June 28th, 2009

Some Weeds Grow in Brooklyn

Posted in Environment, United States by Christopher Szabla

I photographed this old (and perhaps abandoned) industrial building in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood just a few years ago. At the time, it was a captivating relic — almost entirely ensconced in graffiti, it was sprouting weeds that had either spilled onto the sidewalk, or had climbed up from the sidewalk onto it. The old orange car parked nearby added to the mystique; this was like a slice of 1970s New York.

That’s not entirely coincidental. Gowanus sometimes seems stuck in a time warp, a largely defunct swathe of industrial buildings dividing the homey brownstones of Carroll Gardens from the tony ones of Park Slope — neighborhoods that have been experiencing rapid change. Part of the reason the area is so moribund is its namesake Gowanus Canal, a brackish channel that has become the site of a raging local debate over whether it ought to be designated a Superfund site, allowing it to receive federal money for industrial cleanup.

The substance of the fracas has largely revolved around the necessary local contribution to the plan, and there are legitimate fears that the small industries that remain on the Gowanus could be charged. Suspiciously, though, the case against cleanup has been led by developers with an interest in the area, who may not be so concerned about the canal raising a stink — as long as potential buyers don’t raise one about the chemicals floating in the water.

Still, neither side has been blinded by the kind of extremism that typifies fights over urban regeneration plans — most notably, the fight over the arena and office towers slated for Atlantic Yards, not far away, where developers proposed a gargantuan complex that would have effectively added a skyline to the borough, and opponents, who were totally opposed to almost any realistic manifestation of the plan, adopted the cynical motto “Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn”. (In the end, neither side of the Atlantic Yards fight got what they wanted — the economic downturn slaughtered the ambitious architecture planned by the developers, and a borough desperate for income silenced the protesters.)

In the case of Gowanus, however, both adversaries have shown willingness to balance the need to preserve local businesses with the necessity of environmental cleanup, and its ability to help put to use increasingly valuable land. Perhaps the competing interests at stake were each more compelling than those at issue in battles like the one over Atlantic Yards, which was largely fought over shadow lines and profit margins.

When I returned this month, the building I’d photographed had changed, albeit not too dramatically. Most of the building’s graffiti — about, it seemed, as much as its owners could reach from the ground — had been erased with a coat of orange paint not dissimilar to the color of the long-departed car. (Though toward the roof, I noted, some new tags had spawned.) The most striking difference was the weeds.

The greening of the sidewalk hadn’t been brought to an end, merely tamed, the weeds cultivated into garden vegetables and bright spring flowers, divided, neatly, by planters. Unlike the weeds that have been planted as if in homage to their predecessors on Manhattan’s High Line, this garden appeared to have been finessed out of the entanglement of weeds that, not long ago, had been running wild all along this block. It seemed not only a novel instance of adaptive reuse, but an apt synecdoche for the approach being taken to Gowanus as a whole.


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