Tag Archives: Gowanus

What’s Your Favorite New York Film? PLUS: Music Row, Gowanus Ghosts

It’s great fun to watch an outdoor movie in one of New York City’s many parks; it’s a tradition that been in the city for well over one hundred years.  But the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment wants to go bigger than that by having the entire city watch the same movie.

The winning film from the One Film, One New York initiative will be shown for free in various parks and movie theaters around the city on September 13.  The five candidates are Desperately Seeking Susan, The Wedding Banquet, Crooklyn, On The Town, and New York New York. 

Go to their website to vote now. It’s a  helluva contest! (No really, we’re not trying to influence your vote. Just don’t look at the picture up top.)

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Some recent articles from some other New York City history websites —

When the New Croton Aqueduct was constructed, an entire town in Westchester County decided to move out of its way. Featuring a couple quotes from Greg Young. [Curbed]

A vacant lot in Gowanus may hold a  haunting secret; it may be the site of a slave burial ground. [New York Times]

“Shifting Perspectives: Photographs of Brooklyn’s Waterfront,” the Brooklyn Historical Society’s inaugural exhibition at their new DUMBO space, closes next month. Go check it out! And read the recollections of photographer Robin Michals, featured in the exhibit. [Brooklyn Historical Society]

An extraordinary glimpse of New York City in 1979, courtesy the old photographs of a Dutch sailor. [Ephemeral New York]

The last remnants of old Music Row are now slated for demolition. [Vanishing New York]

A bizarre Brooklyn fire from 1907 took down a cork factory and a coffee roasting plant — and filled the air with the most unusual aroma. [Brownstone Detectives]

Carter, 1946, at the Apollo Theatre. William Gottlieb photographer

ALSO: Jazz legend Benny Carter was born 110 years ago today in New York City. He had an astounding eight-decade recording career. Give his music today some love by checking out one of his greatest-hits or retrospective albums.

GOWANUS! Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters

PODCAST The history of the Gowanus Canal, at the heart of a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood today, once used to be quite beautiful and non-toxic.

Brooklyn’s Gowanus — both the creek and the canal — is one of the most mysterious and historically important waterways in New York City. By coincidence, it also happens to be among its most polluted, shrouded in frightening tales of dead animals (and a few unfortunate humans) floating along its canal shores. Its toxic mix is the stuff of urban legends (most of which are actually true).

But this was once the land of delicious oysters. This was the site of an important Revolutionary War battle. This was part of the property of the man who later developed Park Slope.

But, in current times, it ALSO happens to be one of New York City’s hottest neighborhoods for real estate development. How does a neighborhood go from a canal of deadly constitution to a Whole Foods, condos and shuffleboard courts?

With the  Gowanus’ many personalities (and with Tom gone this week) I needed a special guide for this fraught and twisted journey — writer and historian Joseph Alexiou, author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal, bringing his expertise to help me wade through the most toxic portion of the show.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #201: GOWANUS! Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters

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Further to that Lord of the Rings comparison, here’s a map from a 1909 history of the Old Stone House, documenting the moves of British troops in the summer of 1776.

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The view from Gowanus Heights, or the Heights of Guan. Print by Hermann Julius Meyer, 1840.

Courtesy Museum of the city of New York
Courtesy Museum of the city of New York

 

By 1910, the banks of the Gowanus were no more natural than the dankest tenement slum.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The Carroll Street Bridge, pictured here in 1960, originally built in 1889. It’s one of only two retractable bridges in New York City.

Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

National Packing Box Factory at Union and Nevins Streets, pictured here in 1960.

courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

The site of the ‘flushing tunnel’ at Butler Street in 1960.

Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Historical Society

Here’s the view from the other side, looking south, taken last weekend:

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The Gowanus at Smith and Ninth Street, 1978. (Photograph by Dinanda Nooney

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

Some views along the Gowanus from last weekend, admiring the glory of its dingy, busted architecture.
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Current residential construction, right along the Gowanus.

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I wasn’t joking about the doll parts. There’s a whole motley collection of weird junk around the Gowanus. Luckily, no deformed Gowanus rats in sight.

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Here’s a four legged fellow in the Gowanus — a table.

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A couple views of the Gowanus from the Bowery Boys Instagram page:

Out exploring in strange places for next week’s new podcast! #boweryboys

A photo posted by Gregory Young (@boweryboysnyc) on

 

Gowanus alleyway on Nevins Street. #boweryboys

A photo posted by Gregory Young (@boweryboysnyc) on


For more information on the happy, shiny of the Gowanus Canal, check out Alexiou’s new book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal from NYU Press. Here’s the interview I did with Joseph on the blog a few weeks ago.

