Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Neighborhood Nest Nursery

This is part 3 in our 4 part series reporting on the Gowanus Canal and the Canal Nest Colony project in Brooklyn, New York.  Part 3 will report on the developments in the project for 2010.  For the earlier posts see here and here.

By the winter of 2009 the Canal Nest Colony (CNC) project had constructed and installed 25 new bird and bat houses along the banks of the Gowanus Canal and had begun partnering with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC) to help run community volunteer days for the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn.  That winter, two more designers joined the team, including one of us here at FASLANYC, and the CNC team decided to join the GCC.

During the fall of 2009, the team heard from a couple of members of the New York Audubon Society suggesting better ways to build and place birdhouses along the canal.  This was auspicious considering that most of the bird and bat houses were still empty!  They also speculated that enhancing the habitat with plantings could provide cover and food for birds and create gardens that were more attractive to the neighbors and more fun to install than just picking up trash. 

After meeting with members of the Audubon Society and the GCC the Nest Colony team decided to prepare two grant proposals, one to the Fiskars Community Grant program, and one to NYC Million Trees.  If awarded, the Fiskars grant would provide the shovels, loppers, wheelbarrows, pick axes and a multitude of other basic tools necessary to put an army of volunteers to work in the dirt; NYC Million Trees would provide the trees.  In addition, Pleasant Run Nursery in New Jersey agreed to donate all of the plant material that the CNC team could take from their stockpile of last season's surplus.  

The team proposed two gardens that would feature new birdhouses including a 12-foot high chimney swift tower as suggested by the Audubon folks.  Historically one of the most well adapted urban birds- living in our chimneys during the warm months and devouring insect pests by the pound- in recent decades swifts have found habitat in perilously short supply with the widespread adoption of central heating systems.  A 12 foot tower would provide alleviate this issue in the smallest of ways.  More significantly, it would attract people and be a symbol for the socio-ecological efforts on the Canal.  
[a proposed garden for the Canal.  The design sets a couple of precise interventions (hedge and elevated boardwalk) in a field of gravel/rubble and urban-hardy wildflowers.  This garden evidently attracts Giant Pteradactyls, and is haunted by the ghostly visage of Claude Cormier]

[the chartreuse chimney swift tower is set among new plantings in the background.  In the foreground a kid is taking his ball and going home]

[the boardwalk and painted scaffolding sculptures (begging for birdhouses to be affixed to them) is a dainty-hardy foreground for the F train bridge passing over 9th street in the distance]

In the spring of 2010 the CNC was awarded the Fiskars grant and began planning the schedule for the community work days.  Relying on the GCC's expertise and experience in rounding up groups from the community, a decision was made to hold one community event per month, with invitations going to local businesses, schools, and organizations.  The first community volunteer event was set for Earth Day in April- over sixty volunteers showed up to help weed, pick up trash, and install two new birdhouses along the canal near the 9th street bridge.  The turnout was so big that there was not enough interesting work to pass around!  A place was needed to hold plants and secure the tools and materials that would be used for the projects; this would allow subsequent community days to include more diverse activities including planting and building.

In May, the GCC convinced the Department of Sanitation (DOS) to let them use a one acre lot situated at a bend in the canal where 2nd Avenue dead-ends.  This lot, owned by the DOS, is used during the winter months for salt and sand storage to keeps NYC's streets clear.  A shipping container was donated to the project, the donated plants were brought to the city, mulch was donated by the Department of Parks and Recreation and a small urban nursery was set up to store and care for the trees and shrubs until they could be installed.  The watering, pruning and mulching was done by volunteers from the GCC.  Weeds and prunings from the community event were dumped in a corner for later composting.

The community volunteer event at the end of May brought over one hundred people down to the canal to help install a new garden at the end of First Street.  This was also the first chance to grapple with the logistics of running a volunteer event which centered around plantings and materials brought from the Salt Lot.  A pickup truck was donated for the event by a moving company, and all the extra hands helped to install and water plants, reset pavers, and set a concrete bench along 1st street.  Getting materials there that day was not difficult.  Continuing to water plants at a remote site without the help of a business or neighbors has been, and many have died during the hottest months of the summer.

Volunteers were coming out and the staging ground was up and running, but the efforts were spread too thin.  Mid-season, it was decided to reign in the ambition and focus on site improvements near the Salt Lot- new plantings, bird houses, caring for and expanding the nursery, and starting the community composting operation.  The Salt Lot and the end of 2nd Avenue deserves its own paragraph-

