It’s easy to get lost in the talk of could-be condos and potential parklands along the Gowanus Canal. Almost every week, new idyllic renderings depict the tainted waterway as a riverside oasis, bordered by majestic esplanades, lush trees and glassy high rises. The city even announced earlier this month that a developer had been chosen to build a 774-unit residential development with shopping and community space at the polluted “Public Place” site between Fifth and Huntington streets.
The imagined future of the Gowanus has never seemed closer — and then I rowed a boat down it.
On the Sunday before Earth Day, I joined 20 well-meaning Brooklynites and volunteered for a cleanup organized by the Gowanus Dredgers, the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, and the Army Corps of Engineers. The goal? To scoop up floating debris from the contaminated channel — which annually swells with 300 million gallons of sewer overflow and contains dangerous bacteria including gonorrhea.
I donned a lifejacket (perhaps a body-sized condom would have been more appropriate?) and jumped into a boat helmed by a Bushwick woman who had been guilt-tripped into attending the cleanup by a co-worker.
“I heard stories about what the Gowanus used to be like,” she said while steering our vessel down the stinking waterway. “Dead bodies, garbage.”
I wasn’t able to net any human remains, but I did scoop up two plastic bags and a four-inch-long dead fish. You should have seen the one that got away!
Some of the more-experienced sailors did a better job finding trash. The Army Corps hauled out a half-sunken boat and the Dredgers and Urban Divers filled Hefty bag after Hefty bag with trash from the shore.
Canal activists were ecstatic with the turnout.
“What’s really special about the Gowanus is that the people who are living locally really care about what’s going on,” said Mitsue Nagase-Balan of the Urban Divers.
But neighbors with nets can only scoop up so much. Grassroots clean-ups are important, but volunteer remediation is just a drop in the (slop) bucket.
As a Brooklynite whose only contact with the canal comes from a stink-proof F train, I had let the dreams of developers shape my perception of the Gowanus. High-rises and green spaces are great — but let’s not forget how much work still needs to be done.
Ben Muessig is a staff reporter for The Brooklyn Paper who lives in the South Slope. This is his first column.