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Along the Gowaus, a sense that past is prologue • Brooklyn Paper

Along the Gowaus, a sense that past is prologue

When the city launched its plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal, Brooklynites rejoiced. A flotilla of party barges processed up the two-mile tidal creek-turned-canal passing factories adorned in bunting. The party-goers then marched up to Fourth Avenue. At last, the New York Times reported, south Brooklyn’s “emancipation from the evil smells given forth by murky waters of Gowanus Canal” was at hand.

It was 1911.

Nearly 100 years after the city celebrated the opening of a flushing tunnel to bring cleaner New York Harbor water into the canal, the greenish slick that seems to have served as a catch basin for everything foul — from untreated sewage to heavy metals to slag to PCBs — still stinks.

But now a new odor is wafting over the canal — the smell of money. Real-estate speculators have followed artists into the canal zone looking to trade what little cache there is for condos and housing and even a Whole Foods.

Back in 1911, the mayor opened the flushing tunnel, despite his skepticism about the health affects of the canal’s contaminants.

“I never heard of anyone dying from the smell,” Mayor William Jay Gaynor said at the ceremony.

He was assassinated two years later.

Like Gaynor, Mayor Bloomberg believes that the canal is a key to redeveloping the area. But his clean-up plan is controversial — given that he only unveiled it after the Environmental Protection Agency moved to have the area designated a Superfund site. Such a designation allows the federal government to sue polluters and, eventually, get their money to clean the canal.

The mayor has said that such a plan would stigmatize the area, driving out would-be housing developers. Plus, Bloomberg says his clean-up will be faster.

That said, the city is one of the biggest polluters in the canal zone. Whenever there’s a strong rain, raw sewage — 300 million gallons of it a year, people — spills into the corpse of water. And the canal’s tidal flow makes the water brackish and incapable of supporting life.

The flushing tunnel was supposed to change all that by drawing water from the East River through a 12-foot tunnel along Degraw and Douglass streets.

The propeller that pulls in the water broke in 1960 and then nearly faded into memory before Buddy Scotto, a funeral home proprietor and community activist from Carroll Gardens, lobbied the White House and secured money in the 1970s. The propeller was finally fixed and turned on in 1999.

Two months after the fresh water returned, crabs were seen in the canal for the first time in years.

Other life has been spotted, too. In recent years, the canal has become an artists haven — with even a houseboat.

But the real future of the Gowanus Canal has not been written.

Until the feds or Mike Bloomberg clean up the water, the area will remain the way it has been since the last time city officials said that a clean-up was imminent.

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