The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was once a meandering tidal creek whose brackish waters produced oysters so succulent and sizable they were harvested by the Dutch settlers and shipped back to Europe by the barrel-full. With the growth of industry and the concomitant population explosion in Brooklyn in the middle of the 19th century, the old Gowanus Creek was channeled and deepened to create the 1.8 mile-long canal, finished in 1869. By 1906 there were over 85 barge trips per working day and the canal was a “maritime superhighway for barges bearing coal, sand, oil, and brick.”
Today the primary function of the Gowanus Canal is as a collector outlet for 14 of the combined sewer overflow points in Brooklyn. If you are ever by the Canal during the rain, an acrid stink reminiscent of Dante’s fumache lagoni will wash over you thanks to a mix of raw sewage, heavy metals, petrochemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the deep sediments and waters of the Canal. The blocks immediately adjacent to the Canal have been left mostly to bus repair shops, industrial scrap yards, concrete plants, the vacant vestiges of past energy industries, and carting companies that lumber through Brooklyn at night.
And yet, the Canal has a certain sublime attraction. The F/G trains and the Gowanus Expressway cross overhead and at night the little lights emanating from the subway cars are beautiful. If you go there on the right night, watch the subway crawl along the tracks, see the distant skyline of Brooklyn and Manhattan, and notice the bats diving for insects against the dark silhouettes of the strange warehouses and factories, you will discover an entirely new side of New York City.
Of course, the Canal was not always seen in this light, and will not always be like this. With the slowing of industrial activity in the 1940’s and the ceasing of regular dredging operations by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1955, the lands and waters were left open for new agents who could find room to operate here, whether they be blue crabs and swallows or artists, the homeless, school teachers with a bivalve interest, or private developers. It is terrain vague, an “abandoned area, obsolete and unproductive… which represents an anonymous reality.” [sic]1 And this terrain vague permits new uses to arise. As such it is can operate simultaneously as an open sewer, ecological laboratory, and hipster playpen.
The Colony’s History
In November 2008, Urban Omnibus partnered with Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps, to hold a design/build event encouraging designers to “make a difference in two days,” an exercise in design activism. Four intrepid designers living in Brooklyn got together and entered the event, deciding to create a small colony of birdhouses for the urban birds living along the canal. They called it the Canal Nest Colony (CNC). Most interesting, they liked what they were doing and decided to keep it going. Throughout the fall of 2008 and the next spring, they kept cutting up and painting pieces of scrap wood and turning them into little yellow birdhouses.
The design of the houses is sophisticated and lovely. Scraps from local cabinet makers are fastened atop an old reject piece of scaffolding, which is then cast in a 5-gallon bucket partially filled with concrete. The cost per birdhouse is a couple of dollars and each house is a mobile unit that can be inserted or relocated into almost any crevice along the Gowanus. The benefit to the community is not limited to the strength of their design. Birds can be an indicator of ecosystem biodiversity and environmental health in urban areas. And people like birds — it is fun to see them hunt and fly and build, they have different colors and behaviors, and many of them migrate, marking the changing of seasons and passage of time.
In 2009, a few folks from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC) took notice. The GCC is a community non-profit group that works to address some of the legacy issues of the Gowanus Canal and to encourage community members from local businesses, schools and neighborhood organizations to engage in the clean-up and maintenance of the Canal and its surrounding environment.
The GCC began helping the CNC obtain materials and a workspace. In return, the CNC offered their birdhouse initiative as an organizing mechanism for the community volunteer days. Suddenly, volunteers had a wider variety of activities to engage in — bolting, painting, digging, hammering, and pouring concrete in addition to the weeding and picking up trash that dominated earlier events — and the “clean and green” days ended not only with an cleaned patch of ground along the Canal, but also with the construction of something interesting.
The Colony’s Activity
Over the course of 2009, the CNC’s collaboration with the GCC progressed and 25 new bird and bat houses were designed, built and installed. The delicate yellow boxes were beautiful by the oily blues and rusting browns of the Canal. The bucket-footing allowed for the houses to migrate season to season, slowly finding their way to the micro-habitats along the Canal that best suit different bird species. The CNC team fine-tuned the design and placement of the houses, thanks to suggestions of members from the New York City Audubon Society, and enhanced the habitats with plantings to provide cover and food for the birds and welcoming gardens for the neighbors.