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The history and future of Gowanus: Interview with author Joseph Alexiou

Brooklyn gentrification has reached a curious impasse — the Gowanus Canal.

The neighborhood surrounding it thrives with new housing developments, trendy restaurants and bars, music venues, shuffleboard clubs and even a Whole Foods. Curbed just named it neighborhood of the year. It’s now a destination for foodiesPity about that fetid and uniquely aromatic body of water then, a SuperFund site since 2010 and a problem that has vexed Brooklyn for decades. (Black mayonnaise anyone?)

The Gowanus is also pivotal to the history of Brooklyn — and all of New  York City — as enjoyably laid out by author Joseph Alexiou in his new book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal.

The shores of Gowanus Creek have been critical to Brooklyn’s growth since the early Dutch days.  Its story is surprisingly thrilling and robust, from the bloody Revolutionary War battle fought on its shores to its transformation into an artery for industry.  Residents  have struggled with the Gowanus’ toxic qualities — both in the water itself and the criminal life it seems to regularly attract — for over a century and a half.

I wish there was a book like this for every foul, troublesome thing in New York.  Gowanus feels like a biography with an engaging protagonist — plucked from innocence and slowly corrupted — that you want to help save by the end.

Given the current situation in the neighborhood — anybody looking for a cheap apartment?Gowanus is an important and urgent read.  Plus the book is nominated for a GANYC Apple Award for outstanding achievement in non-fiction book writing! (Check out the full list of nominees here.) On the eve of the awards ceremony this Monday, I asked Alexiou a few questions about his experiences researching this curious creek:

Greg Young: What’s your particular connection to the Gowanus? How did you decide to develop this as a book subject?

Joseph Alexiou: I lived in Gowanus from 2006–2011, and happened upon the canal quite by accident, but it was love at first sight. I spent  several years  in the neighborhood  before making my foray into freelance writing, when I realized the area was a goldmine of funny stories and and weird characters.
The pollution was also so extreme and kind of surprising, which I learned about thanks to the appearance of Sludgie the Whale in 2007. Eventually, I ended up in journalism school, where my obsessions and nerdish love of history became the subject for a book proposal class.
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GY: Since your book is really arranged like a biography of the Gowanus, what would say has been its personality over the decades?

JA: The Gowanus has always been stubborn and dependable, and muddy. Definitely thoughtful— a calm, earthly reminder of the powers of nature with that occasional tendency to overflow. But the beginning it was a lot more crunchy and pastoral, full of wildlife and pleasant breezes. But as industry arrived, the Gowanus became stinky, smelly, exciting and unsavory—perhaps just a little bit dangerous. The foreboding sense of doom was its personality for a long time. But with the dynamic nature of cities and waterways, that grittiness is evolving yet again.

 

Illustration from The Stone House of Gowanus, Scene of the Battle of Long Island (1909) by Georgia Fraser
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GY: Were you surprised to find how important the Gowanus has been to the overall history of Brooklyn? It seems like its story reflects many of the changes that have happening to the city (and borough) over the decades?

JA: When I discovered that the name “Gowanus” appeared in some of the oldest documented history of New York—dating back to 1636—that’s how I knew there was a particular history to be told. It was a surprise, but also a relief when I discovered how often the name “Gowanus” appeared across newspaper pages and old documents, once I had started really researching the book. So many people used it for business, pleasure, crossed its banks, complained about the traffic, fell into it!

 

It’s a really unique kind of New York waterway—naturally occurring, then industrialized, then neglected. It’s difficult to move and get around, and often caused much trouble because of the flooding. So many people have invested in it, cursed it, pondered its existence, and written about Gowanus throughout history because it was weird and offbeat, a wrinkle in the map. That proved to be quite a boon, and a great vantage point from which to observe the history of Brooklyn.

 

GY: Is there anything truly ‘natural’ about the Gowanus anymore? I confess to strolling around it sometimes, trying to picture it as a natural body of water. Is there anything about it at all that remotely resembles the creek that you introduce us to at the beginning?

JA: Well, the rise and fall of the tide is one of the remaining original aspects of the canal. There’s no real wetland left around the canal, although if the walls were knocked down it would start to rebuild itself. Perhaps I should give a nod to little snippets of nature that pop up at street ends (Second Avenue comes to mind) that sort of mimic the original landscape. But imagination is helpful!

 

View from Gowanus Heights, Brooklyn, 1840, painted by Herrmann Julius Meyer (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)
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GY: The community has a fondness and love for the Gowanus, even considering the health concerns that have vexed it for decades. What do you think is the specific appeal to living near here?

