Published on December 29th, 2012 | by Charu Suri6
A Walking Tour Through Gowanus, Brooklyn’s Dark Horse
“The neighborhood is named after an Indian chief,” says our trusted guide Dom Gervasi, who leads a group of us through the hardly trafficked streets of Gowanus.
This is not my first walking tour with Gervasi, owner of Made in Brooklyn Tours. I’ve been on his guided walk through DUMBO before and loved every minute of it. I had no idea Brooklyn was filled with such rich history and indie artisans who were so committed to keeping the art of the small business so alive and well in this area. The Gowanus area has been associated with industrial and shipping activity since the 1860s and was zoned for manufacturing following the 1636 settlement of the Dutch in Brooklyn. Brownstone and limestone were transported via the Gowanus Canal. Several silos in the area were used for the storage of coal.
Today, Gowanus at the crossroads of change.
One of the first stops on our walking tour is the Gowanus Canal. The water looks clean but a suspiciously glassy dark green tint permeates. The truth is, the water in Gowanus is far from being all that. Because of its very spongy soil and very marshy land to begin with, it is difficult to pump water and sewage in and out of Gowanus. However, that has not deterred the real estate moghuls and the visionaries, and gentrification and transformation for the area is well under way. A lot of new companies –particularly indie companies—are setting up retail and production facilities here. This landscape — once industrial landscape and used for storage (think of the Upper West Side in the early 1920s), is rapidly becoming gentrified.
“The famous bridge operator here was called the ‘Chicken Man’” and he wrote a book about his culinary obsession,” says Gervasi. The “Chicken Man” as it turns out had an interesting job: to raise and lower the Gowanus drawbridge. Currently, there are hardly any boats passing by that need the drawbridge’s services. The residential project everyone is hoping will take off is the brainchild of David Lichenstein, CEO of Lightstone Group, who has started developing 700 properties in the area betting on Gowanus as the next big thing. The renderings of the area show glassy buildings and plenty of trees lining the promenade. Some residents –given that Hurricane Sandy caused the canal to flood generously—are skeptical about putting development properties on the banks of this canal. Certainly, insurance cannot be cheap. But as we went about our walking tour, it was hard not to notice some of the independent businesses that are truly unique: A lady paints a silk cloth at the Textile Arts Center
Textile Arts Center: This center is a community space to teach people textile art. There are several warp and weft looms that give you the ability to weave your own textiles and silkscreen material etc. Started in 2010, the Center has expanded rapidly and a new one has just opened in Greenwich Village. Francois Coignet and Other Concrete Manufacturers: Gowanus is synonymous with concrete manufacturers, some of who supply the concrete for both the old and new World Trade Centers. Francois Coignet was one of the pioneers of cast concrete or reinforced concrete. A signature derelict building in Gowanus (near the new Whole Foods) is one of the earliest examples of reinforced concrete or cast concrete. Other concrete production facility using mixed concrete manufacturers include Greco Brothers and Ferraro brothers.
Artsy Wooden bowls at Makeville
Makeville Woodworking Studio: “We don’t typically publicize our studio,” says owner Robin Mierzwa, owner of Makeville, a woodworking studio that offers all the tools professionals and amateurs need to make their own furniture. “I have people working in here doing their own projects. Some people are professionals and some are hobbyists,” she says. Makeville is one of those places that are authentically Gowanus: independent, unique and hands on. The studio’s philosophy is simple: aim to get satisfaction of making something with your own hands.
Brooklyn Homebrew: This retailer is a true Gowanus icon. “We’re all brewers here and teach people how to make beer at home,” says Ben Hudson, marketing director for the brewery, whose vision and quest to create a retail store with his wife paid off handsomely. Four years ago, there were really no shops catering to home brew aficionados. Brooklyn Brewery catered primarily to local clientele, and only recently started their web site recently because they did not want to compete with other online retailers. “We have a self-service grain area, and all sorts of specialty malts and barleys,” adds Ben. The brewery also grinds grain for customers and sells everything from beer bottles to yeast, and also offers classes. Ben’s tip to making good beer? Keep your equipment clean (not sterile) because unwanted organisms and germs can really spoil the taste –and experiment with various ingredients.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds: Small and bustling with visitors in search of the perfect pie, Four and Twenty Blackbirds is a local favorite. It’s a small shop with only one oven; they sell pies by the slice in the store. Featuring a few communal tables as well as plenty of smaller seating options, this cash-only establishment is popular and buzzing. Since they make everything by hand (even the crust), it’s worth splurging on the relatively costly ($5) slice. Try the Black Bottom Oatmeal, which is chocolate crunch heaven.
I was a guest of Made in Brooklyn Tours which are Brooklyn-based walking tours led by Dom Gervasi. Gervasi is a truly local expert and his family was raised in Brooklyn. Currently Made in Brooklyn Tours gives excellent guided walking tours to various Brooklyn areas from Williamsburg to DUMBO. Gowanus is their latest tour. Made in Brooklyn Tours is all about promoting local artists and businesses that truly are making it all in Brooklyn.