The Glorious Gowanus

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror”
–Rainer Marie Rilke, Duino Elegies

I am riding my bike south on Nevins Street, a neglected side street in Brooklyn lined with squat, surly industrial buildings used for glass manufacturing and sanitation and trucking. Trash fills the gutter and piles up like snowdrifts in the nooks between buildings. Small bits of glass glint up from cracks and potholes in the road. I make an illegal right-hand turn onto Union Street and after a few hundred feet I finally see the blue-green shimmer of my destination: the canal.

There is no river-walk or manicured bike path along the 1.5-mile gash of noxious water known as the Gowanus Canal. It must be viewed in snatches from side streets or from the short, glorious spans of one of its brightly painted bridges. The Union Street Bridge on which I now stand is a cheerful aqua structure that makes the brackish water below look even murkier.

I have always loved the banks of rivers and the shores of beaches, the slim spaces between the known world of land and the mysteries below the water’s surface. From the bridge I can glimpse the silt-covered skeletons of grocery carts and broken bicycles on the canal bed. An unfurled condom, like a small translucent trout, floats lazily near a wooden pylon. Weeds jut from cracks and crannies in the concrete walls on either side of the water; a large, gnarled oak tree looms precariously between bridge and retaining wall. This is one of the most hauntingly beautiful locations in New York.

Built in the mid 1800’s, the disintegrating Gowanus Canal is now being reclaimed by the unknown. Searching the waterway’s intermittent shores, I feel like I have stumbled upon Gothic ruins, a crumbling human conceit. The desolation here breeds an atmosphere of mystery and magic. Unlike the rest of the city, it is a place without set purpose. Free of programming, the Gowanus, this interstitial, obsolete place, offers solitude and a landscape for reflection.

I pick up my bike and continue west then south, seeking a vantage closer to the water’s edge and thinking about the industrial wasteland before me. If design is intended, as many people believe, to reduce friction in one’s life then does it also reduce moments of conscious thought? It is strangely liberating to be in a place so non-designed, a place where I am confronted with the poignant friction of trash and waste and ruin, the destruction of man made manifest.

Several streets dead-end at the canal with barbed wire and chain link fences. At Second Street, the fence is absent and someone has cleared the waste to make a boat slip. I leave my bike and venture onto the rough, contoured concrete slab that extends jagged over a shore of rocks and railroad ties. Across the water, a tangle of leafless trees frames an abandoned building that conjures images of Mr. Rochester’s decaying mansion in Jane Eyre. I envision it at night with flames licking at the windows and a mad wife dancing across its roof.

I am completely alone. It feels oddly luxurious, even in this landscape, to be alone in public in New York City. I feel like I can pretend. Un-self consciously. Like I did as a child in the woods behind my parents’ house. I have the urge to build a fort and look for trolls.

Finding a dearth of fort-building materials I retrieve my bicycle and venture south on Smith Street, moving parallel to the looming steel girders of an elevated railway. I cross onto 9th Street and pause midway on the bridge, steel above, water below. Patches of oil float lazily down the canal towards Gowanus Bay. There are more people here and a steady flow of cars makes its way across the bridge but I look for the troll anyway.

This morning I read that Whole Foods plans to build a grocery store on the canal. The building will have a parking lot and a greenhouse on the roof—consolation for guilty eco-urbanites. I fear that development will eventually transform the waterway into a disingenuous Disneyland version of itself—Venice meets The Highline. The nooks and crannies would become planters and esplanades. Local weeds would be domesticated into “native plantings.” There would be no gaps, no places of mystery or magic. Eventually, any reminders of the damage wreaked by consumer manufacturing will be camouflaged with a veil of green design. The unknown will be tamed, turned into something non-threatening and ultimately non-beautiful.

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