Gritty waterway: a model for renewal?

Brooklyn residents, in a neighborhood crusade, strive to purge a canal of sewage and its reputation as Mafia dumping ground.

Legend has it that if you scour the fetid depths of the Gowanus Canal, you will find clues to Mafia disappearances from the past century.

Too bad most Brooklynites aren't willing to step near the channel, let alone suit up and plunge in.

Once the world's most important industrial waterway, the Gowanus quickly became a dumping ground for raw sewage and industrial waste - not to mention empty bottles, old tires and, apparently, dead bodies.

But today, thanks to grass-roots community activism and a growing trend in environmental rehabilitation, the canal, and the neighborhood through which it snakes, are showing signs of life.

First came a repaired flushing tunnel in 1999, to help move the stagnant water along. Then oysters were reintroduced, and a harbor seal was spotted. Now, because of cheap rents and low interest rates, everyone from artists to restaurateurs have appeared on the canal's banks, helping the working-class community in its 40-year struggle to turn the decaying canal into a mini-Venice.

Indeed, the Gowanus shows how blighted urban spaces can become not just viable, but desirable places to live and work. In this sense, the canal provides a blueprint for renewal - as well as revenue - for some of the country's estimated 400,000 brownfield sites, which include industrial properties, abandoned factories, and vacant warehouses.

"If there is an area that represents hope, it is this one," says Maureen Brennan, director of "Peripheral City: Rediscovering the Gowanus Canal," the multimedia art project that took passengers on a 16-seater pontoon down the canal. "There are all kinds of possibilities there."

Many of the nation's brownfields were developed in the 1920s and, like many parts of the Gowanus community, were abandoned in the 1960s and 1970s.

"In the 1960s, everyone wanted to get out," says Buddy Scotto, a local funeral director and lifelong champion of the canal, who formed a neighborhood association in 1963 to revitalize the 1.8-mile-long waterway.

Forty years later, and now in his early 70s, he still dreams of creating a commercial, residential, and natural walkway similar to San Antonio's River Walk. It has been a heart-wrenching battle, he says, but "the oysters are surviving."

The Gowanus Canal was once a creek, inhabited by the Canarsie Indians who centered their lives on its teeming wildlife. The Dutch later purchased the land and turned it into a barge canal. A flushing tunnel, built in 1911, was meant to purify the water, but it broke down in 1963.

That's when the stench began to infiltrate every nook of the neighborhood. Old Italian immigrants said the malodorous waters could alleviate head colds. But don't fall in, they'd warn: That greenish liquid can kill you.

Today, the Army Corps of Engineers is midway through a $5 million project identifying the degree of contamination in the area. The results will figure in to future environmental restoration, says Tom Shea, the team's project manager.

The project has been daunting. The canal has been "treated worse than we treat our toilet bowls," he says.

Yet cleanup can pay big dividends for cities. According to a survey recently released by the US Conference of Mayors, 153 cities have already successfully redeveloped 10,594 acres of brownfields, bringing in $90 million in revenue.

But not everyone is in favor of economic revival. Unions, for one, are fighting against residential development in the midst of the Gowanus's heavily industrialized landscape. Others fear what will happen when the canal becomes the next hip place to live: old neighbors pushed out, strange faces moving in, jobs lost, rents on the rise.

"The neighborhood is getting richer. It's not as diverse as it used to be," says Lenny Thomas, who operates the 100-foot-wide canal's three drawbridges. "There are still a lot of old-timers, with everyone knowing everyone, but there are a lot of those yuppies now too."

Mr. Thomas, however, isn't entirely against change. "We used to have to burn incense all day long in the bridge house," he says. Now the canal is really unbearable, he says, only after a big rainfall, when there is runoff from the sewage.

To be sure, the Gowanus is still gritty. You can still hear the hum of local industry. Although the water moves now, it's not without empty bottles bobbing along. It still has a greenish hue, and its banks are still laden with trash.

It's gritty enough that many can't imagine it will ever be anything but muck, despite all the talk.

"Oysters? Yeah right," says one Brooklynite, with a smirk on his face. "Next they'll want to farm pearls in the canal."

But Mr. Scotto will not let go of his dream. He knows the initial signs of revitalization have caused tension, but he says the transition holds something for everyone: For all the new restaurants that open, ma-and-pa shops still survive; for all the newcomers, the old stories remain firmly anchored.

Just like those dead bodies? "Oh, they are still in there," Scotto says. "There is no question about it."

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