If you live anywhere near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, you NEED to know about the amazing work being done by the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC) – and STAT. They’re powering ahead against all odds, greening, protecting, planting, and reviving a Brooklyn watershed and neighborhood that’s been plagued by severe toxic overload for decades. Did you know that the Gowanus Canal is a federal Superfund site? That means that the government has decided it’s so toxic – thanks to decades of unregulated industrial and sewage dumping (it was turned from creeks to a channel in 1870) – that a major cleanup effort, overseen by the federal EPA, is required. In the meantime, alarming signs along the banks themselves still warn passersby not to even think about going near the water.
[Students from I.S. 259 pose after replanting bioswales.]
The GCC makes its open-air headquarters right on the banks of the sludgy canal, across the way from a gas plant and a concrete plant, in the fenced-in land around a salt lot (the Department of Sanitation keeps a ginormous pile of salt there in winter, along with the plows that spread it around on streets during the icy months) at a dead-end on Second Avenue. It’s a high-stimulus, “eco-industrial situation,” as GCC Executive Director Andrea Parker fondly calls it. The GCC maintains a small, unmarked nursery in one corner, where staff and volunteers propagate vital but humble-looking native plants to sell and to give away. There’s also a big old (fragrant) compost pile, which is fed by a steady stream of food scraps collected at local Grow NYC Greenmarkets (here’s where we remind you that you can bring your compost to these drop-offs, for free – just freeze your compost during the week, and bring it over to any Brooklyn farmers’ market when the bag’s full). The lot doesn’t look like much. You could pass by it, on your way to the new parole center across the street, say, and never even know what magic is transpiring inside those fences.
What magic, you ask?
1. Soil made in the GCC’s compost pile already gets distributed to all tree beds within a couple-block radius along the 1.8 mile long canal, and the organization is looking to broaden their scope pretty drastically. “Our goal is to eventually take care of all the street trees in the watershed,” explains Parker, “which spreads up to Prospect Park, up to Prospect Heights, and then over to Cobble Hill. We don’t want volunteers to have to lug stuff that far.”
2. Speaking of volunteers, more than 1,300 volunteers pass through annually: students from local schools, staff from Morgan Stanley and ConEdison. The GCC even has a STEM curriculum for middle-schoolers, in which kids analyze a site along the canal, and then come up with design proposals to improve it. Just the other day, a class of middle-schoolers came in to work on some of the bioswales. “They get so excited about the idea that they can touch something on the street,” says Parker, “and can have an impact on it.”
[Executive Director Andrea Parker and Garden and Communications Coordinator Nya Wilson admire the GCC nursery’s purple Monarda, which is great for bees and butterflies.]
3. The GCC’s nursery contains native plants exclusively, many of which are now super hard to find in the city – not because they’re rare, per se, but because so few operations in the city make native horticulture their focus. The GCC lovingly propagates Monarda (or bee balm), native honeysuckle, goldenrod, Virginia creeper, hemp dogbane, dogwood, tons of different milkweeds, and many more!
4. The GCC maintains off-site community gardens, as well as an absolutely fabulous Wildflower Corridor on 9th Street.
5. Most cutting-edge of all, a whopping 2,000 bioswales will be going in across the city this year, including 92 at the north end of the Gowanus Canal this summer (thank you, Department of Environmental Protection!), and the GCC is working with the DEP to develop a pilot bioswale maintenance curriculum that will train citizen stewards to maintain these vital new resources. Bioswales are an amazingly simple, effective, and attractive solution to storm-water overflow; picture a system of three flower beds built into the sidewalk, each on top of about three feet of absorptive soil laid in over about two feet of gravel. These guys, taken together, can take in enormous amounts of water, during storms.
The GCC needs a truck!
All that magic involves a lot of schlepping – of heavy shovels, hoses and other tools, of people, of big planters, and of fresh soil made from the GCC compost. WHICH IS WHY the GCC needs a TRUCK! A truck of their very own, so they don’t have to keep renting! And so they can slap their awesome logo right on the noble beast’s flanks, and really get down to business.
We visited the GCC this week, and got a tour with Parker and Nya Wilson, an Americorps member who’s thrilled to have been dispatched to the GCC as Garden and Communications Coordinator. “The volunteer’s reactions to the compost is always pretty funny,” says Wilson. “They’re into it when we give them the orientation and allow them to choose what they’d like to do. Of course we need a good core group for the compost; I call it an environmental workout. Then they come over here and smell it, and they’re like ‘oooh! Can we do something else?’ I have to tell them, after a while, you won’t really smell it. You’ll be in the groove.”
[Con Edison employees helping build planters for the 9th Street Wildflower Corridor]
Parker says she’s committed to cleaning up the Gowanus area in part because its history of constant transformation inspires her. “It always has been this extremely productive central node for Brooklyn, from former salt mash to tidal mills to industry,” she says. “And there’s an incredible productive future for it – one that involves community engagement in developing public space and harnessing the power of this amazing waterway.”
halfway there, and you can help!
Did we mention that our ioby offices are just a few blocks from the north end of the Gowanus Canal? We’ve got a big old soft spot for it, and we’re in awe of the brave and vital work the GCC is doing. For more info, and to watch a short video about the GCC, check out their ioby campaign page here. The new GCC truck is halfway funded, at $13,000 down, $13,000 left to go. And if you want to help, but don’t have any extra cash moolah to give, no problem! Just email email@example.com, and bring your own two hands down to the Salt Lot at 2nd Ave.
If the GCC’s work inspires you to take action in YOUR neighborhood, or if you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.
Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Scared about the bee die-off? You don’t have to just sit there and take it. Learn how to create a pollinator sanctuary.