Before it was a place for dumping bodies, toxic sludge, sewage and used condoms, the fetid waterway known as the Gowanus Canal was a navigable creek, one of several making up a tidal inlet leading to New York Harbor. The landscape it flowed through consisted of meadows and saltwater marshes that were home to all manner of fish and fowl. That changed by 1869, when the surrounding marshland was drained, and the creek dredged and deepened, to create the canal that became the center of mid-19th-century Brooklyn’s explosion of shipping and manufacturing. The rest is pollution history.
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Today, with its industrial past long behind it, Gowanus is an area in flux, a designated EPA Superfund cleanup site poised on the precipice of gentrification. A recently opened Whole Foods, and plans for a major residential complex, are just the leading indicators of the neighborhood’s inevitable transformation, which, besides moneyed residents, apparently includes the return of the area’s wildlife. This twilight period of transition between environmentally degraded, industrial past and environmentally reclaimed, postindustrial future is the subject of Brooklyn artist Miska Draskoczy’s photo series, “Gowanus Wild,” now in view at Ground Floor Gallery in Park Slope until Nov 9. (Draskoczy will also be conducting a tour of Gowanus on the same day).
The images, shot at night, are empty of people and focus on Gowanus’s familiarly gritty fabric: the warehouse spaces, garages and fenced-off lots, as well as the Canal’s signature turbid water. The scenes appear all the more eerie thanks to the street lighting, but what makes them seem especially surreal is the natural world’s occasional intrusion in the form of a sunflower sprouting through the sidewalk, or a majestic egret, chilling on a tree branch poking out over the canal.
Draskoczy’s photos reflect Gowanus’s many contradictions, or rather, New Yorkers’ conflicted views about the place as both a cesspool and a romantic ruin, inviting feelings of disgust and nostalgia by turn. But whatever you may think it represents, Gowanus turns out to be Exhibit A for nature’s resilience.