Postindustrial waterfront tours

Two new tours explore the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek, both declared Superfund sites in 2010.

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  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Gowanus Canal

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Gowanus Canal

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Gowanus Canal

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Gowanus Canal

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

    Gowanus Canal

  • Photograph: Donald Yip

    Newtown Creek

  • Photograph: Donald Yip

    Newtown Creek

  • Photograph: Donald Yip

    Newtown Creek

  • Photograph: Donald Yip

    Newtown Creek

  • Photograph: Donald Yip

    Newtown Creek

Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Gowanus Canal

Gowanus Canal


Where it is: South Brooklyn, crossing through Gowanus and Red Hook (1.8 miles long)
The history: In 1776, the swampy farmland surrounding the creek was part of the Battle of Long Island, and around the mid-1800s, factories moved into the area. "During the late-19th century, most of the Gowanus Canal [area] was filled with companies that manufactured or prepared building materials," says architectural historian Matt Postal, who's been leading tours around the canal for five years.
How polluted is it? The gooey mixture at the bottom of the canal contains pesticides, likely carcinogens such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and metals like mercury and lead. Plus, sewage flows into the water from 11 points during heavy rains. The cleanup, scheduled to start in 2015, will take at least a decade.
Will hanging out there kill you? No, but you'll probably get a whiff of something gross. "I notice [the smell] around Union Street or Butler Street," says Postal. "There's nowhere for it to go." In 1999, the city repaired a flushing tunnel, which brings fresh water into the canal, to help ameliorate the stench. "There's no question that it's better than it was ten years ago," says Postal. Plus, a recent study turned up an array of fish and even crabs—though eating them isn't advised.
What you'll see on the tour: Postal will point out historic landmarks, including the retractable Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1889 and still functional today. He's also interested in how the neighborhood's residents interact with the canal's industrial origins; off-the-grid types have built homes on the canal, while creative spaces embrace the canal's less-than-pleasant past. "Proteus Gowanus [a stop on the tour] has an area of their building called Hall of the Gowanus, which is a kind of artistic response to the history of the area," Postal says.
Check it out! Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal walking tour; meet at northwest corner of President and Smith Sts, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn (212-453-0050, mas.org). June 19 at 11am; $15, Municipal Art Society members $10.

Newtown Creek


Where it is: The border between Queens (Long Island City and Maspeth) and Brooklyn (Greenpoint and Bushwick) (3.5 miles long)
The history: The area became the site of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company in the 1800s, as well as a major shipping hub for the city in the 20th century. "Now you'll see mostly working-class houses from the turn of the 20th century interspersed with new condos," says urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum, who leads tours through the neighborhood. Not far away is the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (NCWTP), which processes sewage in its massive, silvery "digester eggs, " completed in 2008.
How polluted is it? In addition to pesticides, metals, PCBs and regular sewage overflow, as much as 30 million gallons of oil (from sources such as Exxon Mobil, which was ordered to pay $25 million in cleanup costs in 2010) have seeped into the creek. And the water isn't the only tainted place: The surrounding soil has also turned up traces of contamination.
Will hanging out there kill you? Probably not, although small amounts of harmful vapors have been detected. "When you get down to the water's edge, the creek itself is pretty dismal," says Eichenbaum. "But it's not completely dead—I've seen cormorants sitting on the side of Newtown Creek. They dive for fish, so there have to be some there."
What you'll see on the tour: Eichenbaum will stop at the nature trail that surrounds NCWTP: The walkway, lined with sculpted concrete walls and native plants, features an amphitheater-like area for admiring the water. "Once you're down at the creek level, the city opens up and becomes a much more horizontal landscape," he says. The tour also visits the Pulaski Bridge to visit Long Island City's Gantry Plaza State Park, which sits next to a cluster of shiny new condos. "You're seeing resurgence in all kinds of industrial neighborhoods," says Eichenbaum. "The artistic community has found new niches in these places."
Check it out! Crossing Newtown Creek walking tour; meet at northeast corner of Greenpoint and Manhattan Aves, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (212-453-0050, mas.org). Wed 15 at 6pm; $15, Municipal Art Society members $10.

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