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Gowanus was settled by the Dutch in the 1640s and by the early 1800s, development had already centered on the Gowanus Canal. Developers realized the artificial waterway was a perfect outlet into the Gowanus Bay and offered industrial plots along its edges. 

In its prime, the canal was edged by coal and lumber yards, brick and stone yards, paint and ink manufacturers and paper and plaster mills. But the introduction of containerized shipping in the 1970s made the canal less attractive to large businesses, causing many to close or move away.

Since the 1980s, the canal has housed smaller businesses such as a bagel company, beverage companies, bakeries and a furniture repair shop. What has sprung it farthest into the public sphere though is its pollution, which has drawn complaints as early as 1880. In 1893, the Brooklyn Eagle called the waterway an “open cesspool.”

Now neighborhood activists have devoted time and energy advocating for its planned cleanup.

  • Since its industrial boom, the Gowanus Canal had become heavily polluted by a combination of industrial pollutants and runoff from storm water and the sewage system that left some areas of the canal covered in a colorful film and emitting strong odors of gasoline.
  • Local groups advocate for the canal’s cleanup, like the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, which encourages recreational use of the waterway and its edges to help influence its health.
  • Gowanus' Third Avenue boasts lines of restaurants and bars.
  • The Dredgers hit the water from a dock on Second Street and paddle out to Gowanus Bay, offering free tours and canoe rides for those curious about the canal.
  • The Gowanus Souvenir Shop pays homage to the history of the neighborhood offering souvenirs revolving around the canal.
  • With the Gowanus Canal's edges still covered in industry, Christian Robertson applies a protective coating onto an all-aluminum art piece outside Serett Metalworks on the water's edge.
  • Brooklyn Boulders operates out of an old New York Daily News parking garage on DeGraw Street. The rock climbing studio joins a host of recreational activities in the neighborhood that include fencing, axe throwing and shuffle board.
  • Robertson applies the protective coating into each crevice of the piece with a small paintbrush to protect it from rust.
  • The Smith Street and Ninth Street F/G subway station is seen from many angles in the industrial neighborhood. Soaring over the Gowanus Canal, the train reaches the highest point on the New York City Subway.
  • Sections of Gowanus' low-rise buildings stand between the neighborhood's industrial presences.
  • Gowanus' industry and residential blocks fall in front of a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
  • The Third Street Bridge in front of a new condominium complex on the canal waterfront.
  • Often referred to as the "canal of bridges," the Gowanus Canal boasts old-time connectors like the wooden Carroll Street Bridge that now stands and still operates as a historic landmark.
  • A memorial on the water's edge reminds residents and passersby of Gowanus' history in the Revolutionary War, being the spot of a major battle site.
Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Gowanus Got Its Name

What many consider the first real Dutch settlement in the land that was to become Brooklyn was at Gowanus.

Gowanus Bay and its tidal inlet of small creeks in the original saltwater marshland of South Brooklyn had been navigated by both Giovanni da Verrazzano, who explored New York Harbor in 1524, and Henry Hudson, who sailed up what is now the Hudson River in 1609. Early settlers called the area “Gowanes Creek,” after Gowane (or Gouwane), the Canarsie Indian sachem (chief) who farmed there.

His land, 930 acres at the head of Gowanus Bay, was bought in 1636 by William Bennett and Jacques Bentyn for construction of a tobacco plantation. It was one of the earliest recorded real estate deals in New York City history. 

Bennett became the sole owner of the property and built on it the first house in the place to become known as Brooklyn. The house burned down and was rebuilt on the same site in 1690 and later bought by the Schermerhorn family. 

During the Revolutionary War, Gowanus became a major battle site. The invading British marched up the Gowanus Road, one of the main passes through Brooklyn, to the Old Stone House, where more than 250 American soldiers were killed and more than 100 others wounded or taken prisoner.

As Brooklyn grew, the New York State Legislature, in 1849, authorized the construction of a two-mile-long Gowanus Canal for navigational and docking facilities in the port of New York City. It was completed in the late 1860s and became a hub of commercial activity and heavy industry. But, by the turn of the century, the combination of industrial pollutants and runoff from the storm water and the sewage system had rendered the waterway a repository of rank odors.

That, and the construction of the Gowanus/Brooklyn-Queens Expressway led to the eventual decline of the Gowanus Canal.

Recent years have seen helpful improvements and momentum for its redevelopment.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.