JA: For a very long time it was simply that it didn’t cost very much. But lately, for the more visually-minded, the neighborhood has a unique shape apart from the grid. The industrial architecture, bridges, funny signs, graffiti—all of this gives the neighborhood great character and personality. A soaring warehouse building or an unusual edifice gives a break from the monotony of endless streets. It’s very Jane Jacobsian, but strange breaks in the city grid, or old buildings repurposed, allow for newly creative use and exploration. This particular appeal has long existed in contemporary Gowanus.

 Gowanus Canal from Second Street, 1986, Randy Dudley, from the Brooklyn Museum collection1

GY: Your book explores the struggles to clean up the Gowanus over the decades. There’s obviously a great urgency now due to the residential boom in the neighborhood.  Do you think it’s really possible to rehabilitate the Gowanus at this point, at least in a cost effective way? Do you think it will ever be considered ‘safe’ in our lifetimes?

JA: “Safe” is a relative term, and within the next two decades I do believe it will become much cleaner, and safer. I don’t know if the canal will ever be swimmable though, as raw sewage will always be in danger of spilling into the water (albeit much less than now, if the EPA plans go accordingly)—some problems are just too immense to totally solve.

 

GY: And, out of concern for your safety – just how much time did you actually have to spend near the Gowanus itself? God forbid you didn’t actually go anywhere close to the water?!

JA: I’ve been down to the Gowanus quite a bit, and gone out on a boat, no less than three times! I can’t say I felt totally safe during any of the voyages, but it was exhilarating! It’s a fantastic and totally unique way of seeing Brooklyn, and the city!

History in the making 6/10: Sign of the Times Edition

Picture courtesy Steve Welsh/Flickr

One of the most striking sights in Brooklyn is the old Kentile Floors sign in Gowanus, a pleasant sight to those who pass it daily and one of the last vestiges of non-franchise billboard art in the city.  The current owners of the location are preparing to tear it down, but the community is fighting back.  Sign this petition here [petition] or join the Facebook activism page if you’d like to help preserve history.  Read more about the controversy here: [Gothamist] and at [New York Neon]

Museum Mile Festival:  Head on up to Fifth Avenue between 82nd Street and 110th Street this afternoon to enjoy this annual festival of the Upper East Side museums.  Museums are free and open until 9 pm.  My advice: Check out at the Lost Kingdoms exhibit at Metropolitan Museum of Art; City as Canvas, the graffiti art exhibit at Museum of the City of New York; and Italian Futurism over at the Guggenheim Museum.  [Museum Mile Festival]  

Rooms $1.00:  Demotion of a building in Times Square reveals a 104-year-old ghost sign for the Hotel Longacre. [Jeremiah’s Old New York]

The story of 10 Perry Street, an unusual 19th century brownstone that was once home to one of New York’s most prominent Catholic businessmen. [Daytonian in Manhattan]

The cartographer who actually mapped out Batman’s Gotham City back in 1998.  [Smithsonian]

COMING UP THIS FRIDAY:  A special Bowery Boys podcast, one unlike anything we’ve ever done.  Stay tuned!

The short shelf life of the Tip-Tops, the Brooklyn baseball team situated near the Gowanus River and named for bread

The piping hot uniforms of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, worn by baby-faced manager Lee Magee

For a brief shining moment between 1914 and 1915, Brooklyn had two major league baseball teams — the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers and the not-so-legendary Brooklyn Tip-Tops.

Baseball has long been a sport of two parallel sports leagues — the National League and the American League — which have gotten together at season’s end to play the World Series since 1903.  But for an unusual moment in 1914 and 1915, there was a third baseball league called the Federal League.

A cartoon from the May 12, 1914 New York Tribune:

 

The Federal League was formed specifically in protest to the signing practices of the two dominant leagues, doing away with pesky reserve clauses (binding players to certain teams for almost their entire careers) and offering higher salaries.  For a second, it seemed possible that the Federal League might provide a new way to organize a major sport.

There were eight teams in the Federal league which such unusual names as the Chicago Whales, the Newark Peppers and the Baltimore Terrapins. (Yes, somebody named a ball team after a turtle.)

Within the New York area, one franchise was awarded to Brooklyn, owned by a baker named Robert Ward.  His bakery for Tip-Top Bread (centered at 800 Pacific Street in today’s Prospect Heights) was obviously so lucrative that he eventually sank one million dollars in funding the team that eventually took the name of his baking enterprise — the Brooklyn Tip-Tops.

Brooklyn’s other team, the Dodgers, had conveniently vacated their old wooden field, Washington Park, for their brand new home Ebbets Field in Flatbush.  Ward hastily prepared to move the Tip-Tops into the Dodgers’ old home by paying for a spectacular upgrade to the dilapidated Gowanus park.  It was located between 1st and 3rd Streets at Fourth Avenue.

