By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
The lively school of fish flashing by probably should have been a clue.
On our kayak trip several weeks ago, we decided to pay a visit to the Gowanus Canal. I know it seems crazy to paddle on a heavily-polluted Superfund site, but we both have a secret fondness for blasted industrial landscapes. And the canal also features charming, idiosyncratic quirks: festive murals, and a houseboat or two.
Or at least it did, upon our last visit. We hadn’t seen it since just before Superstorm Sandy. Then, the mood had been somber, filled with foreboding and a sense of upcoming loss. We feared what the storm would do to the places we’d come to love, Gowanus among them.
True to our fears, Sandy kept us off the water for months, and in the nearly three years since then, we didn’t make it back to Gowanus to see how it survived. So this trip was very much an exploration: How much had Sandy destroyed? And what was left?
Things had definitely changed, as it turned out—but not exactly in the way we expected.
By Vladimir Brezina
On Saturday, October 27, with Hurricane Sandy just offshore and aiming, it seemed, directly for New York City, we went for what we (correctly) suspected would be our last kayak trip for some time.
We paddled down the harbor to visit the Gowanus Canal, our favorite Superfund waterway. There one can encounter sights and smells like nowhere else—except perhaps in Newtown Creek, another Superfund site…
Everything was calm. The calm before the storm…
When Sandy hit the next day, the Gowanus Canal overflowed its banks and flooded a wide swath of industrial and residential land around. No doubt, as elsewhere, this caused much destruction. But in addition, of course, the Canal’s water is not just any ordinary water—it is laced with “toxic sludge, heavy metals, oil and—when the sewer system overflows—good old human excrement.” The city issued an advisory that “residents should wash their hands and practice proper hygiene if they come into contact with the canal’s water or sediments.” Sediments that it may take years to clean up…
So the chances are that the Canal and its surroundings will never be quite the same again. These may be some of the last photos of what Gowanus Canal looked like in the good old days before the flood…
Here’s a slideshow of all photos from the trip:
The individual photos, and a much larger-format slideshow, are here.