2010 brought efforts to expand the initiative through grant proposals, donations and partnerships. In May, the Department of Sanitation (DOS) granted use of a one-acre lot to the project team, a site situated at a bend in the canal where 2nd Avenue dead-ends, used during the winter for salt and sand storage but vacant throughout the rest of the year. Plant material was donated by Pleasant Run Nursery in New Jersey, mulch was donated by the Department of Parks and Recreation, a shipping container was donated for storage, and a small urban nursery was set up to store and care for the trees and shrubs until they could be installed.
The volunteer community began to grow. An event held at the end of May brought over one hundred people down to the canal to help install a new garden at the end of First Street. But even with the increased community participation, the expansion of both scope and area site coverage meant the participants’ efforts were spread too thin. Mid-season, the team decided to rein in the ambition and focus on site improvements near the Salt Lot. By clustering all of the services and activities in one spot, they created a destination along the canal. The Salt Lot and its sublime surroundings now offer one of the few places to observe and take in the canal and its rhythms.
Work continued through the summer. Many of the plants at First Street died during the hottest days of the summer, and weeds and trash always return. But excitement is building. A large composting operation is getting started, more birdhouses have been installed and plantings have been established along the banks of the canal, which may draw more people and provide habitat and food for birds. The seasonal nursery has proved a great success logistically, piqued neighborhood interest and enabled the ecological initiatives of the CNC project.
The Colony’s Future
The future of the Canal Nest Colony must be seen in the context of the other initiatives birthed along the Gowanus Canal in recent years. In addition to the vestigial industrial uses — scrap yards, bus repair shops, concrete plants, and warehouses — the 00’s saw a wealth of endeavors by idiosyncratic communities emphasizing experimentation and education, labor, and hedonism. In addition to the Canal Nest Colony, the Dredgers, the Oyster Farm, and the Dumpster Pool, the Gowanus was also the site of the Sponge Park Study and the Oyster-Tecture proposal and was made an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site. And the GCC has begun design work for a series of EPA and DEP-funded pilot projects in the vicinity to study strategies for stormwater retention.
In its capacity to attract creative/scientific agents the Gowanus Canal is a testament to the enduring ability of post-industrial wastelands to captivate the contemporary urban imagination, at least of those fortunate enough to have a bit of leisure time. And that is a key point; livelihood is now divorced from hard labor, and the result is a massive portion of the population that no longer desires recreation solely in the form of repose and “healthful socializing.” While the consumption of public spaces and experiences — spectacle — is still the dominant mode of recreation, the efforts along the Gowanus Canal offer evidence that there is a desire for other types of recreation, ones that involve work, especially working with your hands.
As for the Canal Nest Colony specifically, this fall the team will be working with MillionTreesNYC to get new trees delivered and cared for until they are installed with volunteer help in October. Next year the composting operation will be fully functional, the seasonal nursery will be back, and new locations for better birdhouses will be scouted. Perhaps a study will be done of the plant communities that have colonized the banks of the Canal and their horticultural and ecological value can be understood and publicized. The energy and support of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy will surely influence the direction, and the GCC will be working on related pilot projects, and new volunteers and teammates will likely contribute new ideas.
The efforts on the Gowanus, nascent though they may be, are evidence of the potential good that can come from communities of different scales and motivations — city government, local organizations, engaged residents — working together, in even the most ghastly of locations, to improve their surroundings and do something fun together.
For a reminder of the origins of this project, check out the video below that we shot of the team designing and building the birdhouses during the Make a Difference in Two Days event:
1 “Terrain Vague”, Ignasi Sola Morales, AA.VV. 1996
FASLANYC works as a landscape architect for an urban design firm in New York City. He also writes the landscape criticism blog faslanyc and contributes to other design journals with features focusing on urban projects in South America.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.