Archive for February, 2009

Lavender Lake

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on February 24, 2009 by wally426

24-02-2009   Brooklyn, NY

If a person has lived within the confines of New York for some time, he or she could easily attest to the dynamic nature of the city’s many neighborhoods. One of the few exceptions might be Brooklyn’s little enclave called Gowanus. The name comes from the Delaware Indian language meaning “Small Pine” (which is ironic considering the complete lack of vegetation there now). It was one of the first areas of Breukelen settled by the Dutch as its marshland and brackish water provided the most fertile grounds for farming. In the 1850’s, the lake was dredged and a canal was formed to transport goods from nearby ports to serve Brooklyn’s exploding population. With increased commerce came a huge amount of pollution to the canal and the neighborhood surrounding it. By the turn of the 20th century, Gowanus became known as a fetid cesspool of raw sewage and chemical byproducts. Locals joked and called it the “Lavender Lake” after the brownish-purple color swirling around the ships and barges. The surrounding neighborhood remained as gritty as the water in the canal, with people routinely dumping guns and bodies into the rank depths where no detective would dare look. One character in Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn refered to the canal as “the only body of water in the world that is 90 percent guns”.

In one of my posts awhile back (West Side Glory?), I mentioned my irrational fear of murky, cold, polluted water. While I’m not sure of the phobia’s origins, the Gowanus canal might be the Everest of fright when it comes to dealing with this problem. As a child, I would stare out the window of the F or GG train (yes, there was one of those back then) at the remaining old cement factories, half sunken barges, crumbling docks and stagnant vomit-colored water. For whatever reason, I couldn’t help rid my mind of thoughts of falling into the canal and floundering helplessly amongst the detritus without anything to grab onto. The harrowing daydream always played out as follows –

While walking along the canal’s edge, I look up to see the graffiti covered shacks and seagulls with matted brown feathers. A slight layer of frost covers the old plastic bottles and condom wrappers underfoot. Ancient wood lining the sides of  the canal has been stained black. It reeks overwhelmingly of tar and rusting metal. While walking the slick planks, I slip and try to gain my balance, but it’s too late.. The fall into lavender lake only takes a second, even though it seems like an eternity. I scream but only a raspy whisper escapes my mouth as it fills with salty muckwater. I can feel the grains of sediment and three centuries of decomposing metal gritting between my teeth. My eyes are open, but all they see is a light brown swirl of stinging bubbles, they become darker, I’m sinking. Fighting the weight of my clothes, I reach the surface and see an enormous barge slinking along next to me, chains and old tires banging against its rusty metal hulk. Gravel spills over the sides into my eyes. Every time I open my mouth to scream, the rank water fills my mouth, leaving me to choke on the grainy waves of freezing liquid. Eventually I succumb to the freezing temperatures and fall to the bottom, never to be heard from again.

The past few years have been relatively good to the old canal. Ten years ago, the city put some money into restoring the filtering pump at the far end of the Gowanus (near Douglass Street). For the first time in almost sixty years, the canal had clean water from the Atlantic flowing through its rusty veins. Since then, rock crabs, blue crabs, shrimp, three types of jellyfish and minnows have returned. There are new developments underway to put a scenic walkway on the edge of the canal to spur (no joking here) tourism. Despite all of these efforts, I was still scared to death of the place. 

After getting my new camera equipment, I wanted to test it out on some long-range cityscape shots. As the 87 foot Smith & 9th St station above the canal is the tallest in the subway system, a walk down to Gowanus seemed inevitable. I throw the gear over my shoulder and head out reluctantly into the frigid swirling winds. After crossing over fourth avenue into Gowanus, the stillness is unmistakable. The warm life of Park Slope becomes completely devoid in this place. All that remains on the streets are dark factories, rusting shopping carts, the occasional homeless person cowering in the stiff winter breeze, and the lingering stench of the canal. I walk along the empty streets, catching good shots here and there. Eventually, after walking through the seemingly endless industrial maze, I come upon the banks of the canal. My hands shake with nervousness and I forget about the cold as beads of sweat form on my forehead. The water looks just like it did in that awful childhood daydream, cold, brown and swirling. The barges clink as small waves undulate gently beneath them. Gathering my wits, I lean over the edge and look into the water, all it takes is one little slip and the dream could become an actual nightmare. After leaning back, I steady my hands and take a few pictures. An air of calmness envelops me as I look at the reflections of the factories in the grimy waters. A small part of my irrational fear has subsided. In that instant, the boogie man in the closet of my borough has turned into a pesky little fly. I shoo-off the irrational fears and head up the endless staircase of Smith & 9th street to finish off the shoot.


An air of braggadocia

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on February 12, 2009 by wally426

12-02-2009   Brooklyn, NY

Has the pertinence of getting news out to the public destroyed the quality of how it’s presented? Has attention to certain details (like clothing and setting) vanished as time passed? Perhaps it has something to do with the level of closeness the press and public had with crime scenes back then? 

One thing I enjoy doing with my free time is going to the library and reading through old newspapers. Looking at old microfische always has a certain 1960’s sleuth-like feeling that accompanies it. There was something about the way beat writers presented their pieces back then, it seemed to bring the reader directly to the scene of whatever incident had taken place. The papers today don’t seem to capture the same essence. For instance, there was an article in the papers today about a man who had been hit by one car, hooked by another passing car and dragged through the city for twenty miles. The driver of the second car thought he had hit a pothole and kept driving, all the while dragging this poor bedraggled corpse underneath. The articles on this event weren’t remarkable and were written rather blandly. Compare that to the article below about a crime that had been committed almost 120 years-ago. The people have long been forgotten, but in reading the article you get a more personal feel for those involved.


In the end, it turned out that McElvaine was after only $200 of Luca’s money that he intended to take to market that day to purchase goods for his store. I suppose people have been murdered for less since then. The perpetrator also had two accomplices who were summarily caught. All three were executed. In looking at further snippets related to the incident, this appeared to be the desired outcome of many of the residents who knew Mr. Luca. One doctor’s feelings seemed to have summed up the view of the whole city:

“When in front of Mr. Luca’s residence I saw his wife with her head out the window and she was begging some one to bring me to the house. I entered in the company of Dr. John E. Ensell, of 125 High Street, and we commenced giving the dying man whisky, but he expired in two minutes. It was the most diabolical murder I ever heard of, as poor Luca was literally cut to pieces about the arms and body, and there was not a gill of blood left in his frame after his death. He lost it all from the wound in his left arm, and I think that this particular case requires a little Southern justice. Those three murderers ought to be strung up to the nearest lamp post, and it would be a relief of Brooklyn to do so.”