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Don't Drink the Water, but Do Canoe in It

We’re always clamoring for truth in advertising, and Owen Foote and William Duke are truth-tellers if we ever saw them. It’s a surprising discovery given the product they’re pushing: Mr. Foote is the founder and Mr. Duke serves as the Captain of the fourteen-year-old Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, which calls the Gowanus Canal its home. The group is planning a June 15th boat race, The Gowanus Challenge, on the Canal. Within the first few minutes of meeting Mr. Duke, a real estate broker by day, he bluntly reveals to us the Canal’s dire conditions: “You could get gonorrhea from the water.”

Gowanus Canal Transfer Station by jqpubliq"Gowanus Canal Canoeing Waste Transfer Station" by jqpubliq is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the spirit of Mr. Duke and Mr. Foote, we won’t mince words: the Gowanus Canal’s problems are ample. Stemming inland from the New York Harbor, the bottleneck-shaped former creek runs along the shorelines of Brooklyn’s Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and eponymous Gowanus (you’re welcome) neighborhoods.

Completed in 1869, the Canal was one of the nation’s busiest shipping hubs until demand for cargo traffic slowed throughout the Harbor and Hudson River; the Canal was hit especially hard due to its comparatively small size. The stories that emerged in the era following the Canal’s decline grew into the stuff of spine-tingling legend: a suitcase containing body parts floating to the surface, Mafiosos dumping murder weapons into the depths, animal corpses dredged from the murky waters.

In March 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the Gowanus Canal a Superfund, the common name for the "Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980” (CERCLA) legal classification that identifies “the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.” The EPA proposes cleanup solutions and funding sources -- by identifying “Potentially Responsible Parties” and/or offering Federal funds -- to rehabilitate the area. The EPA’s research findings, documented in the Superfund Proposed Plan, are soberingly bleak. Carrying a minimum $433 million cleanup price tag, the Canal’s renovation seems impossible in the extreme. With such odds stacked against them, we asked Mr. Duke and Mr. Foote the same question friends asked us when we said we planned to canoe the Canal: “Why the Gowanus?”

To Mr. Duke, a Manhattan transplant, the Gowanus is “poetic,” the perfect nexus of the “manmade world and natural world, the industrial and residential, the water and the land.” Though Mr. Duke has a home in the Catskills to escape to, the reputation of inaccessibility preventing many locals from embracing the Canal bothers him as “not just an environmental problem, it’s a human rights problem; rich people can get in their cars and go to the Hamptons” while others are incredibly limited in their recreational outlets, despite this hyper-local resource with incredible potential. With his finger on the pulse of the real estate market, Mr. Duke sees that the times they are a changin’.

A Whole Foods will open in Gowanus this year, complete with a vegetable-growing greenhouse on the roof. As supermarkets do, the news of the Whole Foods makes the neighborhood much more attractive and viable as a residential area. The Lightstone Group is building a 700-unit rental apartment complex. The long-awaited Smith-9th Street subway stop reopened today. And local manufacturing on many different scales is going strong. Mr. Duke has no illusions that the transition to a vibrant residential community will be simple or fast, but he has faith that it will come; he’s seen how far it's evolved in his 10 years there.

Smith 9th St. Subway Sign "Smith-9 Streets Re-opens" by  MTA Photos is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Mr. Foote, the Gowanus Dredgers’s founder, is a gifted, amiable and convincing salesman, having done his research and armed himself with both data points and an elevator pitch. A middle-aged urban planner, he spent his youth on Manhattan’s Upper West Side during the school year, and canoeing in the Adirondacks every summer.

Upon relocating to Brooklyn in 1991, he was happy to discover the small, canoe-able body of water so close to home; he compares navigating a canoe in the larger New York Harbor to “rollerblading on the highway.” He found then, as he does now, that the Canal provides a welcome respite: “You get away from work, and you get on the Gowanus, and you’re away from it all.” He wants to reclaim the Canal, to bring his neighbors to the water, to be the safe conduit for their discovery of this resource and in the process engender “environmental restoration through conservation.”

We were invited to join Mr. Foote’s canoe “demonstration” at the Annual Earth Day Celebration at Carroll Gardens’s P.S. 58 elementary school, where both of his children have attended school, and where he enjoys local celebrity as the former basketball coach. As he dragged the unwieldy canoe along the sidewalk from the Gowanus Dredgers’s boathouse to the school four blocks away, he attracted interested stares and caused a few double-takes.

An affable, witty man, Mr. Foote looked around the schoolyard upon arrival, and, feigning confusion, asked, “Has anybody seen some water? I’m trying to find the Canal!” Not 60 seconds elapsed when the spectacle of the canoe on asphalt attracted curious kids. Before allowing a single student to join the boat’s manifest, Mr. Foote secured them in child-sized life jackets. Precocious though they were, these city kids were ignorant about some basic facts. When Mr. Foote inquired on which island they lived, exuberant cheers resounded, “Brooklyn Island!” (Let the record show that Brooklyn Island is part of Antarctica.) A follow-up question, “Do you know anyone who lives on Long Island?” One confident soul: “My teacher lives on Long Island!” Mr. Foote took this opportunity to educate the children: they live on Long Island, the Gowanus is their closest shoreline, and the water is contaminated but they have to interact with and work to preserve the resources nearest to home. He passed out business cards with information about the June 15th race to any parent with whom he made eye contact, and added that this will be the first boat race to take place entirely on a Superfund Site -- an odd and somehow enticing distinction.

Brooklyn, NY - Gowanus
" Brooklyn, NY - Gowanus" by  Steven Pisano is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Mr. Foote’s characteristic pragmatism carried through in his response to concerns about the Canal’s contamination: “Contamination is all around us. They closed the [Long Island] beaches because of contamination and sewage overflow [after Hurricane Sandy]. We have a great concentration [of contamination] in the Gowanus but we do water testing and we have cleaner water than other parts of New York." To those stalwart skeptics, his parting words are, “If you see puddles, don’t drink from those. Don’t drink the East River water. Don’t drink the Hudson River water.” He’s right, you know. The Hudson River is a Superfund Site, too.

With reporting by Miranda Lanzillotti.

The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club opens their fleet of six canoes to the community every Wednesday and Sunday. They also host bike tours, school trips, birthday parties, weddings, poetry readings and, we’re guessing, anything you can dream up. All info can be found HERE.

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