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Elizabeth Royte
where does it all go?

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Rising from the Dead
Tuesday, Mar 2, 2004 (09:45 AM)

I live on a hill in Brooklyn, a hill that slopes down and away to the west. In the vale of the hill, the Gowanus Canal stretches for 1.2 miles along the neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Red Hook, and Park Slope. Over the years the canal has developed a reputation as a dumping ground for industry and the mob. In Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, a character refers to it as "the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns." A toxic seep, the canal has until very recently been forgotten, neglected, and abused. It stinks of sewage, fuel oil, and a hundred years' worth of inadequately flushed decomposing organic matter.

Still, I loved paddling here. The Gowanus offers rare views of the backyards of Brooklyn, hints at the borough's industrial history, and provides small tastes of nature. I first paddled the canal on Earth Day two years ago. I noted fish, birds, and native plants. But as my paddle snagged a floating condom, it occurred to me that these waters are a sort of microcosm. In one small, horribly polluted stretch of water drifted household trash, raw sewage, toxic waste, and containers that ought to have been recycled. It was all the stuff I disposed of almost daily.

Shortly after that paddle, I began researching a book about the city's garbage footprint. Where did everything go, and what sort of social and environmental impact did my detritus have? How could we -- the most wasteful nation on earth -- do better? I started to quantify my own trash. Sitting on the kitchen floor I sorted and weighed everything I threw out over the course of a year. It was stinky, and depressing. I followed the sewage lines from my house to the wastewater treatment plant, also stinky, and tracked processed sewage to the factory where it was transformed, semantically at least, into fertilizer. My garbage tour brought me to landfills and recycling centers, scrap metal yards and plastic lumber factories. Because garbage has always been pushed to the margins, I found myself, quite often, at the edges of neighborhoods and landforms. I found myself, over and again, at the Gowanus.

On a recent frigid night I went to Saint Agnes' Hall in Carroll Gardens, where eight Columbia University architecture students presented ideas for the development of the canal. The Gowanus' time, apparently, had come. Real estate agents have made of the canal a sales category ("the Venice of New York!"), and the Army Corps of Engineers has earmarked $5 million for revitalizing its waters. The Columbia proposals ranged from the wildly ambitious to the pragmatically prosaic. One student envisioned amphibious performance vehicles plying the canal, another dreamed of underground greenhouses. Andrew Kranis designed a ten-story helix to hydroponically grow food and also treat sewage. He called it a vertical farm because it stretched high instead of wide. (Learn more about how vertical farms might feed large numbers of people).

Everyone seemed to agree that the canal should have better public access (to launch canoes now, we slid over rotting bulkheads); be lined with greenways; and have its waters decontaminated, if not purified. Joe Simma offered a simple plan for capturing the torrents of storm water that ran off parking lots flanking the canal. He wanted to redirect this flow into "infiltration trenches" planted with cattails, flowers and grass. "It's basically a roadside ditch," he said. The point was to keep rain water out of city sewer lines, holding it until evaporation returned it to the skies. No one in this audience of Gowanus stakeholders needed to be told that when the treatment plants filled up with storm water, they shunted raw sewage into the canal.

Jonah Hansen called for cleaning water within the canal by constructing wetlands along its bulkheads. Spartina grasses, he said, would filter petroleum from the water. Hybrid poplars worked on lead, salt cedars on arsenic, morning glories handled petroleum, and juniper filtered petroleum and hydrocarbons. In his renderings, the Gowanus looked like a hard-edged urban garden, placid and green. The audience leaned forward and nodded.

Throughout the evening we scrutinized PowerPoint maps of neighborhoods, drainages, elevations. And we thought about the future. As a result of climate change, sea levels in New York will, by the year 2050, rise 2.5 feet above levels of 1900. "And by 2100," Hansen told us, "the probability of a one-hundred-year storm will be one in every four years." He clicked to an alarming image that showed a 14.5-foot storm surge forcing Gowanus waters as far east as Third Avenue. Even without major flooding, we could expect an awful lot of water running into storm drains as the city heated up, and an awful lot of sewage left untreated. Paddling would be far less pleasant, and public health would surely take a dive. Instantly, I planned my escape from the city.

Before I left Saint Agnes's, though, I grabbed a seed-covered cookie from a tray and wondered, aloud, what it was. "In Brooklyn we call 'em buggies," a tough-looking woman told me. I nodded: it did look larval. Outside I took a bite, but found the brown oval bitter and dry. I scanned the streets for a trash can, saw none, and dropped the cookie into a storm drain. If it rained tonight, the buggy would be in the canal, just two blocks away, by morning.

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Less than Barren » 
Past Entries
03/02 Rising from the Dead
03/05 Less than Barren
03/08 New York's Strongest
03/11 Scrapping over Nickels
03/15 Let it Burn?