‘Creatures of the Canal’ surface at first annual Gowanus Art Parade

gowanus art parade people in fish costumes
Locals donned outfits inspired by creatures both real and imaginary for the first annual Gowanus Art Parade on June 1.
Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

The Gowanus Canal is a mysterious and oft-misunderstood waterway. Its waters are heavily polluted and its bed covered in a thick coating of old industrial sludge called “Black Mayonnaise.”

Legend has it that back in the day, America’s most polluted canal was dumping ground for mobsters who met an unfortunate and untimely ending. In the 1950s, a shark accidentally wound up in the Gowanus Canal and met its demise when it became the target of shooting practice for the NYPD. In 2007, Sludgie, a 12-foot minke whale, took the wrong turn and ended up in the Gowanus, where it died. Sludgie’s death, however, wasn’t in vain, since it helped inspire the cleanup of the canal. 

creatures of the canal
The inaugural Gowanus Art Parade showcased the creative talents of the community. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
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One outfit paid homage to the less-pleasant parts of the Gowanus Canal. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

In celebration of the canal’s sordid past — and slightly sunnier present — Arts Gowanus held its inaugural Gowanus Art Parade on June 1, themed “Creatures of the Canal: Real or Imaginary.”

A few hundred spectators, wearing costumes that were part art and part political statement, showed up for the spectacle, a crowd that exceeded Johnny Thornton’s expectations. 

Thornton, executive director of Arts Gowanus, was excited to see the large crowd wearing fantastical costumes or portable sea creature art that had assembled at the parade’s starting point on the corner of Nevins and Union streets in Gowanus. 

johnny thornton arts gowanus parade
Arts Gowanus executive director Johnny Thornton was blown away by how many people participated in the inaugural parade. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
people in costumes for Gowanus Art Parade
Hundreds of people trooped through Gowanus with the parade. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“I’m so happy. When I turned the corner and saw these people, I was thrilled,” Thornton said. “I had no idea what to expect. And so I’m blown away [by] what people have done. They’ve really taken this on.”

Thornton said Arts Gowanus came up with the idea to celebrate artists and the “wacky” history of the Gowanus Canal.

“We immediately all started laughing, and it’s perfect and allows the creative community to come out, wear costumes, and enjoy the summer together,” he said.

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A many-eyed sea creature emerged from the canal. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Led by the Honk Family Band, the parade of bizarre creatures trooped down Union, Bond, and Carroll streets and gathered at the Gowanus Dredgers Boathouse for an evening of fun. 

Gowanus resident Sandye Renz’s costume was a play on the “Black Mayonnaise” lurking on the bottom of the canal. Renz said parades are always “good.”

black mayonnaise costume at gowanus art parade
Sandye Renz’s costume was a play on the “Black Mayonnaise” lurking on the bottom of the Gowanus.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
black mayonnaise costume
The “Black Mayonnaise” inspired more than one outfit at the parade. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“It gets people to pay attention to what’s around them in a serious but also a really funny way,” Renz elaborated. 

Assembly Member Jo Ann Simon was excited to see all the creative costumes. 

Jo Anne Simon with person in three-headed fish outfit at Gowanus Art Parade
Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon joined in on the fun. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“Everybody is dressed up, looking like all sorts of creepy ooky things, and it’s wonderful,” Simon said. “It brings people together, and also people from different crafts. One of the groups I’ve been involved with is the Yarn Bomb Group. They’ve knitted and crocheted a lot of parts of costumes. [Though] I did not do any of that this year.”

Artist Morgan Smith, who lives in Gowanus, was wearing a red “mob wife” tracksuit. A Peg Bundy wig and a pair of cement boots completed her outfit. When Brooklyn Paper caught up with her, Smith was about “to call Vinnie.” 

woman in red tracksuit with fake "cement boots"
Morgan Smith dressed up as a mobster’s wife in a pair of “cement boots.” Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“The play on my costume is the myth that the mafia would get rid of people with cement shoes in the Gowanus Canal. Or maybe I just really wanted to buy myself a tracksuit,” Smith joked.

Hannah wore a headpiece presenting the oyster toadfish which lives in the Gowanus Canal. She has always been fascinated with the going-ons of the canal, which was designated an EPA Superfund site in 2010. 

“The Gowanus Canal has held a mythic place in my mind for years,” she told Brooklyn Paper. “Me and my dad would go on this website in 2010, and here’s the list of awful things that have happened in the Gowanus Canal. There’s a sentient slime at the bottom of it. A shark got into it in the 50s, and it got shot; there was a whale stranded in there.” 

attendee at gowanus art parade
Paradegoers drew inspiration from all things Gowanus Canal. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
attendees at gowanus art parade
Joann Amicrano attended the parade with her daughters Rosie and Bella Oliveto.Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

Tracy Penn is an Arts Gowanus artist and a member of Beyond Plastics, a group focused on reducing plastic pollution. Penn’s costume was adorned with everyday plastic items. Penn explained that only 6% of plastic is recycled.

“We’re trying to get a bill in the New York State Legislature to stop the amount of plastic packaging that’s created,” Penn explained. 

trash costume at Gowanus Art Parade
One outfit focused on the issue of plastic pollution. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

The bill is called the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act and calls for a 50% reduction in plastic packaging in the next 12 years. 

“[The bill] will make the manufacturers responsible for putting less plastic into the world, rather than you and I trying to recycle. Plastic, unlike glass and metal, isn’t really recyclable,” Penn said

Miss Gowanus and former Miss New York USA 2022 finalist Addie Berger was “blown away” by all the creative costumes. 

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Locals donned their beast “Creatures of the Canal”-themed digs for the first annual Gowanus Art Parade. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
miss gowanus at parade
Miss Gowanus Addie Berger can’t wait to see the parade get even bigger next year. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

“I think it’s a great way to raise awareness about the canal and see some of the awesome creativity and bring the community together,” Berger told Brooklyn Paper. “I can’t wait to see it next year as it gets bigger and bigger.”