Hemmed in by south Brooklyn’s signature quaint brownstones and stroller-stuffed streets, the mostly desolate stretch of foreboding warehouses in Gowanus seem incongruous.
Still, a stroll through Gowanus can reveal curious artifacts of past eras, when the area was a hub for Brooklyn’s shipping industry and a manufacturing center, thanks in part to the canal that roughly bisects the neighborhood.
However, short-sighted, shoddy construction of the Gowanus Canal and exponential growth in the area caused the rapid buildup of sewage, mercury, lead, PCBs, and other foul pollutants. As shipping dropped off dramatically, the stinking sludge only accumulated in the canal, leaving Gowanus a ghost town.
In the past decade, zealous locals have made spirited attempts to clean up the “waterfront,” petitioning all levels of government to tackle the toxic waterway while rolling up their sleeves to dredge the canal at their own risk. At the same time, light industry has begun to pick up again, and artists have set up shop in the some of the neighborhood’s rambling factory spaces.
For now, Gowanus remains prime for exploring—an unfathomably untouched expanse of sleepy industry and murky water.FIND IT
Gowanus is bounded by Butler Street to the north, the Gowanus Expressway to the south, Smith Street to the west, and 4th Avenue to the east.
THE ONE THING YOU MUST DO
There’s no phone number to call or reservation to make to experience one of Gowanus’ defining features—you just have to be in the right place at the right time. When a barge comes chugging up the Gowanus Canal, clanging bells and flashing lights bring traffic to a halt as the bridges are raised (or retracted) to let precious cargo through. Between the fanfare and the sheer scale of the spectacle, this rare occurrence provides a thrilling glimpse of the area’s industrial heritage.
DID YOU KNOW?
* The Gowanus Canal is rumored to be a former mob dumping ground.
* At an elevation of 90 feet, the Smith-9th street subway station is the highest in the system.
* Built in 1889, the Carroll Street Bridge spanning the Gowanus Canal is the country’s oldest retractile bridge and one of only four of its kind in the U.S.
* Former Gowanus bridge operator and local character Leonard “The Chicken Man” Thomas is the author of “Cooking with the Chicken Man,” a collection of 100 chicken-related recipes.
* A baby whale wandered into the Gowanus last April.
THE FACT SHEET
Train: F, G to Smith-9th Sts.; F, M, R to 4th Ave-9th St.; M, R to Union St.
Bus: B37: 3rd Ave-9th St., B75: Smith-9th Sts., B77: Smith-9th Sts., B103: 3rd Ave.—State St.
Brooklyn Community Board 6
250 Baltic St.
The 78th Precinct, which covers Park Slope and Gowanus, reported three murders, four rapes, 119 robberies, and 178 burglaries so far this year. For the same period last year, there was one murder, six rapes, 144 robberies and 172 burglaries.
65 Sixth Ave., 718-636-6411
Engine 279 Ladder 131
252 Lorraine St. at Smith St.
Park Slope Branch
431 Sixth Ave., 718-832-1853
P.S. 372 The Children’s School, 512 Carroll St.; Hannah Senesh Community Day School, 342 Smith St.; P.S. 38 The Pacific School, 450 Pacific St.; P.S. 321 William Penn School, 180 Seventh Ave.; Berkeley Carroll School, 181 Lincoln Pl.; St. Francis Xavier School, 763 President St.
325 Ninth St., 718-499-6122
Bank of America
534 Fifth Ave., 718-788-1367
Washington Mutual Bank
533 Fifth Ave. 800-788-7000
Urban Organic Home Delivery
240 Sixth St., 718-499-4321
Murmurs about a Whole Foods landing in the neighborhood have persisted for months, but the projected site continues to remain empty save for a lone building at Third Street and Third Avenue that was spared from demolition.
Granted landmark status by the city for being “a pioneering example of concrete construction in the United States,” the curious Italianate building is crumbling under graffiti and banners advertising demolition services. While the building’s owner maintains that Whole Foods has accepted responsibility for restoring the structure, the natural foods giant has made no moves to perk up the dilapidated landmark.
As this token of the past continues to disintegrate, future gentrification looms with the threat of a Whole Foods invasion. Though supermarkets are sorely lacking in the neighborhood, the construction of Whole Foods would likely produce the same commotion and proliferation that the introduction of Fairway did in Red Hook—infusing an explicitly slow pocket of the borough with a hustle and bustle that’s not necessarily welcome.
Sara Kinney is a bartender at Bar Tano.
What attracted you to Gowanus?
