Gowanus is where I live now. I love bridges and I love industrial, and Gowanus has both. The first thing I remember about my first encounter with Gowanus was my curiosity about the name. This happens a lot in New York. I suppose a fair number of visitors and residents alike simply take the place names of NYC for granted. And then there are those of us who are curious.
Gowanus is a small industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Its most prominent feature is the Gowanus Canal. The canal makes its way up into Brooklyn from Gowanus Bay in Upper New York Bay. Back in the early 1600s, Dutch settlers named the creek (that would later become the Gowanus Canal) after the Lenape sachem Gouwane. He led the local Canarsee tribe that lived in the area. The Gowanes Creek soon became home to gristmills; to this day the area is one of the last manufacturing zones left in NYC.
So I live in a place named after a tribal leader, and I was born in another: Seattle is my birthplace. I suppose it’s to be expected, in some sense, that the names of native leaders adorn so many of our city halls, yet it still puzzles me that this was one of the few things we sought to preserve of the indigenous peoples of North America. Hang on to the names, but raze the rest of it. (Well, that’s a topic for another day.)
Before I drive the bus right off the road into a digressive ditch (or canal), let me get back to why I am writing about Gowanus in the first place. I love bridges. I’m not a fanatic, not someone who can tell you every engineering detail of every kind of bridge. Yet bridges are grand metaphors and symbols as well as being useful as heck. A bridge is a perfect marriage of form and function, of poetry and prose, and as tall as they stand, it is their span that makes them what they are. They wrap around the planet and allow passage over impassable terrain. Yet bridges do not mock what they conquer. A bridge can make a gorge all the more beautiful.
I live on Carroll Street near 3rd Avenue. This is close to the eastern border of Gowanus. The borders are generally considered to be 4th Avenue to the east, Smith Street and Bond Street to the west, Butler Street to the north, and Hamilton Avenue to the south (the Gowanus Expressway passes overhead). There are five bridges that cross the canal; all of the five bridges run from east to west. Going north from the Hamilton Avenue Bridge, the other bridges are at Ninth Street (under the elevated “subway” tracks), Third Street, Carroll Street, and Union Street.
The bridge on Carroll Street (my street, hence my bridge) is the oldest retractable bridge in the US. Built in 1889, when pulled by its cables it slides on tracks perpendicular to the waterway to allow ships to pass. The other four bridges rise above the canal. Going back down to the southernmost bridge, the one at Hamilton Avenue is a bascule type bridge. It opens at the midway point, each section lifted by counterweights. At Ninth Street you’ll find a vertical lift bridge that replaced a deteriorated bascule bridge. Third Street has a double-leaf Scherzer rolling lift bascule bridge. Yep, that’s right, a double-leaf Scherzer rolling lift bascule. Lastly, north of Carroll Street you’ll find the Union Street Bridge, also a double-leaf Scherzer rolling lift bascule. So my bridge (yep, my bridge) is part of a retractable-on-double-leaf-Scherzer-rolling-lift-bascule sandwich.
At this point in the writing of this essay, I’m about to head out to meet friends for brunch. On my way back home, I’ll stop to photograph each of the five bridges and I’ll put the pictures on Flickr. Here’s a link to the collection: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shitebot/collections/72157614477290429
I was at first struck by what some might take as the emptiness of Gowanus as I walked from bridge to bridge on a Saturday, but surely industry is a sign of a human presence. How often do we ignore the humanity in our machinery! And certainly trucks swarm the area during the week. I’ll have to come back on a weekday to visit.
I was also haunted by one very empty playground; I’ll write about that another day. I’m so accustomed to the strollers one tends to see all over Brooklyn these days that the absence of children was a stark notice that there are still some areas in Brooklyn not yet taken over by the breeder brigades.
Maybe someday when you want to explore a little slice of Brooklyn that doesn’t get much attention, you’ll make some time to visit Gowanus.
The Wikipedia links have groovy animations
Google Map of Gowanus