With as many as 700 new buildings a year constructed, the South Brooklyn region was growing at a remarkable rate. Thriving industry had brought many people to the area but important questions about wastewater sanitation had not been addressed. What they got was a sewer connection that discharged raw sewage into the Gowanus Canal. By the turn of the century, the combination of industrial pollutants and runoff from storm water, fortified with the products of the new sewage system, rendered the waterway a repository of rank odors, known to residents of the time as the "Lavender Lake" after the ink that was dumped in it. After World War I, with six million annual tons of cargo produced and trafficked though the waterway, the Gowanus Canal became the nation's busiest commercial canal, and arguably the most polluted.
High tide and low is as good a metaphor as any for the fortunes of the Gowanus, which have risen, fallen and risen again since the Dutch settled this former creek in the 1600s, naming it for chief Gowanee of the Canarsee tribe. The canal was built before the Civil War; the resulting boom of printing plants, oil-storage facilities and dye works produced so much pollution that the waterway was nicknamed Lavender Lake. By the time the flushing tunnel broke down, the area was already in decline: The Army Corps of Engineers stopped dredging the canal in 1955; waterfront jobs had fled to New Jersey; much of the area was torn down to make way for the low-income Gowanus Houses; and the canal was sealed off from the rest of Brooklyn by construction of the Gowanus Expressway. It became a place to unload garbage-and bodies (the canal was reputedly a favorite dumping ground for the Mafia).
A triad of pollution factors confront the Gowanus neighborhood. Air and noise pollution is generated by the tremendous amount of truck traffic that is carried through the neighborhood by the infamous Gowanus Expressway. Abandoned, and possibly contaminated, Brownfields are located along the Canal at Public Place site and a former federal Post Office site. The Gowanus Canal has historically been a recipient for industrial waste-products from businesses located along the Canal, in addition to raw sewage waste from the adjacent residential neighborhoods. The ubiquitous pollution earned the Gowanus Canal the name of "Lavender Lake", for its purplish oil sheen.
But some residents objected to encouraging more recreational activities and residents to an area that has not yet outlived its reputation for being an industrial wasteland. The canal was formerly known as "Lavender Lake" for the purplish chemical-runoff sheen it displayed until about six years ago, when a flushing tunnel was put into operation pumping fresher, oxygenated water into the canal from New York Bay.
Some reaches of the harbor were so polluted they became legendary. Stenches from Newtown Creek in Queens and the Gowanus Canal could be smelled for blocks; nearby residents even fled during the worst episodes. The Gowanus Canal became known as "Lavender Lake" because its color would change depending on the hues dumped by its dye works.
South Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, opened in 1866, was once hailed as one of the shortest and most important waterways in the world. It was also known as one of the world's dirtiest. Its putrid, perfumed airs were highly recommended for head colds. After one hundred thirty years of raw sewage, toxic sludge, dumped corpses and drowned dogs, the community continues to fight to clean up the Gowanus.
Lavender Lake looks at what the promise of a new environment means to those who live and work in the Gowanus area: the funeral director has fought for decades for his vision of a Venice in Brooklyn; the environmentalist attempts to re-introduce oysters to the canal; the physicist working to turn the canal into a test site for transforming toxic sludge into kitchen tiles; the cops who fish a suitcase out full of body parts. Weaving together their stories with the past three years of progress and delays to flush out the canal, the documentary captures a blighted urban space of astonishing physical beauty at a critical moment of change. It shows a community dreaming and battling over a new and suddenly desirable urban landscape. Can a group of visionary citizens reclaim the waterway and build a viable neighborhood that is also a mecca for travelers?
Palm Beach International Film Festival, 2000
BACA Film Festival, 2000
52 min. Video. Sale $295. Rental $75.
27 May 1956, New York Times, pg. 185:
The (Newtown - ed.) creek, in the eyes of those who have been associated with it for more than forty years, is the filthiest, foulest-smelling and ugliest stretch of water in the port. Gowanus, though, can hold a candle to it, and on the strength of its industrial attributes has acquired the nickname of "Lavender Lake." Newtown is just Newtown.
20 September 1969, New York Times, pg. 17:
Its stench and ugliness are nothing new. As far back as the turn of the century Brooklynites were mocking the waterway as "Lavender Lake."