Close-Up on Gowanus, Brooklyn


Gowanus, the industrial district surrounding the Gowanus Canal, has long been the ugly stepsister to next-door Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, and Park Slope. The canal itself was notorious as an alleged Mafia dumping ground and a communal latrine; locals sardonically dubbed its putrid and polluted waters “Perfume Creek” and “Lavender Lake.” And yet from the late 19th century until the mid 20th century, the canal was a crucial link to Red Hook’s port, with industry thriving on its banks.

The name Gowanus is thought to derive either from Gowane, a Canarsee tribe leader, or the Dutch word for bay, gouwee. The Gowanus Canal was built in 1848 to join Red Hook’s port to the interior of Brooklyn. Barges carried sandstone and lumber down the waterway, bringing in the raw materials for the stately brownstones of Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, and Cobble Hill. These neighborhoods gave back to the Gowanus, piping raw sewage from houses directly into the water. According to local lore, if you ran down to the canal after using a bathroom in Carroll Gardens, you could see your feces entering the stream.

In 1911, the city built a flushing tunnel to suck the contaminated water out. The system broke down in the early ’60s, and the following years were dark ones for the Gowanus. The shipping industry in Red Hook died, leaving abandoned warehouses—and yes, that smell—to define the canal and its surrounding environs.

In the past decade, however, community activists and artists have started to reinvent Gowanus. After extended lobbying, they got the city to repair the flushing tunnel, and the water is now significantly less contaminated than it was. Since 1999, the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club has been leading canoe expeditions on the canal, helping to justify some boosters’ dreams of Gowanus becoming “Brooklyn’s Venice.” Artists, meanwhile, have been colonizing the abandoned warehouses, creating apartments, galleries, and performance spaces.

The consequence was all but inevitable: Developers are now circling Gowanus, eyeing the possibilities of a place once left for dead. A Holiday Inn Express now stands on Union Street between Third and Fourth avenues, and a Comfort Inn is rising on Butler Street between Nevins and Third. A Whole Foods is being built on Third Avenue and 3rd Street. Most apartments—aside from the towering Gowanus Houses on Bond Street—are tucked into little buildings on the neighborhood’s avenues and side streets.

Residential developers have been stymied by industrial zoning regulations, but there are rumors that the Department of City Planning will soon change the neighborhood’s designation. Will “Brooklyn’s Venice” become the next Williamsburg? If so, will you be cool enough to say you remember it before all the suits moved in? As a Gowanus old-timer will tell you, when it comes to gentrification, if you smelt it, you probably dealt it.

Boundaries: Roughly from Butler Street to the Gowanus Expressway and east of Fourth Avenue to Smith and Hoyt streets

Mass Transit:: F, G, M, and R subway lines

Average Rent: Studios and one-bedrooms: $950-$1,500; two-bedrooms: $1,600-$2,000; three-bedrooms: $2,100-$2,600.

Main Drags: The heart of Gowanus is, naturally, the Gowanus Canal. Crossing the canal’s bridges at 9 Street, 3rd Street, Carroll Street, and Union Street will give you views of the deserted factories and old industrial signs that line its embankment. The Carroll Street Bridge is landmarked; it’s one of only four remaining retractile bridges in the country.

Cultural Institutions:: The Proteus Gowanus and Claireware pottery store are top destinations, both located in a converted factory at Union and Nevins. Farther north at 168 7th Street, the Brooklyn Artists Gym offers communal studio space. The (Issue Project Room has transformed an old silo into a performing arts venue at 400 Carroll Street.

Hangouts and Parks: These are in short supply in Gowanus, but community groups are calling for abandoned sites along the canal to be made into public spaces.

Restaurants and Bars: For a time-warp dining experience, check out Monte’s Venetian Room, which opened in 1906 and claims to be the oldest Italian restaurant in New York. For desert you can go to Sweet Melissa at 296 Bond Street. Wet your whistle at the Canal Bar at 270 Third Avenue or, during the summer, at the Gowanus Yacht Club on Smith Street.

Crime: Crime was down last year in the 76th Precinct, which covers most of Gowanus. In 2006, there were no murders, down from four in 2005; eight rapes, up from three; 133 robberies, down from 149; and 85 assaults, down from 98.

Politicians: City Councilwoman Sara M. Gonzalez, State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and U.S. Representative Yvette D. Clarke, all Democrats