The baker, with his brother George S. Ward, sunk more than $250,000 into the new concrete-and-steel ballpark, situated so near the Gowanus that fans got a good whiff of its toxic odors on summer days.

The new park itself was rather flawed with bleachers extremely close to the field.  According to author Daniel Levitt: “[T]he tiny foul territory caused nearly all foul balls to end up with the spectators.  At the time fans were not allowed to keep foul balls … leading to a tacky atmosphere as team officials constantly wrestled balls away from fans.”

Another set of cheap sets, derisively called ‘sun bleachers’, which provided an unpleasant scorching experience during the summer, were quickly closed after some bad publicity.

Below: Inside the refurbished Washington Park on opening day of their second (and final) season

Construction equipment still darted the grounds when they opened on May 11, 1914.  “The Federal League opened here with a bang,” said the Evening World.  “Bands, horns, sirens and vocal assistance from 16,000 fans gave New York’s fourth baseball club a noisy welcome.” (The other three being the New York Giants, the New York Yankees, and, of course, the Dodgers.)

At first, Brooklynites emphatically supported their new team, quickly nicknamed the BrookFeds.  But it soon became obvious that the team was nothing to write home about.

They finished their inaugural season with an unimpressive record of 77 wins, 77 losses.  In comparison, the Giants, located at the Polo Grounds, made it to the World Series.  However, the young team did finish better than the Yankees (57-94). And even managed to best the Dodgers (65-84)!

Given Ward’s religious beliefs, he instructed that no Sunday games be played at the park, a serious blow given that it was the only day off for many potential working-class fans.

Another strike against the team occurred during the winter when the team was unable to sign away more successful players from the other two leagues.  The one exception was the outstanding Lee Magee (pictured above in a Tip-Top uniform) who was hired away from the St. Louis Cardinals and even managed the team during the 1915 season.  He would later join the Yankees.

“If hustling, hard work and ambition among the players make a winning team, the Brooklyn fans will see one in Washington park this year,” Magee claimed.

An ad for second season opening day, from the Evening World.  The flag raising mentioned below is pictured above:

The fans showed up for the beginning of season two, but enthusiasm quickly ebbed.  In fact, that first game against the Buffalo Buffeds (yes, that’s their name!) seemed to auger a host of frustrations for the rest of the season;  it went unusually long almost into night — the park was not lit — with “three hours of errors and wrangling.”

Behind the scenes, the two other leagues were busy trying to dismantle the Federal League who had filed an anti-trust suit in January.  It did not help the mood in New York that the Tip-Tops were doing worse under Magee.  They completed their season 70-82, second to last behind the scathingly terrible Baltimore Terripins.

Below: Magee with the manager from the Buffalo Buffeds:

 

Machinations outside New York doomed the team.  The National and American Leagues managed to eradicate its rival through series of brokered deals and buyouts.  One of these deals changed the face of American baseball, when the owner of the Chicago Whales was allowed to buy the Chicago Cubs and move them into the Whales’ new stadium — Wrigley Field.

The only team that remained to battle back against the two leagues was the Federal League’s least successful team — the Baltimore Terrapins.  They sued the leagues saying it was a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court who, in the landmark case Federal Baseball Club vs. National League, handed Baltimore something they were very familiar with — defeat.

On December 18, 1915, the Tribune revealed the fate of Brooklyn’s second baseball team:

“The Brooklyn Tip-Tops will withdraw from Washington Park, leaving the site barren of baseball and the city in the hands of the Superbas [Dodgers].  Organized baseball will reimburse George S. Ward annually with 5 percent of the assessed value of Washington Park for twenty years.”

By 1916, Tip-Top went back to meaning fresh white bread.

While Washington Park was eventually dismantled, a part of it still exists.  Today on the site is a yard for Con Edison.  The western wall along Third Avenue was once part of the ball park.  Perhaps if you go over to the Gowanus Whole Foods, you can walk over a block or two and check out this incredible piece of sports history!

 

Thank you Bob. Thank you Gowanus Lounge.

We’d like to offer our condolences to the friends and family of Robert Guskind, the creator and wit behind Gowanus Lounge, one of the very best blogs about Brooklyn. When I began this site over 20 months ago, Guskind’s was one of the first that I linked to and read on a regular basis, admiring his observations of the culture, history and current events — not only on the quirky, misunderstood neighborhood of Gowanus, but the entire borough. It’s at times tart, always immediate, insightful and questioning.

Thankfully, after a technical glitch, the site is back up and I recommend you flip back to older posts. He had a particularly great ability to find photos of the most unusual corners of his home neighborhood. Flatbush Gardener has a links featuring other tributes to Bob and his work.