I got a really good rental situation—I paid like $400 a month for a tiny room, and the rent has gone up $150 a year since then. Some people have stable rents for five or 10 years though.
How would you characterize the neighborhood?
It’s creative, but not too self-aware. It’s slowly moving in the direction of more artists and a younger crowd, but the landlords are committed to keeping things the way they are. Gowanus is pretty safe, there’s not much crime —just some shady behavior. There’s some prostitution on Third Avenue, which is kind of weird.
How has the area changed in the years since you moved here?
People are looking a Third Avenue differently, as more of a destination. There are a lot of old-school Italian families, but a creative community is developing. Now we get a lot of people from the Bell House since the owners have a built-in clientele from Union Hall. I like that people are paying attention.
What are your favorite neighborhood spots?
I love the Bell House, and Proteus Gowanus has interesting shows. There’s an experimental film venue called Light Industry that shows amazing stuff.
What don’t you like about Gowanus?
There’s a preconceived set that you’re going to find here—it doesn’t reflect how multicultural the city is as much as other places do. It’s less convenient, so people don’t always come down here. I ride my bike everywhere, and it’s further away from some things in Manhattan.
Do you think the canal cleanup will ever happen?
There are always articles about how the Gowanus will be the new Venice, but there are mobsters in there. The Gowanus itself is funky—you have to hold your breath when you walk by in summer.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in the canal?
A pillow with someone’s name on it.
While Smith Street is brimming with dining options, Gowanus is no slouch when it comes to adventurous and playful menus. Restaurants are sprinkled throughout the area, but Union Street and Fourth Avenue are safer bets for food.
One of the first and only restaurants to colonize desolate Third Avenue, Bar Tano arrived with much fanfare, following in the successful footsteps of big brother Bar Toto in Park Slope. Wash down the pork meatballs with a Gowanus cocktail, which—all bartender tall tales aside—is concocted with grapefruit juice rather than canal water.
457 Third Ave., 718-499-3400
Tomato N Basil
This is the kind of place where you want the slice with chunks of chicken submerged in gooey mozzarella — hands down the neighborhood’s best pizza.
227 Fourth Ave., 718-596-8855
Local favorite Maria’s Mexican Bistro has been reinvented as Mercado Social with the help of Latin cuisine connoisseur Antonio Lara, who’s most recently lent his expertise to Danny Meyer’s The Modern. Offering traditional Mexican fare like chile rellenos and tamales as well as more exotic dishes, the new iteration of the restaurant promises to be a foodie destination.
669 Union St., 718-638-2344
With all the surrounding brownstones, it’s easy to miss Palo Santo on first inspection. Part Latin market cooking, part South American wine bar, the restaurant serves up a rotating selection of seasonal specialties from pan-roasted porgy to braised rabbit.
652 Union St., 718-636-6311
Doling out authentic Australian fare and the attendant beers, Sheep Station describes itself as a place to “dust off the work boots or loosen the tie.” Make like Hugh Jackman and dig into a Shearer ’s Burger, a patty piled high with beets, pineapple, fried egg, lettuce, tomato and onions.
149 Fourth Ave., 718-857-4337
The beacon of the bourgeoisie, Root Hill is the area’s landmark coffeehouse. Exposed brick and chartreuse sofas serve as the perfect backdrop for sipping a latte and tapping away at a laptop.
262 4th Ave., 718-797-0100
The up side of being off the beaten path is the ability to keep the crowds local. Each of these neighborhood bars — most of them centered around Fourth Avenue — boasts its own distinct feel and gang of regulars.
Pacific Standard Brooklyn
The most wholesome of the bunch, Pacific Standard features brighter lighting and exponentially more board games than the competition. Stop in for a friendly game of Jenga over a beer.
82 Fourth Ave., 718-858-1951
Black Mountain Wine House
Fashioned as a rustic log cabin, Black Mountain Wine House treats Gowanus as the wild frontier. More charcuterie than frank and beans, the tiny hideaway’s food and drink selection airs decidedly on the pretentious side. There’s a healthy choice of French, Italian, American, Greek, Spanish and South American wines to pair with snacks like white bean crostini and swiss chard and ricotta pie.
415 Union St., 718-522-4340
Gowanus Yacht Club
Devoid of a canal view or anything resembling a yacht, this landlocked outdoor hangout is a cult favorite. Devotees of the joint’s sloshing pitchers and crispy hotdogs rabidly await the reopening of GYC after every winter hiatus.
323 Smith St., 718-246-1321
As the resident dive bar of a dive neighborhood, Canal Bar is legit. From the nonstop jukebox to the dog-friendly attitude, the atmosphere is affectation-free.
