, so that when the Canal is 'clean', they can build giant condos and charge whatever they wish.

13. What is one of the biggest misconceptions about the neighborhood?

That hipsters roam the streets like in Williamsburg. People in Gowanus that have an interesting look have always had that look, and are not aware of trends or fads.... they just look that way.

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