The Uncommon Life

Not Your Average Waterway

October 21, 2010

When my boyfriend proposed that the two of us canoe through the Gowanus Canal, I was mortified.  The smell!  The filth!  He wanted me to canoe in the troubled body of water that has recently reached an all-time low of being listed as a Superfund National Priority!  Secretly my griping eventually turned into guilt.  Maybe it would be good to get involved, learn the history and see the improvements being made to an area just a few blocks from our home.  Here is our story of canoeing in Brooklyn.

Firstly, for those that don’t know, the Gowanus Canal is a lamented waterway in Brooklyn, NY that once served as a busy cargo transportation hub until the 1950’s.  It has been neglected and misused since then.

Our day began by meeting up with The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club as a part of
Open House New York.  This volunteer organization strives to transform the “dilapidated, historically significant estuary into a self-sustaining, environmentally friendly and healthy waterfront to be enjoyed and treasured by current and future generations.”  We’re in.  Let’s go!  After a brief overview of the canal’s vast history and ending with it’s downfall into an environmental disaster, we were pushed from the shore (or curb) with nothing but two paddles and our urban street smarts.

I was instantly relieved at the sight of a houseboat!  Not too far from where we began, it seemed as if someone has been residing in an old boat in the heart of the canal.  We later came to learn that this was not the case.  Meet Jerko The Gowanus Water Vacuum, a salvaged houseboat that is now a laboratory and showspace for DIY sustainability projects!  This is a truly inspiring story as Jerko is wrapped in a floating wetland ecosystem.  It’s filters “absorb and digest the sewage strewn waters through which it is piloted.”  This remarkable living machine hardly even scrapes the surface of the staggering amount of effort put forth to clean up the canal.

The entire journey was an eye-opening experience from Union Street into the Gowanus Bay.  The sight of a post-industrial dumping ground of waste and sewage.  The rusted ships and overhead passes.  The old broken pipes and the floating garbage.  An unadulterated view into absolute decay.

The closer we got to the bay as the water quality improved, the more I realized that the canal can actually be helped.  Between the volunteers, organizations, new oxygenation tactics, EPA Superfund status, and us – we’ll be able to see that the Gowanus Canal, like many other bodies of water, will continue to see the improvements it deserves.  As of right now, the canal is undergoing a $140 million, four-year cleanup.  I encourage anyone nearby to take the same journey that we did.  Float along the canal, look up and imagine Jason Schwartzman as Jonathan Ames dangling from his ankles.  Or if this suits you better, pretend you are Melvin, take a dip in the canal and emerge as the new Toxic Avenger: Park Slope Superhero.  This could be your last chance at fame before the cleanup begins!

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  • Reply jake October 24, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    Motherless Brooklyn’s author Jonathan Lethem describes it as “the only body of water in the world that is 90 per cent guns”. Find any?

  • Reply Jessica October 26, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    No guns in sight, Jake! I could have fashioned a few from the piles of machine parts on the shoreline though. I have yet to read Motherless Brooklyn, but hope to soon.

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