Gowanus. For many old-time South Brooklyn natives, the very name draws a chuckle and a shake of the head. For them, Gowanus isn’t a neighborhood, it’s a canal, and a foul-smelling, gag-inducing one. But that was the old days. Today, it’s the canal, still dirty but no longer the fetid deadwater it was fifty years ago, and the neighborhood covering two blocks on either side of it on the north end and two blocks on the east side further south. And like many other once-written-off areas of Brooklyn, it is fast on the rise, with new businesses, increased residential development (and corresponding rising housing prices), and lots of places to go and things to do.
The Gowanus area in colonial times was a wide saltwater tidal marsh. The Native Americans living there when the Europeans first arrived, the Lenape, sold the area surrounding Gowanus Bay to the Dutch in 1636, and the new owners immediately built several thriving industries in the area, the largest being oyster growing, milling, and farming. The names of the early settlers now grace numerous streets in the area, including Luquer, Denton, Cole, Boerum, and Bergen. The earlier settlers, the Lenape, had a leader named Gouwane, and the Dutch perhaps named the area for him. In any case, the name Gowanus dates from the earliest European settlement of the region.
The area played an important part in the Revolutionary War. During the Battle of Brooklyn, near the Old Stone House a regiment of Maryland troops fended off the British army long enough for the Continental Army to retreat to Manhattan and avoid being destroyed. Many of those Maryland troops are buried in a mass grave next to the FVW post on Ninth Street near Third Avenue, where a wall plaque marks the site. The Old Stone House behind the playground at Fifth Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets is a reconstruction of the original. The commander of those brave Maryland men was William Alexander, whose name is the official moniker of M.S. 51 in the next block across Fourth Street.
In the early 1800s, as Brooklyn grew and industry increased on the Gowanus creek, the need to accommodate large vessels and people to work the docks resulted in the building of the canal and the filling in of the marshland for urbanization of the area. The chosen design for the canal was the cheapest of all those proposed, and the finished waterway was open only at the harbor end, and there was no way to flush the water and keep it clean. Built for its times, the canal soon attracted more industry, and the surrounding new neighborhoods quickly filled with workers and stores. Those neighborhoods were constructed in a way that the sewage from those areas flushed into the canal. That combined with the waste dumpings from the oil refineries, mills, cement factories, and other toxin-producing industries lining the canal quickly fouled the waterway.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, the construction of the BQE/Gowanus Expressway and then the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge obviated the need for water shipping for many of the companies along the canal, and the economic decline in the city during the ‘60s and ‘70s drove many companies away or out of business, and many of the empty spaces were claimed by small-scale artisans and artists for use as studios and small manufacturing. There is a large number of these types of tenancies remaining in the area, and they attract a large contingent of visitors during periodic Open Studio events.
Today, Massive cleanup efforts for the canal are well underway, a flushing tunnel that was first built in the early 1900s has been refurbished and now pumps water from Buttermilk Channel in the harbor into the canal to move the water downstream, on-and-off dredging operations take place, and rezoning has led to residential building once again, this time large apartment complexes like 365 Bond Street, which sits directly on the canal at Second Street, and others along Bond Street and Fourth Avenue. It’s even possible now to go canoeing on the canal, with the reopening of the Gowanus Dredger’s Club launch site at the foot of Second Street on the East side of the canal.
The neighborhood today is garnering attention for its relative low rents in the older buildings, and its growing hip (not hipster) vibe. With the general influx of younger, more affluent residents, support businesses have sprung up faster than one can keep track of. Newcomers such as Taheni, Dinosaur BBQ, Pig Beach, and Ample Hills Ice Cream are all along Union Street, and microbreweries with attached beer gardens flourish on President and Douglass Streets between Third and Fourth Avenues. There’s also Whole Foods at Third Avenue and Third Street. These and many others complement less recent and older, established places such as 2 Toms, Monte’s, Runner and Stone, Little Neck, and the Bell House. There’s plenty to do and plenty to eat and drink. That’s a neighborhood worth living in!