Friday, December 23, 2016
The Irregular Guide to New York City Entry #7: The Houseboats of the Gowanus Canal
In a city like Amsterdam, which is famous for its canals, living on a houseboat is as good as it gets. However, as you may have already guessed, the canal in Brooklyn is nothing like Amsterdam’s. And yet it too has its share of houseboats. 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.
This is no exaggeration. Gowanus 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, where it mixes with 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. The Gowanus is also rumored to have been a mob dumping ground. Some might argue that such stories are pure fiction, but I honestly couldn’t think of a better place to toss a body or a bag of guns.
One of my favorite spots along the canal is the boat dock. (Look for the boat-shaped “sign” that reads, “Brooklyn’s Coolest Superfund Site.”) There you’ll find a warning that urges boaters to avoid coming into contact with the water or sediment in the canal. Apparently the warnings haven’t dissuaded the canoe club that meets at this site every Saturday from May to October. If you’re interested, members of the public are more than welcome.
If you’d rather stay dry and hunt for houseboats, try walking over the historic Carroll Street Bridge. There’s usually a houseboat or two moored between the Carroll St. and Union St. bridges. And believe me, they’re well worth a peek. (Especially if you like art involving giant octopi.)