A Canal Flows in Brooklyn

A new book by Joseph Alexiou, A06, traces the history of the poisoned and picturesque Gowanus waterway
Joseph Alexiou
“There’s something incredibly picturesque about the canal,” says Joseph Alexiou. Photo: Brad DeCecco
October 7, 2015

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Joseph Alexiou, A06, leaned over the railing of Brooklyn’s Union Street Bridge on a windy day, contemplating the fetid waterway on which he has become an expert. “When you look down at it, the oil sheen is hideous and horrible,” he told me. The Gowanus Canal, which courses for nearly two miles between the neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, was declared a Superfund site in 2010. Its waters, 15 feet at their deepest, contain heavy metals, benzene and coal tar—and treats like E. coli, gonococcus and cholera germs.

“At the same time,” Alexiou said, “there’s something incredibly picturesque about the canal.”

Unlike much of New York City, the scene is low-rise and focused on water. Pedestrians make eye contact, and some walk their dogs, letting them pee against a wall painted with dragons and other oddities. Rowhouses, warehouses and a retired power station missing its roof reflect the area’s gritty history.

In the 1600s, Alexiou pointed out, the Gowanus—then just a creek—powered mill wheels for Dutch settlers. When the canal opened, in the late 1860s, it carried barges and other working vessels, bringing in materials to build brownstone Brooklyn. Today it still conveys heavy loads, along with sewage and oily runoff from the city during hard rains.

Alexiou first saw the area in 2007, after graduating from Tufts with a history degree, spending time in Paris and finding a job in New York book publishing. He moved into an apartment a block from the canal, and often spent time on the nearby dock. “Immediately, I loved it, and I was like, ‘I have to know more about this,’” Alexiou said, gazing the length of the waterway. Having written an edition of Paris for Dummies, he was attracted to the “Frenchy” vibe of the nearby streets, with their European-style shops, including bakeries, meat markets and fish stores.

Asked to pick a topic for a nonfiction book when he pursued a master’s in journalism at Columbia in 2008, Alexiou didn’t have to think. The book he began then, Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal, was just published by NYU Press earlier this month.

Alexiou also teaches a class on the history of the Gowanus Canal through a grassroots cheap-classes organization, Brooklyn Brainery. One historical event he is fond of recounting. During the Revolutionary War, Americans lost a battle and escaped from the British across the banks of the Gowanus Creek. “If the creek wasn’t there, would we have gotten away or not?” he asked.

As we stood on the retractable Carroll Street Bridge, Alexiou peered downstream at a long canoe standing on end to make a funky totem pole on the Second Street dock. The totem was erected by the Gowanus Dredgers, a club that offers canoe rides and education on the canal in good weather. Nearby, a 12-story luxury residential building is under construction on the canal’s banks, part of the influx of nonindustrial development that has included a new Whole Foods grocery.

Water quality is going upscale, too. According to EPA plans, dredging of heavy metals from the canal’s mud bottom will commence in 2017, to be completed by 2023. Is the Gowanus area in danger of losing its ties to the past? “It’s always been used for industry and commerce,” Alexiou said. “That’s its historic legacy, and I think it should continue to have that.”

As he spoke, a long-necked water bird dove deep into the canal, then resurfaced to float. “I don’t know how it’s going to survive in this water,” said Alexiou. “But it looks pretty good.”

Catherine Arnold, a freelance writer and editor based in New York City, has written for such publications as Bicycling, Backpacker and the Washington Post.

A version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Tufts Magazine.