Gowanus Transformations: Celebrating 150 Years of Manufacturing, at the Brooklyn Historical Society; 128 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn; Wednesday through Sunday, 12 – 5 p.m.; Through August 24.

Last week’s revelation that the smelly, polluted Gowanus Canal contains microbes that may contain disease-fighting properties was just the latest “Gowanus transformation” for this maltreated waterway that cuts into Brooklyn just south of Red Hook and meanders northeast to Douglass Street.

The discovery, announced by two biology professors at the New York City College of Technology, gives a whole new mystique to the canal – an unlovely workhorse, for decades literally dumped on by industry, frequently polluted with sewage overflow, and abandoned by living creatures. Yet in a city where the personalities of blocks and neighborhoods change all the time – and not always in predictable ways – the canal’s popularity is on the rise. In recent years, it’s been embraced by boaters, artists, scientists, city planners and developers with a sense of adventure, nostalgia and vision.

Despite the sense that Gowanus is transforming – and it most definitely is – it is also remarkably historic in character: It is one of the few remaining areas along Brooklyn’s waterfront that has retained its industrial history and use. This exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society documents the past and present industrial activity along the Gowanus Canal, capturing the historical precedence for manufacturing in the area as well as the diversity and ingenuity of today’s manufacturers. The exhibit also comes at a crucial time in the Gowanus’s history. The Canal and adjacent blocks have been the focus of discussions about future residential growth and development in Brooklyn.
Featuring photographs, slides, manufactured objects and short histories of 11 current manufacturing businesses around the canal – from a baker to a concrete producer to a special effects studio – “Gowanus Transformations” illustrates the area’s gradual evolution while also providing evidence of the historical longevity of industry there. Four of the businesses featured have thrived over generations, while others have been in the Gowanus area for a few decades. Some of these businesses represent the more traditional side of manufacturing, including Architectural Grille, a manufacturer of grillwork from metal, stone, glass and wood; D. Maladari and Sons, a manufacturer of dies (or molds) for pasta and other food; and Foro Marble, a 40-year-old marble fabricator-installer. Profiles of these firms are juxtaposed alongside those of the area’s newest businesses, including Flirt, a two-woman clothing design studio; Claireware, a pottery studio and retail store; and Design Mobility, a production space for foldable bicycles designed and built by business owner Peter Reich.

The canal itself has an interesting and important history which is briefly noted in the exhibit. Originally a marshy area of inlets and creeks first settled by a local tribe of the Lenape as farmland, the creek was deepened to form a canal in the mid-1800s. It then grew to be a major route for freight traffic to transport general supplies and building materials for the development of neighboring Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill. The historical manufacturing uses along the canal are described, including ice houses, coal yards, a gas plant, machine shops and factories — providing a lifeline for nearby communities to goods as diverse as leather, ink and soap.

Today’s cargo traffic on the water is nothing like what it was, but in contrast to much of the borough and the city at large, the canal’s shores remain a home to industry. Approximately 50 square blocks around the canal are zoned for manufacturing uses, while in many other areas in Brooklyn — Williamsburg, Greenpoint, DUMBO and Red Hook — industrial uses have been replaced by residential conversions and new residential and commercial development.

The Gowanus Canal district may yet go the way of these areas, however. The Department of City Planning spent the last year developing a Framework for Redevelopment of the Gowanus Canal Corridor which was recently incorporated into a formal proposal to rezone the area to residential and mixed-use (by adding residential zoning to the current zoning).
The area’s potential redevelopment is not discussed in the exhibition, although the curators are clear to point out the economic value of manufacturing to the city and to acknowledge Gowanus as an area where manufacturing continues to thrive. In light of the dramatic possible changes to the area, the exhibit could more forcefully articulate the area’s uniqueness – either by giving the manufacturers a voice in the text, or by enlivening the exhibition space with video or audio pieces. The exhibit is unfortunately relegated to a small, basement gallery space and the active, intriguing quality of manufacturing activities such as making of noodles for alphabet soup or the chemical concoctions used to create special effects are reduced to still objects in a glass case.

But the exhibit does open the viewers’ eyes to the importance and vitality of an area once known (for its pollution) as “Lavender Lake,” and to the fact that manufacturing has not disappeared in New York City. The profiles of 11 Gowanus manufacturers are evidence of New York City’s blue-collar past combined with its creative present. Their stories suggest the incredible range of production in New York City, and the nimble, adaptive and resilient quality of its manufacturers. In total, the exhibit provides an excellent way to raise awareness of the diversity of businesses and the richness of neighborhoods. As stated in the written comment of one visitor: “Even though I’ve walked through the Gowanus many times I didn’t know these businesses existed there. Thank you for making them visible to us.”

– Jennifer Barrett

Jennifer Barrett is a resident of the Gowanus area and a research and policy associate for the New York Industrial Retention Network.