Gowanus Reborn

A haven for manufacturing and artists stands on the precipice of major development

The infamous Gowanus Canal (Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

The infamous Gowanus Canal.
(Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

Mortality has long been a theme in art. Decaying fruit or flowers, burnt out candles, clocks, skulls: symbols reminding us that death is inevitable appear everywhere. Memento mori is the term, Latin for remember [you must, you have to] die. Back in the day—medieval times—it was mostly about preparing for the afterlife. Artists are still influenced by death and its role in life, of course. And seldom does the relevance strike harder than in Gowanus, where access to the ultimate muse is as inspiring as it is ironic.

In 1931, Thomas Pontone, an immigrant from Italy, opened the South Brooklyn Casket Company on Union Street between Third Avenue and Nevins Street. Then, and for the next four, five decades and more, the neighborhood that surrounds the Gowanus Canal was largely Italian, like neighboring Carroll Gardens. Mr. Pontone and his wife Rose, who never ventured beyond a five-block radius, raised their eight children there.

Unlike Carroll Gardens (and Park Slope), though there were pockets of approved residences, most of the area was zoned for commercial and manufacturing use. Mr. Pontone manufactured wooden caskets in his basement. In 1979, the family bought the building across the street, a former FDNY truck and callbox repair station. They still own that building, which is about half a block long. Today, metal trumps wood, and mega-casket company Matthews International owns the business, but the Pantones are still involved. And passersby can still glimpse caskets—some 1,400 of them on the day we visited.

At work at the Brooklyn Casket Company. (Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

At work at the South Brooklyn Casket Company. (Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

“I remember the days when maybe three people would walk by on a Saturday,” said Andrew Pontone, Thomas’ grandson. “Now it could be 300.”

It’s an increase everyone in the neighborhood is talking about because its occurrence was remarkably sudden, after years of slow build. Some say it started with the 2007 Toll Brothers purchase and planned construction of 477 luxury condominiums at 363-365 Bond Street. In case you have not followed, here’s the brief: spot-rezoned; Toll Brothers abandoned down payment; Lightstone Group picked up; 700 rental units currently in construction on the bank of the canal, now called 365 Bond.

“We recognized the stars were aligning for a rental community, so we took a different spin,” said Scott Avram, senior vice president, who oversees Lightstone’s development platform. Coincidentally, previously Mr. Avram was responsible for the operational oversight of Toll Brothers’ City Living Division when it owned the property. He has a long relationship with the neighborhood.

“It’s really a place of interesting ideas and interesting organizations. And it’s still kind of a blank slate. People can create whatever they want. We’re excited to be on the precipice of that. We see Gowanus as the next place to be.”

“It’s really a place of interesting ideas and interesting organizations. And it’s still kind of a blank slate. People can create whatever they want. We’re excited to be on the precipice of that. We see Gowanus as the next place to be.”

Ultimately, he said, the neighborhood will be a diverse mix of Brooklynites, artists and the kind of people who first moved to Dumbo and Williamsburg and miss the edginess. With the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Environmental Protection and others, Lightstone is planning to build a park and other green spaces, docks and boat access. It’s also upgrading everything from sewer systems to curbsides.

“There’s been a lot of money spent,” said Mr. Avram. “In absolute dollars I think our project will be affordable.” Plus the 134 literally affordable apartments, starting around $800 (compared to approximately $2,400 for market-rate units) to be managed by the Fifth Avenue Committee and available through an NYC Housing Preservation & Development lottery. Leasing for all 700 apartments will start this winter.

“It’s definitely a priority for us to protect the affordability that’s there,” said Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio, citing a housing plan that includes 1,500 affordable live-work spaces for artists. “This is a neighborhood the mayor knows well. There’s been a lot of change over the past 20 years in Gowanus, as we’ve seen across this part of Brooklyn. We look forward to working with Councilman Brad Lander, as well as all the residents and businesses in the community, to make sure we can both preserve what’s affordable today and find opportunities for smart growth.”

Smart growth is what everyone wants. But sometimes it’s hard to see the smart through the growth.

