Canoeing Brooklyn's Most Infamous Sink: SUST 405 Tours the Gowanus Canal

6:51 PM

One of the newer courses offered by the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies is SUST 405 Production, Consumption, and Waste.  This seminar taught by Professor Carl Zimring is an elective in Pratt's new Sustainability minor.  It is intended to provide students a basis to analyze ways in which waste is created, defined, and managed in industrial society, with the goal of creating recommendations for improving problems in the waste stream.

Such a course benefits from relevant field experiences, and this month, the students canoed one of New York City's most famous waste sites, the Gowanus Canal.  This short, two-mile channel carved to extend Gowanus Bay inland, was a hub of maritime shipping and industry in the late nineteenth century.  Much of the brownstone used to make Brooklyn brownstones came through the canal, and industrial activity alongside the canal has included coal gas manufacturing plants, tanneries, sulphur, cement production, and machine shops.  Traffic on the canal declined with the rise of trucking in the early twentieth century, but the canal continued to be used for sewage as the residential population increased.

The legacy of dumping human and industrial wastes into the canal has produced a noxious stew, what residents call "lavender lake" for its pungent aroma.  Beyond the smell, contaminants include several heavy metals, coal tar wastes, polychorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and volatile organic compounds.  In the early twenty-first century, population continues to grow in Gowanus, and concern about the canal has led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designating this short stretch of water a Superfund site with a plan of dredging the contaminated bed of the canal and changing the way we use the waterway to prevent future contamination.

Despite its infamous reputation, the Gowanus Canal is easy to overlook.  It is narrow enough to walk across one of the many short bridges atop it without realizing, and the industrial use of the shoreline restricts much of the view from pedestrians and residents.  In order to take a better look at the Canal, we partnered with Gowanus Dredgers to examine the site by canoeing it.  Gowanus Dredgers hopes to education more New Yorkers about the waterway and is a terrific partner lending expertise and equipment for such field experiences.  As a sign at the launch site boasts, they make the Gowanus Canal Brooklyn's coolest SuperFUNd site.


The mild September weather was ideal for a canoe trip, and currents on the canal are weak.  After a discussion of the area's history, we entered the water and began paddling up to the northern terminus of the canal before turning south and exploring the foliage, animals, and businesses that call the canal home.  Our journeys revealed floating garbage and the smell of sulphur, but also swimming fish and fishing birds, scrap metal and concrete production alongside flora, fauna, and even some artwork.  Here are a few examples of what we saw and experienced:


Gowanus Dredgers is a terrific partner for coordinating trips on the canal.  To contact them, click this link or call the number on Wilson's back:
SUST 405 intends to go back into the field to examine other aspects of production, consumption, and waste in the New York metropolitan area.  More pictures will be shared here when that happens.

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