My Uneasy Relationship with the Gowanus Canal
In the October 2004 issue of National Geographic, writer Joel Bourne Jr. tells of a hypothetical hurricane hitting New Orleans causing massive flooding and taking thousands of lives with it. A geologist Bourne interviews says, “It’s not if it will happen, it’s when”, and as we all know less than a year later it did. It was painful to read this article, it was clear that we knew the destruction Katrina would bring to New Orleans in 2005 was coming, we just weren’t listening. My mind went back to this article in the days after Hurricane Sandy as pictures from Staten Island, New Jersey, and south of my home in Queens began filtering into my living room. ”How”, I asked myself, “How did this happen here?” This is where I say “global warming” and some of you say “brother, here we go”. But whether you believe in it or not, we design the destruction that befalls our homes. In 2005 it wasn’t simply that a big hurricane hit New Orleans, it was the lack of natural defenses that made it so bad. The levees failed but natural barriers didn’t even get their chance. When rivers spill into the sea they dump sediment thus creating more land. We have funneled the Mississippi’s runoff out to sea (leveeing it to prevent flooding ironically enough) preventing the growth of marshland, a natural barrier. In addition to that we cut canals through the marshes for the pipes that deliver our oil. This made a clear path for Katrina.
Now what, do you ask, does any of this have to do with my relationship with the Gowanus Canal? Well, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been working hard to help my employers stay afloat after Hurricane Sandy’s surge flooded the Gowanus causing it to rise and flood all four of our properties that sit on the canal. We were completely displaced. Our offices were gone. I found myself having to walk the neighborhood just to do my job, I felt homeless. Through all of this I carried my camera with me and every now and again I would stop to take a picture of some small detail of that time; a dog standing amongst gas cans waiting in line with it’s owner, a windblown Obama/Biden sign wedged into a fence, a BP station wrapped in police tape. These would be my photos of Sandy. I was planning on using some of these pictures here, posting with them similar words to what you are reading now, but in walking back and forth through the neighborhood, I kept looking to the canal. Each time I would pass I noticed the slightest feeling of anger inside of me. I’ve always seen the canal as a struggling point between man and nature, which is why I photograph it, and though it stands for everything I’m against (pollution, unregulated industry, etc.) I could never help but love its character, its uniqueness, its old-industry feel. But now I felt as if I had been attacked by it, but why? It’s not the water’s fault that it’s polluted, or that it fills with sewage every time it rains, or that it’s even there to flood at all. We dug the canal into the heart of South Brooklyn and we dumped our waste into it. So what I’ve posted here are not pictures from Hurricane Sandy or the aftermath. These are photos of the canal that I’ve taken over the past number of years, particularly of the water; with its reflections, pollutants, and contents. What you see here, along with a surge of sea water, is what penetrated the place I work. There was much more devastation and loss in other places, but Gowanus is where I felt the affects of Sandy. Gowanus is where I see our negative affects on the world up close everyday.
After seeing the business I work for struggling out from under four feet of flood water, and after seeing pictures of the absolute disaster along the coast, I thought of Bourne’s prediction… but it wasn’t really his. He had composed it from the information he was given by geologists, engineers, and climatologists. He listened, he saw what was coming.