New construction at 365 Bond. (Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

New construction at 365 Bond.
(Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

Today, there are displayed work permits, neon orange fencing, scaffolding, construction vehicles, hard-hat-covered heads, moving trucks, rising building skeletons and an abundance of plans from 645-651 Union Street (new, 78-room hotel) to 130 Third Street (lofts, maybe) to 217 Ninth Street (mixed use) to 237 11th Street (a.k.a. 470 Fourth Avenue; 105 rentals) to 577 Third Avenue (19 condos, maybe) to 96 16th Street (condos) and everywhere in between, not to mention everywhere you look beyond (Downtown Brooklyn!).

“It’s a tsunami,” said Karen Gibbons, a mixed-media artist. “The shift was gradual until about two years ago.”

Ms. Gibbons, whose husband invented the Swift Folder, the small-space-friendly folding bike, is one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of artists who currently call Gowanus home. As warehouse and industrial spaces were vacated, artists were drawn in by the cheap rents. Now single-family townhouses (renovated or new) in Gowanus are selling for more than $4 million. That said, many artists are in much more, um, rustic properties.

“That manufacturing remained and still remains was part of the appeal,” said Abby Subak, a painter and sculptor who started working in Gowanus in 2010. “In a manufacturing zone artists have access to machines they cannot use elsewhere. It’s an atmosphere where it’s O.K. to spill paint on the floor and make a lot of noise or work all night long. Artists are on the same spectrum as manufacturers.”

Think heavy manufacturing to lighter manufacturing to even lighter manufacturing, furniture making, picture framing, and so forth. For most of Gowanus’ artist newcomers, was all about work space.

“Nobody was living here in the early ’80s,” said Ms. Gibbons, recalling her first sight of the neighborhood she’s lived and worked in for more than 30 years. “No way, I said, but after seeing a few other [more expensive] areas I realized, yes, I can live with hookers.”

“Nobody was living here in the early ’80s,” said Ms. Gibbons, recalling her first sight of the neighborhood she’s lived and worked in for more than 30 years. “No way, I said, but after seeing a few other [more expensive] areas I realized, yes, I can live with hookers.”

Everyone who lives or works in Gowanus mentions hookers, though they’ve mostly disappeared since the Giuliani administration. Safety (lack of) and pollution (preponderance of) are also widely recalled. Further, everyone who lives or works in Gowanus calls two years ago the tipping point. And they fear the increase in population is not necessarily inclusionary of the pre-existing population.

“We have lost sight of what is important. I cannot be land. It cannot be money,” said Linda Mariano of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus. The goal is to preserve and protect the neighborhood she moved to in 1976 from the West Village. “Gowanus is off the beat. This is what we like.” Ms. Mariano recalls the days of rarely eating out (no money) and venturing to Downtown Brooklyn for shopping beyond Italian groceries.

“Chelsea used to have that, Soho used to have that, in two more years we may be saying Gowanus used to have that,” said Ms. Subak. She created Arts Gowanus as a resource for local artists. Initially, her focus was connection, letting each artist know where others were. The nonprofit now runs Gowanus Open Studios, an annual October event. This year, some 350 artists in 94 venues participated, up from about a dozen in 1997, its inaugural.

These days, Ms. Subak is also focused on helping artists maintain their place. “There’s no long-term solution for keeping artists in the neighborhood. Everyone in New York City loves art. We won’t have any art if artists can’t work.”

And without artists, there might be no Gowanus.

Works in progress at Threes Brewing. (Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

Works in progress at Threes Brewing. (Photo: Celeste Sloman for Observer)

“The artists are the ones who made Gowanus so dynamic and set the stage for the repositioning that is now occurring,” said Brendan Aguayo, vice president and managing director of Halstead Property Development Marketing. He was on the board of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy from 2012 until earlier this year. As a child, he walked through the neighborhood en route to the Cobble Hill movie theater from his home in Park Slope. “It was like a fairytale land, over a canal.”

The canal for which the neighborhood (and its elusive boundaries, particularly to the north and west as brokers and others capitalize on desirability; everyone agrees on Fourth Avenue and the Gowanus Expressway as the east and south parameters) is named is a two-mile-long, man-made development built in 1869 to take in storm water, flush away sewage and accommodate barge traffic. Its flushing tunnel, constructed in 1911 to (indirectly) pump polluted water to the East River, was defunct for some 30 years, from the 1960s to 1999. It was shut down again from 2010-2013, part of a $158 million project that rehabilitated the tunnel and drained and replaced the canal’s water.