270 Third Ave., 718-246-0011
Saturday is the night to hit this lesbian locale. Check out the first floor for hip-hop and dancing, or head upstairs to relive the 1980s and take advantage of the smoker-approved patio.
249 Fourth Ave., 718-230-5740
4th Avenue Pub
4th Avenue Pub gets it with an effortless equation: popcorn machine + serious beer selection + decent prices + laidback bartenders = just right.
76 Fourth Ave., 718-643-2273
Unless you’re in the market for scrap metal or tires, Gowanus is not a prime destination for shopping. Head west to Smith Street for Carroll Gardens’ sweet boutiques and gourmet food selection.
Billed as “urban folk pottery,” Claireware is exactly what you would expect: handmade mugs, bowls, knobs, tiles and vases painted with irregular patterns sold out of a light, leafy space.
543 Union St., 718-875-3977
While residents tend to revile this massive home improvement storehouse, Lowe’s is a solid representation of the neighborhood’s shopping offerings: vast, industrial, and pretty handy if you know what to do with the materials the store trades in.
118 Second Ave., 718-249-1151
Emblematic of the nearby Smith Street experience, Dear Fieldbinder is the very picture of taste. As appealing as the boutique’s expertly culled collection of accessible designer clothes is its helpful staff—the store’s cheerful employees are quick to offer suggestions without a hint of pushiness.
198 Smith St., 718-852-3620
With a burgeoning arts scene, there’s plenty to see and hear in Gowanus. But much of the neighborhood’s appeal lies in stumbling upon ancient signage and perplexing street art just by poking around. The crossings at Union, Carroll, Third and Ninth Streets are ideal for peering into the foreboding depths of the canal and speculating about its contents.
The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club
While some people stand around clucking about the state of the canal, others are getting their hands dirty. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club leads regular expeditions on the canal with the mission of cleaning it up, but canoes are also available for explorers wary of what a dredging might unearth.
Excursions depart from Second St. near Bond St. , 718-243-0849
The Bell House
The friendly folks behind Union Hall and Floyd have brought their affinity for dark wood and warm lighting to a 1920s warehouse in Gowanus, transforming the lofty space into a vaudeville-inflected venue. Outfitted with chandeliers, a 450-foot stage and a long polished bar, The Bell House does double duty as lounge and performance space. Expect acts ranging from Japanther to all-kid bands sponsored by the Gowanus Music Club.
149 Seventh St., 718-643-6510
Home of the Gowanus Harvest Festival and host to outdoor performances, The Yard is the area’s answer to waterfront entertainment. Take in the scenery and enjoy the myriad events managed by Meanred Productions.
388-400 Carroll St.
This hipster haunt is home to more than just Brooklyn bands: The venue lends its soaring space to theater, music, dance, comedy, and even sports. Look out for productions of “Peter and the Wolf” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” — holiday activities the whole family can get behind.
227 Fourth Ave., 718-857-4816
Housed in a former box factory, Proteus Gowanus is an interdisciplinary gallery and reading room — in other words, a space wholly dedicated to neat stuff and the study thereof. The 2008-9 exhibit of art, artifacts, and books is concerned with the notion of “mend,” from explorations of sweater darning to methods of conservation.
543 Union St., 718-243-1572
Coignet Stone Company Building
Cowering in the corner of a sprawling vacant lot at Third Street and Third Avenue is the Coignet Stone Company Building, a charming emblem of the forces at work in Gowanus: An odd, impenetrable remnant of abandoned industry, surrounded by emptiness and stubbornly staying put in the face of modern incursions. The fact that the building’s ornate columns and cornices are buried under graffiti and grime makes it all the more intriguing an artifact.
360 Third Ave.
Despite rezoning efforts, a considerable portion of the neighborhood still isn’t outfitted for habitation (though artists have been known to shack up in their lofts illegally). Available properties range from century-old tenements to converted lofts, as well as three-family homes and empty lots that enterprising types would still do well to capitalize on. While eminently affordable compared to neighboring Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, Gowanus has no brownstones or ready-made charm.
376 President Street, 1,115 square feet, 2 bedroom: $799,000
340 Bond Street, 738 square feet, 1 bedroom: $560,000
Union Street artists’ lofts, 1000 square feet: $450,000
Union Street, 800 square feet, 1 bedroom and den: $1,900
Bond Street, 1,000 square feet, 2 bedroom: $2,400
Union Street, 1300 square feet, 2 bedroom: $3,875
Rod Murray, Cobble Heights Realty Inc.