THE STINKY GOWANUS

Its more than just a smelly canal… come and appreciate the role it’s played in NYC’s history.

TRANSCRIPT

TODAY IS EARTH DAY, AND THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN DAY MOVEMENT.

TODAY WE'RE LOOKING AT ONE OF NEW YORK CITY'S SMELLIEST TREASURES.

NEW YORKERS HAVE COME TO THINK OF THE GOWANUS CANAL AS THAT BODY OF WATER IN BROOKLYN THAT HAS BEEN STINKING UP THE BOROUGH FOR AS LONG AS THEY CAN REMEMBER.

WHAT THEY PROBABLY DON'T KNOW ARE SOME OF THE REASONS FOR THAT OBNOXIOUS ODOR.

COCKTAIL OF RAW SEWAGE, BODIES DUMPED BY THE MOB AND EVEN A SICK WHALE NAMED SLUDGY HAS HELPED NAME THE GOWANUS AS ONE OF THE COUNTRY'S DIRTIEST BODIES OF WATER.

BUT THERE IS A HISTORY ROOTED IN THE HISTORY OF THE REVOLUTIONARY AREA.

AU .

WHAT IF THERE WAS NO GOWANUS CREEK, NO BOGGY BARRIER BLOCKING THE BRITISH?

IS IT SO PRESUMPTUOUS TO SUGGEST THAT IF THERE WAS NO GOWANUS CREEK WE MIGHT HAVE BEEN DIVIDED AND CONQUERED.

HISTORIANS MAY BE INFURIATED BY THE QUESTION, BUT IS IT SO, SO RIDICULOUS TO SUGGEST WITHOUT THE GOWANUS CREEK, THERE WOULD BE NO AMERICA?

IN HIS BOOK, 'GOWANUS: BROOKLYN'S CURIOUS CANAL,' ALEXIOU ALSO SCORES THE EVOLUTION FROM A CREEK TO A MODERN DAY ROLE IN MAKING THE BOROUGH A HOT PLACE TO LIVE.

JENNA FLANAGAN SAT DOWN WITH ALEXIOU AND ASKED WHAT SPARKED HIS INTEREST IN THE GOWANUS.

WELL, I USED TO LIVE NEAR THE GOWANUS CANAL BACK IN 2006.

AND AROUND ABOUT A YEAR AFTER I MOVED INTO THAT NEIGHBORHOOD, THERE WAS A MASSIVE STORM, AND AFTER THE STORM, A BABY WHALE SWAM RIGHT INTO THE MOUTH OF THE CANAL, AND IT BECAME A BIG NATIONAL STORY.

AND I LEARNED AT THAT POINT THAT THE CANAL WAS VERY POLLUTED, AND THE CONFLUENCE OF THIS BABY WHALE, THE GREAT POLLUTION REALLY MADE ME WONDER HOW DID IT GET THIS WAY?

SO I ONCE I STARTED ASKING THAT QUESTION, THE ANSWER BECAME MORE AND MORE COMPLICATED UNTIL I THOUGHT I'VE GOT WRITE A WHOLE BOOK ABOUT THIS.

WELL, TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW DID IT GET THAT WAY?

WELL, THE CANAL BECAME AS POLLUTED AS IT DID THROUGH WHAT I LIKE TO CALL PROGRESS, BUT THERE ARE TWO THINGS THAT HAPPENED.

THE FIRST IS THAT WE -- THE CITY OF BROOKLYN, IN BUILDING ITS FIRST SEWER SYSTEMS IN THE 1850s CONNECTED SOME OF THE OUTFALLS OR SOME OF THE EMERGENCY SEWER EXITS DIRECTLY TO THE GOWANUS CREEK AS IT WAS BEING CONSTRUCTED.

AND THIS WAS BECAUSE OF THE MASSIVE RAIN STORMS WE GET IN NEW YORK.

SO ESSENTIALLY, OUR SEWERS ARE DIRECTLY CONNECTED TO THE GOWANUS CANAL.

AND EVERY TIME IT RAINS, RAW SEWAGE WILL FLOW INTO THERE.

THE OTHER WAY IT BECAME EXTREMELY POLLUTED IS THROUGH THE MANY INDUSTRIES THAT POPPED UP AROUND THE CANAL, ESPECIALLY MANUFACTURED GAS, WHICH CAME FROM COAL GASIFICATION.

AND WHEN YOU CAN TAKE COAL, ONE OF THE BY-PRODUCTIOUS GET WHEN YOU GASIFY IT'S IS COAL TAR.

