The Canal of My Youth...I'm Holding My Breath!

My personal experience with the Gowanus Canal growing up next door to it and its current condition.

“Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end.” 
Much has changed in our neighborhood in the past 20 years. Those of us who were born and raised here (in South Brooklyn/Red Hook/Carroll Gardens/BOCOCA, or whatever demands more rent or that meets Assemblyman Jeffries' approval) are nostalgic for things like  Grandmas keeping block watch from their windowsills, Catholic School children in uniforms, Italian street feasts, softball games at 32s, The Surpriseshop and now rice-balls from Joe’s.
Contemplating the loss of childhood joys, I was jolted yesterday by an unpleasant memory: the smell in the 1980s of the Gowanus Canal on a hot day! Twenty years had suddenly disappeared with the stifling stench. Back then visitors would question, “How could you live here with that smell?”  No one went down to the canal for the romantic experience of industrial Gowanus back then.  You could always experience the canal from Smith or Hoyt Street. The smell of the canal greeted people as they exited the subway on Second Place and Smith Street on steamy nights and after thunderstorms.
Raised only feet from the canal, in a home that my grandfather’s grandparents first lived in, at least in my generation we could blast our air conditioners eight months out of the year so that the smell would not fill the house. When barges came churning the muck in the canal, bad went to worse. I would have pitied my grandparents but for the tolerance they had developed for the smell. They chided us for complaints, since they claimed to hardly notice.
Thankfully everything started to make a big change in 2000 as the flushing tunnel and pumping station were turned back on after decades in disrepair. Fresh water once again flowed into the canal and the heavy smell of sewage caused by the solid waste draining into the canal on rainy days was being diluted and washed away. Stench was replaced by flowering vegetation and the appearance of birds and small fish.  On occasion other wildlife found its way from the bay.
But last Friday as I approached my childhood home on Bond and Douglass Streets, where my grandfather was born and plans in the far future are being carried out, I was transported back in time. Undone were years of advocating for a clean canal. Gone was the fresh water that washed away the waste and the smell. The smell hit me like a ton of bricks, the mixed aroma of a spring dew and raw sewage. My grandfather as usual was standing guard on the corner of Bond Street. As I approached him his 80 year old smile preceded his exclamation: “Ah, now that’s the smell I remember…it’s good…it clears your sinuses”.
Last Friday reminds us that the first impetus for a demand for clean canal was the smell. The city’s reconstruction will enhance the flushing tunnel's effect and the increased capacity to the sewer treatment plant when it is complete will diminish both the amount of raw sewage and again the smell, but sadly the oxygenation system now in place is at best uneven.  Is it even working? The Superfund designation does not address solid waste sewerage at all and even the enhancements by the City will leave us with a canal that we will not be able to experience first hand by splashing in the water or eating its bounty. At least when the work is complete, we will be able to breathe freely. Hurry up!

Well a week has gone by … lets sniff a whiff of this Friday's aroma? I'm holding my breath!

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philip hagenberg June 01, 2011 at 09:38 PM
Philip Hagenberg There is about as much a chance of getting rid of the smell from the canal during the dog days of summer or after a rain storm stir's up the water. Just as Staten Islands landfill still stinks on certain weather condition days. My family has been on 3rd Street between Smith and Hoyt long before most here were born, I have pictures of great grandparents and great uncles and aunts in the airy ways and yards dated late 1890's and some from my immediate family are still there on 3rd St. I'll always love growing up there, but now have moved on for a better life for my son.
Donna Bruno June 01, 2011 at 09:39 PM
John, I totally agree. As a life long resident of Bond St. I too have found the smell unbareable. I have not been able to open the windows to my home in the past 2 weeks. I have had to keep the air conditioning on in order to stay in my own home. My children do not even want to return home at the end of a busy day of school due to the foul smell. Please can we get that pump running again, I mean soon please!!!!!!
maria pagano June 02, 2011 at 02:37 PM
Great piece, John. I particularly appreciate your plain spoken descriptions- not the drama, but the day-to-day acceptance of the heat and the stink. As they say, what doesn't kill you makes you strong. I cannot accept that this environmental blight has not had some physical effects- we need an assessment of the environmental effects that the known health hazards in the canal may have produced. Maria Pagano
Joanne Bernardo June 02, 2011 at 11:31 PM
That was a great article, but then again you are a natural historian--remembering details long since forgotten, but cherished nonetheless. I keep the a/c on most of the time so I don't smell a thing and I live right down the block. Can't wait until they do something about it. We are all waiting for it to take place in our lifetime. Again I loved the article and your passion for "the neighborhood" is dear to my heart!
SouthBrooklyn July 30, 2011 at 10:56 AM
Nice work John. God Bless!


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