Brooklyn’s Curious Canal
Published by: NYU Press
400 pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- ISBN: 9781479892945
- Published: October 2015
For more than 150 years, Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal has been called a cesspool, an industrial dumping ground, and a blemish on the face of the populous borough—as well as one of the most important waterways in the history of New York harbor. Yet its true origins, man-made character, and importance to the city have been largely forgotten.
Now, New York writer and guide Joseph Alexiou explores how the Gowanus creek—a naturally-occurring tidal estuary that served as a conduit for transport and industry during the colonial era—came to play an outsized role in the story of America’s greatest city. From the earliest Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, to nearby Revolutionary War skirmishes, or the opulence of the Gilded Age mansions that sprung up in its wake, historical changes to the Canal and the neighborhood that surround it have functioned as a microcosm of the story of Brooklyn’s rapid nineteenth-century growth.
Highlighting the biographies of nineteenth-century real estate moguls like Daniel Richards and Edwin C. Litchfield, Alexiou recalls the forgotten movers and shakers that laid the foundation of modern-day Brooklyn. As he details, the pollution, crime, and industry associated with the Gowanus stretch back far earlier than the twentieth century, and helped define the culture and unique character of this celebrated borough. The story of the Gowanus, like Brooklyn itself, is a tale of ambition and neglect, bursts of creative energy, and an inimitable character that has captured the imaginations of city-lovers around the world.
CONTENTS Acknowledgments xi Prologue: The Tale of Sludgie the Whale 1 1. Millponds, Oysters, and Early Origins (1636–1774) 21 2. Bloody Waters (1776) 53 3. The Atlantic Docks and Basin (1812–1851) 89 4. Sewers, Railroads, and the Castle on the Hill (1851–1857) 125 5. The Brooklyn Improvement Company (1858–1869) 157 6. Foul Odors and Foiled Plots (1870–1885) 199 7. Industry, Identity, and Violence in Gowanus (1885–1898) 235 8. Strikes, Moonshine, and Mobs (1902–1949) 267 9. The Fall of South Brooklyn and the Brownstone Revolution (1950–1981) 305 10. Superfund Me! (1981–2010) 329 Epilogue 357 Notes 369 Index 387 About the Author 399
"In Gowanus, Joseph Alexiou handles this complicated waterway's history with admirable finesse, dogged research, and an enthusiasm as infectious as his subject."-Brooklyn Magazine
"This well-researched, jauntily written, knowledgeable book explains a lot about our funky, much-abused, lovable waterway, not only to those like myself who live near its shores, but to anyone with an appetite for urban history and a desire to fathom the dramatic, contradictory transformations affecting metropolises today."-Phillip Lopate,author of Waterfront
"Who could have thought a curious, 1.8 mile long New York waterway would have such a fun, fascinating, hidden history? Journalist Joseph Alexiou brings Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal to life with all its gore, political ramifications, and gentrified glory. An intelligent and impressive debut."-Susan Shapiro,author of The Bosnia List
“Journalist Alexiou has merged a mass of personal accounts, letters, municipal records, maps, interviews, scholarly research, and more into an engaging narrative that conveys unbridled enthusiasm for its subject while never taking itself too seriously.”-Choice
"Alexiou's narrative is well-researched and moves along in a confident and lively manner...The author presents an unusually well-defined case history of the interaction of the private and public sectors generating growth and prosperity through a unique piece of urban infrastructure at a terrible environmental cost that still has not been fully addressed."-Kirkus Reviews
"This is a loving and skillfully rendered portrait of an important and oddly charming part of New York."-New York Times Book Review
"Alexiou takes a figurative dive into the infamously polluted Gowanus Creek in this engrossing narrative of Brooklyn's development amid shifting economic cycles, waves of immigration, urban decay, and its current renewal…Alexiou draws profound and amusing comparisons between the historical Gowanus and the Brooklyn of today as he looks at population, city politics, and the ways humans both rely upon and shortsightedly destroy nature."-Publishers Weekly
"The Gowanus Canal may never evoke Venice, but within a few decades, developers are betting, people will be paying a high premium to inhabit its banks. Until then, readers can get a historical view through Joseph Alexiou's edifying Gowanus."-New York Times "Metropolitan"
"As dark and sludgy as the waters of the Gowanus Canal are, Joseph Alexiou makes them into a brilliant mirror of urban history. In his skillful hands, the canal provides an incisive and entirely unexpected way of understanding Brooklyn—and, more broadly, American cities—from native peoples through factory owners, speculators, gangsters, brownstone bourgeoisie, and body-art hipsters. Here is a book of relentless research and narrative elan."-Samuel G. Freedman,Columbia University
"Gowanus has an urgency that few history books possess; its last pages take you to a modern, thriving neighborhood in an unstable relationship with the body of water that defines it."-BoweryBoysHistory.com
“Written by a journalist, Gowanus is of interest to all urbanists who like a good read.”-Journal of Urban Affairs