The Gowanus Canal of Brooklyn is named for Gouwane, the chief of the local Lenape tribe called the Canarsee, who lived on the shorelines in the 1630s. Back then it consisted of a saltwater marshland and meadows filled with fish and wildlife, making it an ideal location for locals to live. The locale was well situated within the New York Bay, which is located snuggly between Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island, and New Jersey. The newly arriving Dutch colonists immediately seized the opportunity to take ownership of their “discovery”; the Dutch government issued the first land patents in Breukelen for the area in the early 1630s, and by 1639, in one of the city’s earliest recorded real estate deals, the area was purchased for the construction of a tobacco plantation.
Over the intervening centuries, the Gowanus Bay grew into an economic hub. In 1849, the Gowanus Canal was constructed, transforming the creek into a 1.8-mile-long commercial waterway, making it a center for maritime and commercial shipping. The neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and Park Slope sprang up to support the rapidly growing industrial development, including stone and coal yards, cement works, chemical plants, factories, gas plants, and sulfur producers, all of which produced environmental pollution. The sewage in the new buildings drained downhill, directly into the Gowanus Canal, as well as being a waste channel for outside neighborhoods as well.
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Photo: Asteria (2014) by Steven Hirsch, from Gowanus Waters, published by powerHouse Books.