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Meet the unofficial stewards of Brooklyn’s most polluted waterway

The Gowanus Dredgers lead regular boat tours of the fetid waterway

When navigating the Gowanus Canal, it’s not easy to keep your hands clean. We’ve only just sat down in the canoe, and already there’s a trail of dark sludge—the canal’s infamous “black mayonnaise”—running the length of my palm. I must’ve accidentally scraped my paddle handle against the bulkhead. Yuck.

Over the course of my two-hour trip down the canal with the Gowanus Dredgers, we’d be treated to plenty of other hideous sights: a dead rat, a used condom encrusted in barnacles, a cockroach riding a napkin like a raft. But we’d see beautiful things, too: Queen Anne’s lace growing along the shoreline, buried clams setting off water spouts that caught the sunlight beneath a bridge, a snow-white egret taking flight across the water. Such is the Gowanus—polluted but glorious, industrial but running wild—a beautiful, disgusting channel of contradictions flowing through Brooklyn.

The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club was founded in 1999 with a two-pronged mission: to raise awareness and advocate for the environmental disaster area that is the canal, and to provide public access and engagement with the waterway itself. This was back before the Environmental Protection Agency deemed the Gowanus a Superfund site in 2010, and before the surrounding neighborhood became the gentrification hotbed it is today, bristling with craft cocktail bars and pricey new apartments.

Today, the Dredgers has evolved into a thriving volunteer-run nonprofit, operating out of an airy boathouse at 165 Second Street. Originally their home base was in the same location on the undeveloped end of Second Street, but they were forced to temporarily relocate to make way for the construction of the 365 Bond luxury apartment complex. Now, ironically enough, they’ve moved into the development’s ground floor.

In addition to running regular by-donation canoe outings and neighborhood tours, the organization advocates for the canal itself—a waterway that has plenty of interest but few champions. Which is how I found myself clambering into a tomato-red canoe on a sunny Sunday afternoon, with the oily, fishy, briney stench of the canal rising around us.

Our guide/skipper for the journey is Brad Vogel, captain of the Dredgers and executive director of the New York Preservation Archive Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to document the city’s historical preservation efforts. Vogel joined the Dredgers in 2016 in pursuit of his lifelong love of canoeing and kayaking, which has taken him from the marshes and rivers of Wisconsin to the bayous of New Orleans all the way to the fetid waters of the Gowanus. “Finding a spot like Gowanus, where I could go out canoeing at 6am on the canal and then still make it into work in Manhattan, was the best of both worlds for me,” he says.

I’ve unwittingly picked a time that is both the most gross and most fascinating to ride the sludgy waves: low tide, the morning after a thunderstorm. When it rains, sewer water overflows into the canal, bringing with it the contents of the neighborhood’s flushed toilets—which would explain all the condoms and tampon applicators floating past.

But it’s also when the water level is low enough to expose the antique wooden bulkheads that flank parts of the canal, dating back to the 1860s, when the canal was first shaped from the creeks, salt marshes, and millponds dotting the area. Normally wooden structures this old wouldn’t have survived the ravages of time, but they’ve been preserved thanks to the toxicity of the canal; according to Vogel, it’s been so polluted for so long that the shipworms that usually eat away waterside wood couldn’t survive the environment.

The Gowanus has been a dumping ground for Brooklyn’s more unsavory output from the very start, tucked as it is in a valley below more elegant, higher-elevation brownstone neighborhoods. In the 19th century, pretty much every heavy-polluting industry you could think of set up shop along its shores: sulfur works, coal gasification centers, tanneries, and concrete plants, to name a few. A century and a half later, their combined output has coalesced into the putrid “black mayonnaise” that has settled along the bottom of the canal like a malediction.

Thanks to the EPA and the Dredgers’ tireless advocacy, the arduous process of removing the 11-foot-deep sludge is finally underway. We paddle past the Fourth Street Turning Basin, the area of the canal beside Whole Foods, where a pilot program spearheaded by the EPA and PRPs (Potentially Responsible Parties) is dredging the bottom and loading the black mayo onto barges. The barges then travel downstream to a spot beneath the Ninth Street Bridge, where it gets dewatered, mixed with concrete, and shipped out to a landfill in Pennsylvania. If the process works, they’ll begin implementing it in other parts of the 1.8-mile waterway starting in 2020. The full clean-up process is expected to take a decade or more to complete.

The past and present jostle against each other on the canal. Broad-leafed empress trees grow along the bulkheads, their seedpods transported here during the 19th-century in shipping containers, where they were basically used as packing peanuts. We pass a modern waterfront park, a parole center, 19th-century warehouses, an asphalt plant, generator barges, coworking spaces, a homeless encampment, and the rising skeletons of luxury residential buildings under construction.

The waterfront, such as a it is, is in contention and may soon be reshaped by rezoning. The Department of City Planning has spent nearly two years studying how a zoning framework would best be implemented, holding a series of meetings with residents, elected officials and developers alike. The study came away with priorities including, among other things, more green space along the canal, infrastructure that accounts for rising sea levels in the low-lying neighborhood, and more affordable housing to factor into new residential developments.

Vogel, who lives in Gowanus, is a regular attendee of zoning meetings, and he’s wary of the city’s desire to turn the area into the next hot neighborhood, to the potential detriment of residents. “The question that’s always left in the room is, well who actually asked for this change to begin with? Who’s here that actually wants this? People sort of react to it as if it’s a foregone conclusion,” he says. “My worry is that the development is going to be oblivious to its surroundings and not conscious of the preexisting place.”

The Dredgers are as committed to preserving the culture of the neighborhood as they are to its environment. Its membership encompasses people from a wide variety of backgrounds, from outdoor enthusiasts and preservationists like Vogel to educators, water testers, and local artists and writers. The organization has partnered with the likes of the Brooklyn Book Festival to put on a sunrise reading of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves from canoes floating beneath the Carroll Street Bridge, and Make Music Brooklyn to present concerts on the water. They also collaborate with the NYU Tandon School of Engineering to develop specialized marine robots to monitor pollution in the canal.

“Our whole mission is to get people out engaging with the waterway,” Vogel explains. “Because if you’re not, it’s really hard for you to be an effective and strong advocate. People need to have some kind of relationship with the water to care about it. That was for a lot of people the handle, because why would you want to have a relationship with a polluted canal?”

Foul and stinky as it is, there’s a strange, wonderful kind of splendor in skimming along the canal. It’s oddly mesmerizing to watch my paddle slice through the rainbow slick of coal tar on the water’s surface, and to drift by the remnants of 19th-century docks and rusted-out barges. We see silver crabs dart in and out of holes in the bulkheads, a school of minnows flash by beside the canoe, a lone coconut floating incongruously in Gowanus Bay, at the south end of the canal.

We watch a cormorant takes off from the Sixth Street Turning Basin, its feathers skimming the black water. “Anytime you see birds like that in the canal, it means there’s fish in the canal or they’d be wasting their time there,” Vogel says with a smile. As the Gowanus slowly shakes off its centuries of filth, life, wonderfully enough, finds a way to thrive.

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