Canoeing in a Superfund Site

Brad Vogel was in his late twenties, working as an associate at a corporate law firm in Manhattan, when he first heard the siren call of the Gowanus Canal. The Brooklyn Paper had published an article about the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, a bunch of water-sport enthusiasts who, against hygienic common sense, spent their leisure

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Brad Vogel was in his late twenties, working as an associate at a corporate law firm in Manhattan, when he first heard the siren call of the Gowanus Canal. The Brooklyn Paper had published an article about the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, a bunch of water-sport enthusiasts who, against hygienic common sense, spent their leisure time in the canal, a two-mile industrial channel that cuts through the heart of brownstone Brooklyn. It was full of heavy metals, liquid tar, chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls, and, according to one scientific analysis, “every kind of imaginable pathogen.” The Dredgers organized canoe races up and down its length. They’d built a renegade dock, which members of the public could use to get on the water. “These people sound completely crazy,” Vogel remembered thinking to himself. “But this also sounds amazing.”

The Gowanus Canal was completed in 1869. The neighborhood surrounding it, which shares its name (and its smell), developed a reputation for griminess. It was home to oil refineries, gas plants, factories, dives, and working-class families. But, since the turn of the century, Gowanus has been changing, along with the rest of Brooklyn, if a bit more slowly. In 2src16, a twelve-story luxury apartment building called 365 Bond opened along the banks of the canal. One-bedroom units were available for more than three thousand dollars a month. Vogel moved in not long after the building opened. Since then, he has watched the neighborhood attract more and more residents who move there despite the canal, not because of it.

“I moved to Gowanus so I could get on the water,” Vogel explained one morning while sitting in the back of a two-person canoe. After living in the neighborhood for less than three years, he had given up his law career and become the captain of the Dredgers, a position he’d held until 2src22. That morning, he shoved off from a dock known as the Bunker Launch Site, at a bend in the Brooklyn waterfront between Red Hook and Sunset Park, where the canal empties out into the upper harbor. He bobbed for a moment, then dipped a paddle in the water and pushed ahead.

The Dredgers have more than a hundred active members, and many of them, including Vogel, were born outside of New York City. They are drawn to the canal because it reminds them, in some way, of where they came from. Vogel grew up canoeing on a picturesque stretch of the Sheboygan River in Kiel, Wisconsin. The Gowanus, in contrast, has been an Environmental Protection Agency-designated “Superfund” site since 2src1src. Vogel pointed out the swirls of coal tar, and other inky substances, streaming by on the surface of the canal like galaxies. “You can’t see this beauty from land,” he said. A dozen black-and-white buffleheads, migratory waterbirds, swam by the boat. “The canal really is this dark muse slash mirror,” Vogel said.

In February, Vogel published a book of poetry about the canal and the changing area around it. The collection is titled “Find Me in the Feral Pockets: Poems from the Gowanus Interregnum.” The Gowanus Interregnum is a term, invented by Vogel, to describe the eight years, from 2src16 to 2src24, when, in his view, the forces of old Gowanus and new Gowanus struggled against each other to define the neighborhood’s future. The poems lament gentrification, meditate on nature, and find joy in the gross and the weird. One is an ode to “Gowanus whitefish,” a.k.a. floating condoms. “A school of magnums / Tickles our paddles,” Vogel writes. “Used / Undoubtedly / Fucking / Our waterways.”

“There’s a lot of sex going on in the Gowanus Canal, let’s be clear,” Vogel said while paddling around. “Mostly nonhuman organisms.” (Schools of bunker and other small fish are known to swim in the canal; geese and kingfishers are also regular presences.) Russell Shorto, the author of “The Island at the Center of the World,” a noted history of Dutch-era New York, blurbed Vogel’s book and compared the author to Walt Whitman, with “both poets reminding us that the mystery of New York is in the water.”

