The Gowanus Canal is a body of water in Brooklyn, New York.
The Gowanus Canal started out as a tidal inlet flowing into what is now called Gowanus Bay. This inlet was called the "Gowanees Creek" by early Dutch settlers for a local Native American Chief Gowanee of the Canarsee tribe. The village of Brueklyn was created in 1643 with the Gowanus as its eastern edge.
As the City of Brooklyn grew and expanded, the inlet was modified to serve more utilitarian purposes. The New York State Legislature started the construction of the Gowanus Canal in 1848-9. The goals of construction were to eliminate the marshy wetlands and create a channel that would convey water away from the growing city and serve as a transportation line for an increasingly industrial area. Construction would be completed in the late 1860s. The community surrounding the Canal became diverse with Italian, Scandinavian and Irish immigrants living in vibrant residential areas such as Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill to the west and Park Slope extending east from the water's edge to Prospect Park. Industrial and commercial interests also settled in the region, especially heavy industry like chemical plants, refineries and manufacturing that used the Canal as a source of water and an outlet system for waste.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Canal was over two miles long, stretching from the Gowanus Bay of New York Harbor south of Governors Island north to what is now Butler Street with several minor branches to the east. Decades of using the Canal as a drainage system had taken their toll, with hundreds of untreated sanitary and storm sewer connections and industrial outfalls emptying directly into the waterway. The vapors coming off of the Canal were unpleasant at best or toxic, dangerous and unbearable at worst.
The Flushing Tunnel opened in 1911, connecting the north end of the Canal to Buttermilk Channel in the East River with a 12 foot (3.7 m) diameter tunnel 6,280 feet long (1.9 km). This tunnel provided a means to circulate the stagnant and polluted water out into the harbor.
The construction of the Gowanus Expressway in the 1940s caused disruption on the maritime traffic in the Canal and the surrounding neighborhoods. The increased use of trucks for transportation reduced the need for barges on the Canal and the dissection of the neighborhoods to the south and west damaged property values. The nearby placement of two large public housing projects reduced the property values further. The Army Corps of Engineers considered the reduced barge traffic and found that continued dredging would no longer be cost effective in 1955. The flushing tunnel station broke in 1961 and was not repaired until 1999. An estimated 50% of Gowanus properties were abandoned or unused in the late 1970s. Incredibly, raw sewage drained directly into the Canal until the completion of the Red Hook Wastewater Treatment Facility in 1989. Raw sewage still directly enters the Canal under rainy overflow conditions.
Today, the Gowanus Canal is in somewhat better condition. Repairs of the Flushing Tunnel were completed in 1989 and the system now moves an average of 200 million gallons of fresh water per day1 through the Canal. Dredging of significant sedimentation was executed and numerous brownfield remediation projects are underway. Property values in the surrounding area are on the rise with an influx of both immigrant families and young professionals. Artists fleeing high rents in more cosmopolitan regions have moved their studios and residences to the area, finding space and light in quantities unavailable in Manhattan.
The Gowanus Canal is crossed by 5 vehicular and pedestrian drawbridges, not including the Gowanus Expressway. The difference between high and low tide is approximately 4 feet. The four northern bridges are opened 300-400 times per year on average. The Hamilton Avenue Drawbridge is opened considerably more frequently.
Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment (www.bcue.org)
1: This is from the DEP press release. 200,000,000 gallons/day yields 309 cfs for a tunnel average water velocity under 3 ft/sec.