Today the Gowanus Canal is a famously toxic waterbody, notorious for its contamination and for its possible role in the death of Sludgie the Whale, the young minke unfortunate enough to swim into its waters in 2007. But that wasn’t always the case. Before the industrial revolution, the Gowanus was a wildlife-rich, tree-lined oasis, used by the Lenape tribe as a natural trading route. When the Dutch arrived and proclaimed the land around the canal New Amsterdam, they noted the peach trees sprouting up along its banks, as well as the oysters the size of dinner plates growing in the water.
In “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” (NYU Press, 2015), writer Joseph Alexiou enlightens readers about the canal’s pivotal role in the city’s history, and details the Gowanus’ transformation from a tranquil estuary to an industrial dumping ground. “Waterfront” author Phillip Lopate called it a “well-researched, jauntily written, knowledgeable book” that explains a lot about a “funky, much-abused, lovable waterway.”
Joseph Alexiou is a journalist, New York City tour guide and historian. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Atlas Obscura, Business Insider and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.