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New song pays homage to Gowanus Canal’s toxic ‘Black Mayo’

A crane scoops "black mayonnaise" out of the Gowanus Canal. Two treatment facilities, Owls Head and Head end, endeavor to keep the sludge out of the canal entirely.
An excavator scoops out some polluted sediment from the Gowanus Canal, known locally as "black mayonnaise." Two catch basins, Owls Head and Head End, will endeavor to keep the sludge out of the canal altogether once built.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Call it muck rock!

A new song is dedicated to the viscous and polluted sludge in the Gowanus Canal. “Black Mayo of the Gowanus” by Dylan Sparrow, who performs as Giggle the Ozone, is an ironic ballad honoring the slime at the bottom of Brooklyn’s Nautical Purgatory, according to the singer.

“I was inspired by taking this toxic imagery and being a bit wry about it,” Sparrow told Brooklyn Paper.

The idea for the song — which was first reported by rock magazine The Big Takeover – came about when he visited the legendary Gowanus recording studio BC Studio, whose founder Martin Bisi suggested he write about the putrid muck, which graces the canal bed due to a century’s worth of industrial pollution, stormwater runoff, and sewage flowing into the waterway.

Some filthy finds in the notorious Gowanus gunk over the years have included tons of coal tar (a poisonous byproduct of gas production), petroleum products, heavy metals, and trace amounts of the clap!

“It’s almost begging to be a song,” said Bisi.

Sparrow didn’t know the term “black mayo” until Bisi told him about it, but the Manhattan musician was immediately taken by the label for the dirt he’s witnessed up close while recording at the storied canal-side studio below the Old American Can Factory at Third Street and Third Avenue.

Dylan Sparrow (left) and Martin Bisi (right) worked together on the song.Courtesy of the artists

“Every time I would visit his studio I would get a glimpse of the neighborhood and see the rainbow toxic sludge that was flowing underneath,” Sparrow said. “I was doing a photo shoot on one of the bridges across the Gowanus and I just remember this smell and I’m thinking, ‘I’m probably losing brain cells right now.’”

Bisi shot a music video for the song, showing excavators gloriously dredging the sludge as part of the decade-long federally-supervised Superfund cleanup, which began last November.

Sparrow sings over melancholy guitar riffs with lyrics like:

Black mayo
Black mayo
Lay it on thick till your heart is sick
Pile it on high, let it solidify
Run out the clock as the grid is locked
Whittle the time wading in rainbow slime
Black mayo
Black mayo

In the video — shot by Bisi and edited by Sara Leavitt who co-directed a documentary about BC Studio in 2014 — the studio owner also makes a zany appearance scooping out some of the black mayo and stopping just short of eating it.

Martin Bisi scoops out some black mayo in the music video.Screenshot

The sunken slime has inspired creatives before, including a jacket by Big Apple fashion designer Calvin Klein in the color “Gowanus Black,” and a pollution-themed souvenir shop that used to live a few blocks away at Union Street.

Bisi hopes the song to draw attention to the pollution that still abounds Gowanus, especially at Public Place — the site of a former gas manufacturing plant which the city and a cadre of developers plan to turn into a sprawling affordable housing complex under the impending neighborhood-wide rezoning.

“That’s the most urgent thing, it involves people’s health,” said Bisi, who opposes the rezoning.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s project manager for the Gowanus Canal cleanup warned city officials about the pollution beneath the Smith and Fifth streets project dubbed Gowanus Green late last year, but in March that federal official assured a local watchdog group that all three levels of government will work to ensure it’s safe for future inhabitants.

That’s why the video also includes a mission statement in its description by the Gowanus Artists in Alliance, a group of local artists working against the plans.

“It’s definitely bait for people to look at more information [about the rezoning],” Bisi said.

Sparrow said he’s not been as involved in activism against the rezoning as Bisi, but hoped the song would draw attention to local environmental concerns.

“Even though I’m singing about it in a way that’s got a little bit of humor, it’s definitely an issue that’s not to be laughed at,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s a serious issue.”

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