Brooklyn History Neighborhoods Podcasts

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.

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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.



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:




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.
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Current residential construction, right along the Gowanus.


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.


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



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.



4 replies on “GOWANUS! Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters”

I found your Podcasts this morning while doing some genealogical research on my family. One of the family legends is that a cousin, John J Boyle perished at age 23 by drowning in the Gowanus Canal in 1875. I cannot imagine a worse place to drown. This post and your podcast pretty much confirmed that for me. I still search for the truth of John Boyles death over 137 years ago.

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