INCREDIBLY POLLUTING AND TOXIC MATERIAL THAT THEY DUMPED SOMETIMES DIRECTLY INTO THE GROUND OR INTO THE WATER.

AND THOSE TWO THINGS TOGETHER MADE IT RATHER POLLUTED.

WOW.

WAS ANYBODY IN CHARGE OF THE GOWANUS CANAL?

YOU KNOW, THERE WERE BODIES PRIVATE BUSINESSMEN THAT WENT TOWARDS THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE CANAL, AND THERE WERE SOME CITY GROUPS THAT WERE INVOLVED IN REGULATING IT.

BUT THE TRUTH WAS IT WAS NEVER OVERLOOKED BY ONE GOVERNMENTAL BODY OR ONE PRIVATE GROUP.

SO IT WAS KIND OF EVERY LANDOWNER HAD THEIR LITTLE SECTION, AND THAT IS WHERE SOME OF THE JURISDICTION CAME FROM.

ALL RIGHT.

SO MOST PEOPLE IN BROOKLYN WHO PROBABLY SAY IT JUST STINKS.

BUT IT ACTUALLY DID PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN BROOKLYN BECOMING BROOKLYN.

OH, ABSOLUTELY.

WELL, WE COULD START ALL THE BAYWAY BACK IN THE REVOLUTION, IF YOU LIKE, WHEN IT WAS PART OF AN IMPORTANT KEY BATTLE IN THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR.

IT ESSENTIALLY ACTED AS A NATURAL BUFFER BETWEEN THE BRITISH AND THE AMERICAN FORCES DUR A KEY REALLY LONG AND PRO EXTRACTED ATTACK AGAINST AMERICA.

BUT IN THE 19th CENTURY, IT WAS DIRECTLY RELATED TO BROOKLYN'S COMMERCIAL GROWTH AS AN INDUSTRIAL -- AS AN INDUSTRIAL CITY.

BECAUSE THE CANAL WAS THERE, THEY WERE ABLE TO HAVE PLENTY OF WATERFRONT SITES FOR BUILDING MATERIALS, FOR LUMBERYARDS, COAL YARDS, FOR BRICK YARDS, AND BUSINESSES LIKE CEMENT PLANTS AND OTHER KINDS OF CHEMISTRIES WERE ABLE TO POP UP ALONG THE CANAL BECAUSE OF THE EASY ACCESS FOR RAW MATERIALS TO THE PLACES WHERE FACTORIES WERE BEING BUILT.

THIS WAS IN THE CENTER OF THE GROWING CITY OF BROOKLYN, AND IT CREATED THOUSANDS OF JOBS AND HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS WORTH OF COMMERCE RIGHT IN THE CENTER OF THIS GROWING INDUSTRIAL CITY THAT RIVALED NEW YORK IN ITS SIZE.

SO REALLY QUICKLY, THE GOWANUS CANAL WAS OF COURSE NAMED A SUPERFUND SITE.

IS IT TOO MUCH OF A SUPER MESS FOR THE SUPERFUND SITE AND WILL WE EVER BE ABLE TO SWIM IN IT?

GOSH, I DON'T KNOW IF SWIMMING IN THE CANAL WILL EVER BE SOMETHING WE SHOULD DO.

SOME PEOPLE HAVE SWUM IN IT.

I WOULDN'T DO IT.

BUT IT WILL TAKE A LONG TIME FOR THEM TO CLEAN UP TO THE CANAL BEFORE THEY'LL BE ABLE TO CLEAN UP THE CANAL TO THE POINT THAT IT IS ALMOST SWIMMABLE.

IN OTHER WORDS, THERE WILL STILL BE RAW SEWAGE THAT FLOWS INTO IT, JUST MUCH LESS THAT FLOWS INTO IT NOW.

UNTIL THERE IS NO RAW SEWAGE FLOWING INTO IT, I PROBABLY WON'T SWIM THERE, AND IT MAY BE A VERY LONG TIME BEFORE WE CAN STOP ALL THE RAW SEWAGE FLOWING INTO IT ENTIRELY.

OKAY.

WELL, I WON'T BE SWIMMING IN IT.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US AND TELLING US ALL ABOUT THE G.E. CANAL.

MY PLEASURE.

AND THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR HAVING ME.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

WNET

© WNET All Rights Reserved.

825 Eighth Avenue

New York, NY 10019