From the NY Times:
The Bloomberg administration, sensing a chance for revitalization, rushed to rezone 25 blocks of the Gowanus area for nonindustrial uses, identifying more than 60 development sites with a potential to generate at least $500 million in tax revenue. It didn’t appear to be a deterrent that the canal was, quite literally, still something of a cesspool. New York is, after all, a city where people have proved themselves willing to live almost anywhere, where no location, be it smelly or notorious (think the meatpacking district or Hell’s Kitchen or Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue, formerly known as Murder Avenue), seems to be beyond the reach of gentrification. But the case of the Gowanus Canal has put that assumption to an extreme test. The redevelopment process was creeping forward when, in April, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was considering adding the Gowanus Canal to its Superfund cleanup program, which is reserved for the nation’s worst hazardous-waste sites. The move surprised and enraged city officials, who warn that the “stigma” of being included in the program could halt economic improvement indefinitely.
It was the same story everywhere along the canal: developers had come bearing watercolor renderings of an idealized blue waterway, flanked by condo buildings and walkways full of joggers and strollers. At Carroll Street, next to a landmarked retractile bridge, we saw a grove of poplars and an informal outdoor performance space that was slated to make way for a 450-unit complex of condominiums and town houses developed by Toll Brothers, the national luxury homebuilder. Farther along, past a string of moored boats of uncertain seaworthiness, there was another proposed residential development site. Doubling back to the canal’s south end, where there was a strong smell of petroleum, we paddled by a six-acre lot, owned by the city, that was intended for a 770-unit, mixed-income apartment complex, with an adjoining park, boathouse and waterside cafe. Then, near the Seussian pile of a scrap-metal yard, there was the coup de grâce of impending yuppification: a construction site that was supposed to become a Whole Foods.
All of these projects were proposed at the height of New York’s real estate boom, and nowadays, regardless of the outcome of the Superfund controversy, some of them look very much like the products of mania. But whether they actually come to fruition, the plans have already altered the canal’s identity, after decades of neglect, by making it into something valuable enough to fight over. Since the arrival of the developers, numerous competing interests have stepped forward to stake their own claims to what Bill Appel, the head of the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, calls “a vast wasteland.” The urban homesteaders who have moved there want it to remain an eccentric hideaway; artists want to preserve its postapocalyptic look; a civic group, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, proposes to create a public park atop an innovative filtration system that acts like an artificial wetland.
Painting by Walter L. Mosley