Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Adventure #1: The Houseboats of Lavender Lake

Above: Lavender Lake (otherwise known as the fetid and fragrant Gowanus Canal).

Isn't it lovely? Maybe you're thinking it wouldn't be such a bad place to park a houseboat. Well here's an exercise that will help you imagine what life might be like for the brave souls who choose to make a home on Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal . . .

First get a little toy boat. Then locate the foulest, most disgusting public toilet around. (Gas stations are always a good place to start.) Drop your boat into one of the toilet bowls. Try to pretend that you call that boat home. Imagine the smells and sights one would endure. Pretty horrible, right? Well, believe it or not, there are worse places to live. Like the Gowanus Canal.

I'm not exaggerating. There's a reason the Gowanus was recently declared a Superfund site. The water is teeming with countless disease-causing pathogens. Cholera. Typhus. Gonorrhea. And every time there's a big rainstorm, New York City's ancient sewer system releases raw sewage directly into the canal. (Want to see a video? Click here. Don't watch while you're eating.) To be honest, the sewage would only be second on my list of worries if I lived on the canal. My primary concern would be the highly-toxic chemicals left behind by the factories, tanneries, and gas refineries that have lined the Gowanus for the past 150 years. Take a dip in the water, and you'd probably emerge with a little less skin.

Oh yeah . . . did I mention that the Gowanus is rumored to have been a mob dumping ground? Some might argue that the stories are pure fiction, but I honestly couldn't think of a better place to toss a body or a bag of guns.

(Above: The waterfront.)

As I may have mentioned, I live a few blocks from the Gowanus Canal. Which means next to nothing. In New York, you're always a few blocks away from something stomach-churning. (If you're lucky. If not, there's something revolting right next door.) In fact, I never thought about the canal very much until the hurricane that hit New York last summer. That's when I discovered that my house is across the street from a flood evacuation zone. And it wasn't seawater that might have flooded my neighbors' homes. It was the poisonous soup from the Gowanus Canal.

Then, after I came across a few articles about the Gowanus houseboats, I decided I should pay a visit to the canal. It's too bad that I chose to make my first excursion on a bitterly cold winter day. But I pulled on my boots and set off on my quest. Because this is my YEAR OF ADVENTURE! And I'm so happy I did. I may have come close to freezing my butt off, but when I got home I felt more inspired than I have in ages.

(However, my next adventure WILL take me somewhere warm and relaxing. Ha.)

Now, on to my discoveries . . .

The bright yellow boxes in the photo above are "bird and bat houses" that an environmental group has constructed along the canal. These little structures are very interesting for several reasons. First, there might actually be bats inside. How cool would it be to see bats flying over the canal at dusk? (It'd be even cooler if they belonged to some mutant, bloodsucking species that can only be found in Brooklyn.) Second, the yellow boxes would be perfect as dead drops. Or they could conceal surveillance equipment. Or just about anything else. (This is how a story starts to form in my head.)

One of my favorite spots along the canal was the boat dock. The boat-shaped "sign" shown above says, "Brooklyn's Coolest Superfund Site." I found it rather amusing. But not quite as amusing as the little green sign to the left which cautions boaters to avoid coming into contact with the water or sediment in the canal. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not sure it's possible to canoe or kayak without getting a little bit damp.

Apparently the warnings haven't dissuaded the canoe club that meets at this site every Saturday from May to October. Members of the public are welcome. If I can find a waterproof hazmat suit, I may well join them.

(On a side note, while I was at the boat dock, a group of doofuses broke in through a fence on the other side of the canal. I don't think they were intent on causing any trouble, but it shows you how poor the security is along the Gowanus. Good to know.)

Above: This oozing pipe was a few inches to the left of the boat dock. (And yes, that's my shadow.)

Finally, I found a houseboat. On Monday it was moored between the Carroll St. and Union St. bridges. And the sight was well worth all of my pain and suffering. The owner obviously has excellent taste in art. But I can't understand why (s)he would steer that floating masterpiece into the Gowanus Canal. I would have inquired, but the boat's dock seemed pretty inaccessible. So if you happen to read this post, houseboat dweller, please drop me a note. I'm one of your biggest fans.

Just as I was about to head home, I came across this street art alligator. I'm afraid my camera didn't do it justice. It's really quite spectacular in person. And I can't help but think that the artist must have been inspired by something (s)he saw emerge from the murky Gowanus.

While sipping hot chocolate back in my office, I found the video I've embedded below. The guy being interviewed lives on a houseboat in the Gowanus (one I didn't happen to see). I admire his commitment to living "off the grid" in New York City. But I bet he sneaks off the boat now and then for a hot shower, a gourmet dinner and a shiatsu massage.

The Off-Gridder from Yardena Schwartz on Vimeo.


Ju L. said...

That's one gross post! But an awesome one, also. This is so fascinating and I agree with you when you say it is a very inspirational place. Just reading this inspired me! (Don't worry, I'm not stealing any ideas)

Irregular Kiki said...

When I saw that first picture I really thought it was beautiful. How deceiving looks can be! I'd be afraid to go near the canal. I do like the alligator though :)

Anonymous said...

Yay, you're posting again! This was really cool!!!! Loved the street art alligator!

Erin_Flight said...

Thats really awesome, though not somewhere I'd want to go.

Kitty said...

It's so pretty but so dangerous!
River teeming with nasty microbes... A bioterrorist's dream *drools*

Anonymous said...

The scary part -- this is winter. I can't imagine how the Gowanus would smell in the warmth of summer.

Robert in San Diego