The Salt Lot is a sodium/nitrate soaked rubble heap right at the major bend in the Gowanus.  A masonry building likely stood there once- you can still make out the foundations, and the berm around the edge is all construction debris capped haphazardly with asphalt and slowly being colonized chrysanthemum, black locust, ailanthus, and wild carrots (queen ann's lace).  In the distance the F train rumbles over its elevated track along 9th Street, and the Kentile Flooring Sign in negative really sets off the beautiful Brooklyn skies.  When the incoming tides raise water levels 6 feet they often bring an oil slick with them from just downstream.  If this happens to occur during a shower which produces a sewer overflow the effect is an unholy mixture of stink that swirls together just below the bank of the Salt Lot.  The canal bulkhead is falling down at this point and the spontaneous intertidal zone made of masonry units and coated in the potent mixture is home to an impressive array of resilient little creatures, most of them small fiddler crabs, minnows, and insects.   I don't recommend going there, but if you accidently end up at the Salt Lot and you see one of those little crabs clamber out of the oil slick up onto a sewage-soaked rock and start "playing the fiddle" amidst the swarm of bugs you will definitely chuckle to yourself and think "ha, that resilient little rat-bastard..."
[the sweet, sweet Salt Lot; beautiful, and also looking like the location of a biblical curse]

By the start of summer, the CNC project was focused on new birdhouses and plantings along the rubble berm at the edge between the Salt Lot and the canal and the community volunteer days were held here.  The aim with clustering all of the services and activities in one spot was to create a destination along the canal.  The Salt Lot and its sublime surroundings offer one of the few spots to notice the canal and its rhythms.  But being located at a dead end and surrounded by bus repair depots and metal scrap yards, few people from the neighborhood ever venture there.  Locating the community days here would likely decrease turnout, but might open up the canal to people, and help them to get excited about the operation that was growing in their neighborhood.  In addition, it would be possible for the volunteers to maintain and protect the installed plants and birdhouses.

Community volunteer events in June and July were held at the Salt Lot.  Turnout was lower but still significant; about 40 people in June and then 20 or so in July, likely due to a potent combination of stifling heat in New York City and family vacations.  The nursery was moved to another location on the Salt Lot to give the plants more space, two new birdhouses along with 10 trees and 20 shrubs were planted along the canal berm, and old pallets were salvaged and turned into nine bins for the community compost operation.  The GCC was able to use donations to purchase a small generator and a bike trailer, both to be stored in the donated shipping container.  The generator allows for running power tools for building down on site, and the bike trailer will allow volunteers to cart the tools for watering and maintenance installed in other locations along the canal (a truck would obviously be easier, but it is far too expensive and would require registration and upkeep that would detract from the focus).
[Hope, and weeds, spring eternal.  Here, Verbasum thapsis (common mullein), Artemesia vulgaris (chrysanthemum weed, mugwort), and Polygonum persicaria (ladysthumb) band together to bust out of a deposit of rubbly asphalt near the protection of a concrete barrier cast from tailings]

[the nusery, shipping container, and mulch pile before the nursery was relocated across the lot; just over the shipping container you can make out a kestrel house; the bizarre tower in the background to the left is a concrete plant across the canal]

This coming weekend the August community volunteer event will establish a new garden at the end of Bond Street just across the canal from the Salt Lot.  There are currently two existing birdhouses in this location and the street end is washed out from stormwater runoff that dumps straight into the canal at this point.  The garden will try to slow the flow of this water with channels and plants, and the plants will create a protected nook and provide food for possible aviary acquaintances that might move into the birdhouses next spring.  Should any of the 7 readers of this blog be around, your ideas, enthusiasm, and muscle would be welcome!

It is unclear whether or not the swift tower will be built this year- it requires a lot of equipment and materials that have still not been obtained, and it seems important not to strain volunteers (hence the emphasis on fun).  Many of the plants at first street have died, and weeds and trash always return.  But a large composting operation is getting started, more birdhouses have been installed and plantings have been established along the banks of the canal which may draw more people and provide habitat and food for birds.  Most exciting, the seasonal nursery has proved a great success logistically as well as piquing neighborhood interest and enabling the ecological initiatives of the CNC project.  The CNC team has mapped empty tree pits along adjacent streets and it is likely that the remaining community volunteer events will install trees as part of the NYC Million Trees fall giveaway program.  The last event day will also be a neighborhood celebration with food and very little work, so check in at the Conservancies website periodically for that news.  

This post is the final hack reporting piece on the Gowanus Canal and the Canal Nest Colony project.  Next week's post we will be turning an eye towards the future, imagining how the CNC project might grow and change in the coming year along with other GCC initiatives, and how the lessons learned here in the last two years might inform or inspire similar initiatives that seek to combine ecological and social goals by focusing on fun and work in the landscape.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The End of The Infrastructural City

This is our final post for mammoth's group reading of the The Infrastructural City.  For the summary and index, check in here.
[the 36 High Voltage Direct Current thyristor valves of the Celillo Converter Station in The Dalles, Oregon; part of the Pacific Intertie that was upgraded to replace the obsolete mercury arc valves in 2002.  Not entirely sure what that means, but we're impressed.]

