TriBeCa to Gowanus, Brooklyn: The most toxic thing about Gowanus is the new construction--otherwise, it's just about perfect

By Jessica Weiss  | December 20, 2013 - 8:59AM

I honestly believe that our move from TriBeCa to Gowanus happened all because of our dog Ollie. But more about that later. 

I am a painter ( and back in 1979, when my husband and I were looking for a space where we could both live and work, we chose TriBeCa. Needless to say, the TriBeCa of then was nothing like the TriBeCa of now. Back then we pooled our funds with  friends and bought an entire building in the then-gritty, all- industrial neighborhood. Each couple had its own floor--4,000 square feet of raw space--for $50,000. 

We renovated our space for another $40,000 and had a house plus a studio for me and an office for  my husband. We raised our kids in the neighborhood, sent them to great public schools nearby and lived in TriBeCa for a total of 31 years.  

Here’s where the dog comes in. 

I had always wanted a dog and when my two boys left home for college, it seemed like a perfect time to get one. I was the one who walked the dog 98 percent of the time which meant that for the first time I was  walking around my neighborhood two or three times a day.  I got a good, close look at my neighborhood and thought--wow, it’s so busy, so crowded, there’s so much construction, so many limos, so many tourists. Oh my god--how unpleasant! 

I had always thought that we would move one day but never did anything serious about it. I remember, in fact, once being on the subway with a friend who lives in Carroll Gardens. When I got off at my stop on Canal Street and she continued on to Brooklyn,  I thought, for a fleeting minute, “Where is Carroll Gardens anyway and why would anyone want to live there?”

When we started looking at real estate listings, I didn’t know much of anything about Brooklyn neighborhoods. We contacted a broker who seemed to “get us” and understood what we were looking for--how we needed a place to live, a place to paint and a place for my husband to have an office. (He’s the creator of and works at home.)

Everything we saw on our first foray into Brooklyn was in Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene. It was all  too expensive and the places we liked would have needed about $1 million in renovations to meet our requirements.  We figured this just wasn’t going to work out.

Then,  about three weeks later, the same broker contacted us about a property that had just been put on the market--she thought it would work for us --  located at the corner of First Street and Bond Street, a block from the canal.

Since we trusted her judgement, we went out to see it on a rainy day. The brick building, built around the turn of the century, once had a social club on the ground floor. When we saw it, it had been renovated by folks who had lived there for ten years and had reconfigured it into three separate apartments with an attached garage space.

We liked the way the renovation had been done--there was a beautiful studio in the garage with a lovely deck over it--but it was all just too dark. We had  skylights in every room in our TriBeCa space and light is very, very important to us.

We liked it enough, though, to go back on a brighter day and that’s when we decided it was a go. We put our Tribeca space on the market and it sold in two weeks--that was three  years ago. The shedding of 30 plus years of possessions was an incredible job  but freeing at the same time. 

We moved in to our house just at the border of Carroll Gardens and Gowanus. (I consider that we live in Gowanus since we are just one block from the infamous canal which is now a Superfund site.) I honestly have more health concerns about the toxins that are in the earth at the construction site across from my house than with the toxins in the canal.

Weiss appreciates the space she has which gives her room to paint. Above, "Party Animal," Acrylic on Canvas, 28x22.

For about eight months we lived in one little room while two of our three floors were being renovated. During that time, our dog Ollie died at five from lymphoma. I am absolutely convinced that he came into our life to get us to move. To me he was like an angel who came, helped us to make the move and then went on to another life. 

Let me tell you what the people are like in this neighborhood: When we first arrived, there was a huge snowstorm. We could barely open our front door, we were stranded  for three days. Snow was piled three feet in front of our door. When we dug our way out, the snow was up to our thighs, the street was unplowed and our car was buried. We felt stranded and it was scary.

By the time superstorm Sandy came, we knew everyone and everyone was knocking on our door offering help and comfort. (We had toxic water in the basement--a pretty awful experience.)

What have we done to prepare for another Sandy-like storm? Not all that much. The city suggest filling in the ground floor. We won't do that. We have the supplies we need--batteries, flashlights and we're considering buying a generator. 

My block of First Street is very mixed--there are Italian families who have lived here forever, interracial couples, Muslim families, lesbian couples--all really nice people. 

When people ask me if I miss the shops in TriBeCa I answer nope, not at all. When we first moved to TriBeCa there was absolutely no place to buy groceries, no cleaners or any other amenity.  By the time we left there was a Whole Foods but it was still a long walk (and I’m not a fan). I used Fresh Direct most of the time. There are no local restaurants that I miss, no local shops that I’m nostalgic about. 

Here I can walk three blocks to Smith and Court Streets to pick up Italian goodies at Caputo’s or pastry at Monteleone’s Bakery. We usually cook our own meals but when we do go out, we like Al di la on Fifth Street in Park Slope and  Buttermilk Channel or Cafe Cubana on Smith Street. Everything is less expensive here--not a huge difference--but less expensive nonetheless. 

Another piece created in Gowanus by Weiss: "Friends," Silkscreen and acrylic on canvas, 50x42

The F train is what connects our neighborhood with Manhattan but honestly, we don’t go to Manhattan very often. I find it to be too busy, too noisy, too touristy. I like it here. We have a curb cut in front of our house so we park right outside. You can’t imagine how great that is.  

We’re happy here but I am very worried about the proposed development of the block across from me. I am not against all new development but I think that some is just not appropriate. I like  looking at the abandoned warehouses across from me. I know that that’s not everyone’s taste but I don’t think that a large rental complex is the right answer. 

What is being proposed now is a 12- story building with 700 units that spans two blocks and will have studios that face the toxic canal renting for $3,000. It’s so out of character with our block of brownstones. And the F train station is already overcrowded.

After having lived through our own renovations, I dread the possible construction noise and the traffic that this new development will bring. We’ve joined with our neighbors who have organized to fight this new development (  I know it will be a difficult fight but I do hope we succeed. 

Transitions highlights New Yorkers’ first impressions as they transition from one neighborhood to another. Want to tell us your transition story? Drop us an email.

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