The history of cleanup arguments is rich. Suffice to say it’s still a work in progress—considerably cleaner than it was, with fresh water being pumped in, but there aren’t any spas opening soon.

“The canal would be a different color every day,” recalled Ms. Subak, citing seaglass greens and purples. And yes, the stink, which needs no introduction. A reminder of death, indeed.

But that’s not why neighborhoods like Dumbo and Williamsburg transformed first. “Gowanus plays a unique role in the Brooklyn development boom because it has a significant stock of commercial properties that cannot be converted to residential,” said Mr. Aguayo. Instead, he said, property owners are taking advantage of the neighborhood’s location at the intersection of some of the borough’s most desirable residential neighborhoods—Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill—to provide services and space in demand in the borough.

“The highest and best use of commercial properties in today’s Brooklyn leans toward office, hotel and retail, turning old sites with obsolete uses into productive properties that reflect that evolution of Brooklyn as a community. The demand for amenities [in Gowanus] is in part a result of the increasing density of nearby neighborhoods.”

Business owners agree. The proliferation began on Third Avenue where the likes of Runner & Stone (bakery, coffee shop) and Littleneck (seafood restaurant) opened three and four years ago. Whole Foods opened in 2013. Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club and Ample Hills Creamery arrived in 2014, along with Threes Brewing, a brewery-bar-coffee-shop-event space.

Joshua Stylman, one of the brewery’s partners, said they chose Gowanus because they needed to be in a manufacturing zone to make beer and because of a lack of bars and cafes supporting residents of the larger area (his nearby neighborhood list includes Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn). “In the past year, there’s been change to the extent that there’s just more of everything. More residential buildings, more businesses.”

Unlike a lot of changing areas in New York City, he said, Gowanus seems to be holding onto the industrial roots; artists and other creative people still inhabit the area. “There are 3,500 people who work in Gowanus every day, mostly in creative fields.”

His brewer Greg Doroski among them. Next spring (or maybe summer) look for the to-be-named and defined brew started this week, which will be aged in Cabernet Franc barrels before release.

Across the street, Insa, a Korean barbeque and karaoke spot, is under construction. It’s the new project of Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider, partners by marriage and in the fabulous The Good Fork, the restaurant that made Red Hook a dining destination in 2006.

“We wanted to find a big, open space that’s also close to a density of population,” said Mr. Schneider, a fan of mixed-use, industrial-residential-urban neighborhoods and the general contractor for the space. The Good Fork’s cool, remote neighborhood is also its worst attribute: not enough people. “I never would have predicted the explosion of condominiums in Gowanus but as a restaurateur it’s good to be near.”

Art galleries, exhibition spaces, supply stores and classrooms are part of this new wave of businesses, too: Trestle Gallery, Gowanus Loft, Artist & Craftsmen, Textile Arts Center. “These spaces have shifted Gowanus from a below-the-radar neighborhood focused only on the making of art to include a significant outward-facing presence, drawing more people into the neighborhood,” said Ms. Subak, generously guiding the Observer on a tour. “We need all the spaces protected.”

“Artists have been the backbone of this community and are the underlying current to the fabric that exists,” said Brendan Aguayo of Halstead. “It should be a goal to ensure the protection of their interests be built into whatever framework is ultimately agreed upon.”

One solution: philanthropy. She applauds Joshua Rechnitz’s $7 million purchase of the gigantic “bat cave,” a former MTA power house (abandoned, derelict) and former home to squatters to be transformed into work studios. 365 Bond (Lightstone), Halstead and Brooklyn Bridge Realty, among others, are sponsors of Gowanus Open Studios. Lightstone employed local artists to create furniture, art, millwork and metalwork at 365 Bond.

“Artists have been the backbone of this community and are the underlying current to the fabric that exists,” said Mr. Aguayo. “It should be a goal to ensure the protection of their interests be built into whatever framework is ultimately agreed upon.”

We couldn’t find anyone to disagree. The afterlife is underway.

Gowanus Reborn