Thursday, June 16, 2016


"...when you get up in the morning, the sweet aroma of the old Golwanus Canal gets into your nostrils, into your mouth, into your lungs, into everything you do, or think or say!  It gigantic Stink, a symphonic Smell...a vast organ-note of stupefying odor cunningly contribed, compacted, and composted of eighty-seven separate putrefactions..."  

 Thomas Wolfe, "No Door"

Having read that Thomas Wolfe description years ago, I wanted to visit the Gowanus Canal and smell it for myself.  I was a bit disappointed.  I tried to smell it.  I didn't smell it.  Of course, it could have been an unusual day for the canal.  And, I heard they plugged the hold in the sewer pipe that was leaking raw sewage into the cnal (does it flow directly to the harbor now?) and that may have explained the lack of olfactory sensation.

But still, I love a canal.  When I was a kid, I used to spend summer vacations at my grandparents home in Glasgow.  They lived on a hill and down below about half a mile was a canal.  Barges carried goods to and from the ships on the Clyde River.  In the afternoons, the canal glowed like a golden ribbon in the sunlight -- on days when it wasn't raining, of course, but who remembers those days at your grandparents' home.

The Gowanus Canal may not glow golden in the sunlight, but it has those oil patches that glow rainbow colors.

It also has five little bridges that cross it at different points in Brooklyn.  Four of them are bascule bridges
(they lift up) and the one at Carroll Street is a retractable bridge.  I don't know why I find those bridges fascinating and kind of beautiful.  Maybe because traffic has to stop and that makes the City feel a little smaller and kind of quaint.

There are little boats parked along the bank of the canal along with quite a few barges.  That is sort of like the Seine in Paris, but with a lot of junk added.

The best place to see the Gowanus Canal, if you don't want to get too close, is at Smith & 9th Street - for several reasons.  First of all, you can take the "F" train which will give you a really nice view of a lot of Brooklyn as you travel, and it will take you directly to the Smith & 9th station which is the highest subway station in the world.  From the platform, you'll get a low-flying birdseye view of the canal north and south.  And, there's a little bascule bridge at 9th Street where it crosses the canal.  I'm not sure how often that happens.  I only saw it once.

Construction of the canal was begun in 1849 with the purpose of expanding industry in Brooklyn.  Basically, the Gowanus Creek was widened and deepened to allow boats and barges to transport goods in and out of the manufacturing companies that began operating along the bank.  Manufacturing included lead paint, ink,
manufactured gas made from coal, and different types of refineries, including sugar.  For over 150 years, they've dumped - purposefully or accidentally - their leavings and residue into the canal.  Along with mercury, lead, dead bodies in suitcases, and other pollutants, there is now gonorrhea in the canal water.  I can imagine someone saying,  "Let me explain.  I fell into the Gowanus Canal."

On a map, you can find a neighborhood called Gowanus in the region of canal.  I have never heard anyone speak of that neighborhood or claim to live in it.  The Old Stone House (of baseball fame that I wrote about before) and so I was in Gowanus and didn't even know.  I sent no postcards.  That neighborhood is actually where the Dutch first settled in Brooklyn.  There is also a Gowanus Bay at the mouth of the canal in Red Hook.

Gowanus - it's an interesting word.

Post by Alana Cash

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