This block is home to the former National Packing Box Factory, a large brick building built in 1910 with remnants of the old signage still on the facade. We drew our inspiration from this building and a few distinct elements. There is an amazing series of fire escapes, bridges and a floating corrugated metal box suspended between this building and another in an alley. There is also a series of beautiful yellow doors leading to Cabinet, the arts and culture magazine headquarters. And lastly, lining the permitter of the building are wooden planters filled with well maintained plants. With these components as inspiration we crafted a yellow planter box, made from folded paper like a small little package, placed it on two wooden dowels so it hovers above the ground and filled it with dirt and a small succulent. We then brought it over to the alley and placed it next to the components we found inspiring. We documented this exercise and have turned the photos into a short animation.
Day 1 & 2 – The Sink
I pulled into the Find parking lot next to the bridge and when I got out of the car the first thing I saw was a broken sink and toilet against the bridge wall. Since the gate is close during the night, I have to assume this happened in daylight and it seemed deliberate. Like an art piece. Then, I noticed bugs flying around the thick brown bag and became aware of an incredible stench. My daughter Sasha was with me. We had to run from the smell. I became certain it was a piece of art.
I had taken documentary pictures as a test, and felt compelled that this would be more of a documentary piece. But after stumbling across the “bathroom sink and toilet piece” I decided this had to be an art piece. So I have begun “art-ing up” the photos.
Day 3 – The Rain
These images were shot at dusk on this rainy summer’s eve. I went with more of a “cut-out” approach to stylizing them. Again the interesting image in the series is the one that is un-retouched, with the “Drawbridge” sign. After 3 years and millions of dollars of construction, the barely reopened train station overpass provides this subtle hint that your trip down ninth street might be delayed by the passing of a small boat coming into the canal to measure the toxicity of the Superfund site.
“As a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies. Contaminants include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics. The contamination poses a threat to the nearby residents who use the canal for fishing and recreation.”
The oil rainbow floats with the reflection of the cloudy dusky sky. They are married in the slowly drifting current. it makes one thirsty for a soda. The bottom image shows two light structures that float over Hamilton Avenue draw bridge. My neighbor won the commission for these structures he designed. His apartment overlooks them as they change with the season and react to the traffic.
Day 4 – The Big Picture
I took pictures yesterday focusing on the bridge itself. I realized that in general, and especially with the construction that has surrounded it for the past 3 years, that there are very few perspectives where you can actually see the bridge. It hides, or lurks, under the looming subway overpass. The 9th street bridge, is ominous, but almost invisible from any form of daily view. It is the Big Secret.
On the walk to the bridge I took a picture of grass in the parking lot, in a large hole created by the Sandy storm. With high tide cresting the barrier of the parking lot, I realized that this little garden is fed by the toxic water of the Gowanus. I walk with my two kids and dog along this path along the Gowanus all the time. I have used the ledge boarding the water to have difficult conversations with the people who work for me. I once was almost provoked to throw one of them into the water, an action that would have served as a double-edge sword for him. I knew this person for years, we were once close friends, and our relationship went sour in that conversation. We no longer speak.
This project at first seemed ominous. Despite my deep relationship (of over 30 years) with the location of the 9th street bridge that includes my home one block West and my office adjacent to the East, at first I couldn’t imagine what to do with it. Then I settled on still photograph, and realized it was difficult to frame. Then as I took the pictures it became easy. Like an intimate friend you finally had time to spend real quality time with.
In the coming months this bridge will likely be trafficked heavily by recent ex convicts, as the new headquarters for the regional federal parole office is being developed on the Gowanus, and the bridge will serve as one of the direct routes from the subway to the office. This situation may serve as the “last conversation” I have with this neighborhood, at least for my office.
In the end, thinking about what the Gowanus really is, outside of the scenic and unique characteristic of a flowing body of water, supporting tug boats, barges and social boating in the midst of a concrete jungle, I came to see it as the piranha it really is. It left me in a state of fear and anxiety. That’s Brooklyn for you I guess.
Philip Goetz August 14, 2014
After a brief hiatus, we are back with another entry in Mapping Gowanus.
Director and photographer Miska Draskoczy gives some background on his piece:
Douglass Street is the site of the recently reactivated Gowanus Flushing Tunnel which pumps water from the East River to the head of the canal in an effort to reduce stagnation and improve water quality. This new current stirs up quite a bit of gunk though, with putrid chemical slicks floating down and giving off nauseating fumes. My clip is a reflection on this somewhat questionable approach, as all water sources in the world are ultimately connected. The animation elements come from photos and video I shot on Douglass Street and nearby.
Check out more of Miska’s work (and if you aren’t familiar with his stunning Gowanus WIld photo series – you are in for a treat).
Writer Donnaldson Brown (who has written a play, The Gowanus Canal Anthology) provided these musings on her recent stroll.
Nothing makes visceral the relentless march of time quite like a walk through the Gowanus these days.
There is renewal. The yeasty aroma of bread baking for another event at the hip Green Building, which always has cars the vintage of old time mobsters parked outside. I don’t know why.
And the freshly pointed and painted coops for sale. “Modern Beauty, Classic Brooklyn,” the realtor’s sign says.
Maybe the “Classic Brooklyn,” is the view across the empty lot to the circa 1970 Chris Craft cabin cruiser sinking in the canal.
Or the rusting corrugated metal fence sloping past a bulbous ship’s stanchion (now purple) across the street.
I don’t know what they’re branding, “Classic Brooklyn.” But I suspect these realtors are not natives.
And something is ending here, too. Not just the dead cat decomposing beneath the chainlink fence and razor wire surrounding sleeping tour buses. Tour buses. A reminder that Brooklyn is a destination now. I’ve been here thirty years. Back when relatives gave me a worried look each time I admitted to living here. Back when the sidewalks glistened with splintered crack vials and hookers waited outside the cement mixing plant on Bond and 4th. I’m not nostalgic for those shattered lives or for the decay.
But I am a little nostalgic for the moment, the time between what may have been the Gowanus’ nadir and the now established revival, with its developers excited like they’re at some charismatic Pentecostal service. A little nostalgic for the time when those settling here had to have some guts and vision, and maybe a little desperation, not just money. A little nostalgic for what had to make way. And what’s always on the other side of nostalgia? Anxiety.
My dogs and I amble through the Gowanus still. Our walk now punctuated by the pounding hydraulic pile driver sinking pole after pole of metal through the dirt and mud for the foundation of a 700-unit apartment building going up three blocks away. It’s good. For some. Housing for new families. Families with children and pets. For bakers and teachers and bankers. And….
…I balance on that purple stanchion teetering between nostalgia and apprehension.