Soon after the Gowanus Canal was constructed in 1848 to rid South Brooklyn of marshlands, the corridor surrounding the canal developed as a thriving manufacturing area primarily reliant on barge service. The canal effectively bisects the Community District, and has five east-west crossings at Union Street, Carroll Street, Third Street, 9th Street and Hamilton Avenue. The Carroll Street Bridge (constructed in 1888 and reconstructed in the late 1980’s) is the oldest known retractile or horizontally sliding bridge in the nation and is an individually designated national and City landmark structure that is still in operation. With the advent of increased reliance on trucking coupled with the construction of the Gowanus Expressway after World War II, the canal began a long and slow period of decline. The Gowanus Flushing Tunnel, constructed in 1947, was designed to impel and pump fresh water from the Buttermilk Channel into the head of the canal creating a southward flow to displace stagnant water out of the canal and into the Gowanus Bay. Since the reactivation of the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel and Pump Station in 1999, new life has been literally breathed into the canal. Putrid odors that were once commonplace are virtually non-detectable; aquatic and avian life forms are springing up with each passing day. Increasing visits to the canal, by foot and water, are enhancing the area’s profile and potential.
Years of neglect and abandonment have taken their toll on the properties and streets abutting the canal. Many of the streets are in fair-to-poor condition, bulkheads at the canal are deteriorating or have failed, the area serves as a magnet for illegal dumping, and the remoteness of the dead end streets has been an invitation for unwelcome and illegal activities. It is widely hoped that by attracting the community back to the canal, that the possibilities for compatible recreational uses will take a stronghold in recapturing this otherwise forlorn waterway. Street end beautification projects begun by various community groups, and the launching of small hand-held watercraft such as kayaks and canoes, are becoming most popular among nearby residents. While the water quality of the canal has measurably improved with the reactivation of the Pump Station and Flushing Tunnel, the bottom of the canal is still lined with decades worth of sediment containing heavy metals, PCB’s and other toxic elements. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in partnership with the City’s Department of Environmental Protection, is undertaking an Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study to investigate what additional remediation work would be required to further improve the ambient environmental quality of the canal and bay areas.
Despite competing visions for how the canal corridor should be redeveloped, one thing the communities around the canal are in universal agreement on is that dredging and bulkhead repair are critical next steps and will lay a foundation for additional redevelopment of the area. Additional environmental remediation work in the area is self-evident. There is a 6 acre City-owned brownfield site at the southeast corner of Smith and 5th Streets, designated “Public Place” by the Board of Estimate in 1974, that previously hosted a coal gasification plant. The property was declared an Inactive Hazardous Waste Site by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in 1990 due to the buried and partially buried presence of solvents, coal tar residues, and phthalate wastes left from former industrial tenants. It was hoped that the Public Place site would be an appropriate candidate site for remediation through the DEC’s voluntary clean-up program so that the City and the community could pursue a beneficial reuse of the property. Additional public investment is needed to study the economic development potential of the Gowanus Canal corridor to pursue a regional strategy for revitalizing the industrial properties on the canal in a manner compatible with the existing businesses and surrounding residential communities. Under- and unutilized manufacturing-zoned properties, coupled with a great need for jobs by neighborhood residents, support the notion that the Gowanus Canal corridor is an area that could grow into a productive, jobs-generating light-to-medium industrial center of economic activity, preferably maritime-based industries. The designation of the southern area of the canal as one of the City's Industrial Business Zones gives hope to the indigenous business community, and signals strong support for business retention and growth in the area.
The majority of the neighborhood residents live in two public housing projects to the north of the canal, Gowanus and Wyckoff Gardens Houses. The Gowanus corridor has the second highest unemployment rate in the district (at 12.5% per 1990 Census), a low median household income, and a low average education achievement level (59.8% of the population graduated high school per 1990 Census). The southeastern portion of the Gowanus corridor supports an active and organized pocket of residents who live in this mixed-use area. On the Westside of Second Avenue from 10th to 12th Streets, the site of an abandoned Federal U.S. Postal facility, a portion of the site was remediated prior to the construction of a major retail store. Since the property was under Federal control, and plans were negotiated directly with private developers, there were no corresponding public review requirements concurrent with this project; therefore, the local community did not have an opportunity to participate formally in the land use decision-making process.