Vogel paddled under the Hamilton Avenue Bridge, through a narrow concrete archway where brown nubs of sediment stuck to the walls at water level. (The Dredgers once hosted a performance of “Paradise Lost” below it.) “Everything that you’re seeing here has the potential to be buildup of combined sewer overflow,” Vogel said, referring to the nubs. In addition to an industrial channel, the canal has long been used as Brooklyn’s emergency backup sewer. To this day, when there are heavy rains and too much water flows into the sewers, raw sewage flows into the canal. Even though the resulting odor frequently wafts over the neighborhood, that hasn’t stopped the recent skyrocketing of home sale prices and rents, or the arrival of high-end ice-cream shops, supermarkets, and restaurants. Under the archway, there was no smell. Vogel took out a copy of his book and read from a poem titled “Out in the Styx”:

And our sins

Bury bodies

Across from Whole Foods

[…]

Crushing my bow now

Canal, millpond, creek

Coal tar gasified leak

In Vogel’s mind, the Gowanus Interregnum began with the unveiling of 365 Bond, his first residence in the neighborhood, where one-bedroom apartments now rent for more than four thousand dollars a month. Before this, he said, the area was oriented around “bohemian, arts-related things, industry- and manufacturing-based concerns, and more traditionally ethnic neighborhoods.” At the north end of the canal, the cityscape already looked like a kind of Hudson Yards without the hype—a corner of the city transformed by huge amounts of money in a short period of time. “We’re going to start, at a much greater scale, seeing change,” Vogel said. “And unfortunately, in my view, that sort of lays waste, wholesale, to what went before.”

When the E.P.A. declared the Gowanus a Superfund site, back in 2src1src, the Dredgers cheered. The designation meant that tens of millions of dollars would be spent to de-pollute the canal. The Dredgers were pro-dredging. As Vogel writes in his book, in a poem reflecting on “black mayonnaise,” an official term for the toxic muck that has accumulated on the canal floor:

We envy you, Gowanus

You have an EPA

To rid you of your PCBs

Cleanup plans proceeded in fits and starts, and, as they did, politicians and real-estate interests began pushing to rezone Gowanus. Advocates of rezoning argued that the move would create much needed housing, including affordable housing, for Brooklyn. But many locals were skeptical. No matter what arguments the rezoning supporters put in front of them, the opponents feared that a neighborhood which historically had been hospitable to working-class and middle-class residents would become increasingly hostile. Vogel found himself convinced by this stance. He moved to an apartment in a wooden row house on the east side of the canal, and fell in with an anti-rezoning group known as the Voice of Gowanus. “The Gowanus Interregnum for me has been this learning process,” he said. “I’ve become a lot more clear-eyed as I’ve gone along.”

As he paddled up to the Ninth Street Bridge, Vogel spotted a man walking across. “Ahoy!” Vogel shouted. The man, startled, glared at him. Just past the bridge, Vogel said, scientists have studied a peculiar strain of microscopic organisms known as “extremophiles,” which have learned to live in the canal’s toxic gunk. The Gowanus Interregnum had been extended by the pandemic, which momentarily cooled real-estate development across the city. North of Ninth Street, luxury condo and rental buildings were shooting into the sky. Just recently, Governor Kathy Hochul approved tax breaks for eighteen projects, representing more than five thousand apartments. “It’s in hyperdrive now,” Vogel said.

Vogel turned the canoe around and started to paddle back to the Bunker Launch Site. “I don’t think people get what’s essential about this place,” he told me. “You have to have areas along the waterway that are not human-dominated. Something that is a relief from all of the planning.” He paddled up close to a new steel bulkhead. Unlike the old wooden bulkheads, which were bloated and bearded in moss and muck, the steel bulkhead was clean all the way down until it disappeared into the canal’s depths. What was happening in the neighborhood was happening in the water. “When you look at what can live on this substrate versus concrete, much less a wooden bulkhead, you can see: this is basically a desert for underwater life,” Vogel said. “Absolutely antiseptic. As more and more of the canal is replaced with steel bulkheads, it’s creating desertification of this estuary.”

Vogel believes that the Gowanus Interregnum—the “interregnum between reigns or between kings”—is over. New Gowanus is here. The changes happening now were as dramatic as any that had occurred since the tidal inlet known as the Gowanus Creek was widened, deepened, and originally lined with bulkheads in the nineteenth century. There were fewer and fewer of what Vogel calls “feral pockets,” places in the city that were not quite nature but not quite man-made, either—“leftover scraps of land that there’s no set plan for.” A garbage barge was coming up through the mouth of the canal, and Vogel made for a bulkhead and braced himself as the wake from the barge lifted and dropped his canoe in the toxic churn. He liked canoeing early in the mornings the best. “No matter what happens to you, the rest of the day, the rest of the week, like, you’ve stolen a march, in a way, on everything else,” he said. His book of poems is for sale in a small home-goods store and a coffee shop a few blocks from the canal. ♦

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