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Visiting the Gowanus Canal's Under-Transformation 'Wild West'

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a focus on changing neighborhoods, Kensinger—who helped to curate a new exhibit about the Gowanus Canal—visits Gowanus.

[The polluted banks of the Gowanus Canal are now being transformed by demolition and construction, despite the canal's Superfund designation. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Spring is returning to New York City, and with it comes the renewed sound of jackhammers and backhoes as construction sites return to life. Along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, warmer weather has brought a rapid wave of demolition, which is transforming the landscape. Warehouses are quickly being torn down, while neighborhood landmarks are being destroyed or renovated. The Coignet Stone Building is swathed in scaffolding, the Batcave is being cleaned out, and the silos next to the Carroll Street Bridge were completely demolished this week to make way for a 700-unit residential tower. "It's the wild west. It's really unbelievable," said Katia Kelly, who has lived in the area for 29 years. "It's a neighborhood under assault."

Many of the old warehouses, silos and factories in this low-rise area were included in a proposed historic district that was up for a vote on March 13th. But after a 60-day delay, developers have been able to move forward with plans for a dense new residential community along the banks of the canal. "Gowanus was one of the last industrial neighborhoods that was still untouched, at least until the last five years," said Katia Kelly, who has documented the changing neighborhood on her blog Pardon Me For Asking. "The beauty of the Gowanus is that you have these older buildings."

The first new residential tower on the canal will be built by the Lightstone Group, which began tearing down a second block of warehouses last week to make way for a 12-story project. Included in the demolition site were a pair of silos that had become a neighborhood fixture. Once home to the Issue Project Room, the BKLYN Yard, and Gowanus Grove, "the silo buildings were one of the iconic industrial ruins around Gowanus Canal, ranking up there with the Batcave and the Kentile sign," said Ariana Souzis, who was married at the silo site in 2011. "I will always remember the hushed quiet of the room and the curved walls as I fiddled with my pearls and hair." By Wednesday of this week, the silos had been turned into a pile of rubble.

Unlike the Lightstone Group, the developers of the Batcave have committed to keeping their unique building intact. Also known as the BRT Powerhouse, the Batcave is currently being transformed into the Powerhouse Workshop by its owner, Joshua Rechnitz, with "an extensive program to clean-up the site and restore the structural integrity of the building," according to Maureen Connelly, the project's spokesperson. Tons of debris have been removed and a Brownfield remediation program will soon begin, in anticipation of the building's rebirth as an arts center. "For the sake of the structure I'm glad that someone's saving the building, instead of demolishing it like they're doing over at Domino Sugar," said Hannah Frishberg, an author working on a book about the Batcave. "There aren't very many spots like that left in New York. I really hope Rechnitz can turn it into something which actually benefits the community."

As the pace of change on the Gowanus quickens, however, some locals have begun to question the wisdom of creating population density on the banks of a federal Superfund site plagued by sewage overflows, especially after Hurricane Sandy flooded the area in 2012. "We know what is going to happen in the next 20 years, 30 years. We should be pulling back from the water," said Katia Kelly. "The fact that it's a Superfund, the fact that it's in a flood zone—you have to look past the developers' wet dreams and ask: is this a good idea?"

These low-rise warehouses at the end of First Street are currently being demolished to make way for a 12-story residential tower built by the Lightstone Group. 

One entire block of warehouses has already been torn down, to make way for 700 units of new housing at the water's edge. "These people are going to be in condos with raw sewage floating by," said Katia Kelly. "I think if you ask people, nobody thinks this is a good idea."

Asbestos remediation is underway in the remaining warehouses, which were in Zone A during Hurricane Sandy. Neighbors are concerned that the new development, which will be raised 10 feet, may channel flood waters into their homes.

Demolition of the old silos near Carroll Street began one week ago. "The fact that the Gowanus will be cleaner in my lifetime gives me some little amount of pride," Kelly said, looking out on the silos. "What isn't going to make me proud will be to walk by here in 20 years."

Demolition crews stripped the building's balconies and interior apartments and studios. "I just tear them down," said one worker. "But what an amazing place to live. I would have lived there."

By Tuesday, little remained of the iconic silos. By Wednesday, they had been completely leveled, erasing one of the Gowanus Canal's most iconic structures. "It makes me sick to my stomach when I walk by," said one neighbor. "Building on the banks of this—it's absurd."

The Batcave, another iconic Gowanus structure, is currently being cleaned up by its owner. "The building has been swept clean," said Maureen Connelly, and "loose bricks and unstable roof elements have been removed."

Workers are now busy repairing the roof. When the site is transformed into the Powerhouse Workshop, it "will include a waterfront esplanade along the Gowanus Canal that will be open to the public," according to Connelly.

"Gowanus is changing," said Hannah Frishberg, "but I think it's buildings like the Batcave and Coignet Stone which will be the few that truly benefit, because these are structures that would just have reached an Admirals' Row level of ruin in a few years anyway."

Across the street, the landscape has already been radically changed by Whole Foods, which replaced an industrial site with a long history.

Whole Foods' new waterfront esplanade looks out over a sunken boat, a scrapyard, and another neighborhood landmark—the silos on 6th Street.

Across from the esplanade, a rare view of one the last boats on the Gowanus has been opened up by the demolition of a bus depot.

A new office building is being built next to the silos, to replace the bus depot. The construction site was left open to visitors. "Things are happening left and right that the city doesn't seem to be too concerned about," said Katia Kelly.

In a matter of days, the wide open construction site was walled off by hastily laid cinderblocks.  The construction site was partially flooded with Gowanus water.

Nearby, the Public Place site is currently awaiting a cleanup plan in preparation for another huge development project. "If the EPA hadn't come along, you would have had 700 units of housing there now," said Kelly. "Remediation still has to happen here."

The entire skyline of the Gowanus area, including Public Place, may be transformed in the next few years, as towers replace warehouses and Brownfields. "What is feasible in the Gowanus area, with flooding, rising sea levels?" asks Katia Kelly. "Someone has to go ahead and say it just doesn't make sense. It just doesn't make sense."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Gowanus Canal coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]