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Secret Histories | Steven Hirsch: Gowanus Waters

A look at the surface of "Lavender Lake" reveals the depths of New York City's checkered past.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Theros (2015)

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.

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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.

Aphrodite (2014)

Aphrodite (2014)

By the turn of the twentieth century, the canal was locally known as “Lavender Lake,” and continued to grow, becoming the busiest commercial canal in the United States. But by the 1960s, this chapter had come to a close, as New York lost its waterfront jobs due to the expansion of containerization. The Gowanus Canal became a dumping place, degenerating steadily over the years. The canal contains remnants of its past, home to cement, oil, mercury, lead, PCBs, coal, tar, and even gonorrhea. In 2010, it was declared a Superfund site.

GowanusCover_largeIts filth has become synonymous with urban decay, but within this volatile concoction, one man discovered a strange and compelling beauty. Gowanus Waters (powerHouse Books), the new monograph from Steven Hirsch, features abstract photographs of the Canal’s surface. The book is completely devoid of narrative, allowing us to consider only the formal properties of the work. As Jordan G. Teicher writes in the book’s introduction, “Hirsch has no documentary or scientific ambitions. Rather, his journey here is exclusively and unapologetically an aesthetic one.”

 

Asteria (2014)

Asteria (2014)

The result is an eerie pleasure in what repels most; the toxic, rank sludge bubbling and oozing from the depths of what would assuredly revolt you in person. On a hot summer day, the stench alone is sure enough to keep all but the most strident pedestrians out of its radius. Yet, Hirsch was undeterred and in this, he brought a new universe into view. Without sentimentality or righteousness, Hirsch approaches the Gowanus as an ever-changing entity, capturing what it is today without reverence or remorse. And in doing so, he allows us to look at something we never would see: the Gowanus Canal as a metaphor for New York City itself.

All photographs by Steven Hirsch, from Gowanus Waters, published by powerHouse Books.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.