"Networked Ecologies", the introduction to The Infrastructural City by Kazys Varnelis, opens by painting a picture of the Pacific Direct Current Intertie and then jumps into the different themes and theories useful for understanding Los Angeles (for an interesting report on a PDCI incident in 1998 see here).  The most provocative and fundamental of these themes is the assertion that Los Angeles is best understood in terms of infrastructure:

"With its promise to harness untamable nature and transform it into paradise for man so appealing to the inhabitants of the frontier, infrastructure is the only theology that really took hold in the American West...  Through such wonders as Death Valley, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite Valley, North America was capable of overwhelming the senses.  The European mind swiftly set out to dominate this wild nature.  By overpowering the wilderness mentally through exploration and mapping, then taming it physically, reshaping the sublime terrain for production, settlers created a justification for their own existence."

This statement echoes the sentiments of Harold Innis and his theories of political economy, though the insertion of the idea of a "European mind" is confusing at best, and antithetical to the general point- the American continent is a wild beast.  Not to mention there is no "european mind" and if there was, by the time it made it to Los Angeles it was no longer.  Even Varnelis changes tone a few pages later, agreeing with Anton Wagner's attempt to understand Los Angeles on its own terms as "the product of Americans confronting the forces of nature."

Also misleading here is the coupling of the explorers and topographers with the exponents of political economy in the American West.  In fact, the one-armed John Wesley Powell led many of the first expeditions exploring the landmarks Varnelis cites, yet advocated for settling the West sparsely according to regional watersheds.  In 1893 he told an irrigation congress, "Gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of litigation and conflict over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply the land."  Alas, he was heckled off the floor.  And so we have the Los Angeles that Varnelis aptly describes:  

"If the [American] West was dominated by the theology of infrastructure, Los Angeles was its Rome.  Cobbled together out of swamp, floodplain, desert, and mountains, short of water and painfully dependent on far-away resources to survive, Los Angeles is sited on inhospitable terrain, located where the continent runs out of land.  No city [of this size] should be here."  (italics ours.  In fact, the vicinity of the LA River was a fine place for a small city.  It's the megacity that is problematic).
[John Wesley Powell and friends bivouacked on the banks of the Colorado River]

[mapping the west]

It seems as though Varnelis would agree with Paul Virilio's theories of dromology and assertion of the importance of speed in the contemporary society (late-capitalist, post-[infra]structural... hold on, I have to vomit... hypermodern) which is appropriate given that "America loves hot, nasty, badass speed."  Indeed, Varnelis' assertion that "what makes our moment distinct is that the remedy of creating a new infrastructure or using new technologies to surmount breakdown is no longer an option" seems an implied acknowledgement of the relevance of the Accident in the evolution of technology.

But the value in "Networked Ecologies" comes at the end, when Varnelis gets to the point:  Infrastructure is no longer a solution.  What he refers to here is a specific type of infrastructure- the teleological construction enabling speed and power.  Which calls to mind a couple of interesting recent articles in the Harvard Design Magazine on the significance of slowness in the landscape.

Infrastructures of speed and extraction, landscapes of slowness and regeneration:

Rather than one or the other, it is precisely the opportunities and situations that arise as a result of the competition and coordination between landscapes of speed and slowness that offer the most appropriate solutions to contemporary issues; there is rich potential for conceiving new ways of rebuilding our cities, managing agricultural production, adapting to climactic changes, negotiating political and economic upheaval, and yes, even building new infrastructures.  It is not that infrastructures of speed and power are obsolete, but rather that infrastructure is bifurcating.  Historically, infrastructure has been a major capital project built for one purpose and destined to deteriorate from the day it is completed.  And these are necessary.  But as Varnelis hints, and subsequent chapters emphasized, we need new infrastructures layered on top of and within these constructions.
[the LA River; shopping cart-eating plants are the future infrastructures of America, photo courtesy of FOVICKS]

[Let's just pretend these palms are providing ecosystem services; photo courtesy of TCIM]

We suggest that these new infrastructures can be similar to the mycorrhizae that colonize the roots of the vast majority of plants species on the earth, helping them intake necessary nutrients which cannot be obtained by their own roots.  Highly specific and locally adapted, built by agglomeration, hi-tech and lo-fi, sometimes intelligible to normal people, these new infrastructures will offer the promise of increased resiliency and efficiency, and their new forms will prove to be a disruptive innovation for resolving the socio-political morass that Varnelis observes has made impossible new infrastructure solutions in Los Angeles.

The constant hyperbole and occasional misinformation/poor writing aside, the assertion that infrastructures are material networked ecologies as well as engineering diagrams is a powerful argument that builds on the recent trend towards ecological and software concepts and metaphors, and urges a reexamination of the systems and networks that we conceive of to understand and intervene in our environments.  And many of the chapters make insightful examinations of the specific systems at work in LA.  The intro is one of the best.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nest This, Nest That

This is part two of our four part series in the month of August discussing the Gowanus Canal and the Canal Nest Colony project in Brooklyn, NY.  See here for part one.

Two years ago the Urban Omnibus- the publication and outreach arm of the Architecture League of New York- was parked in the old Canning Factory Warehouse down near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn.  In November 2008 the UO partnered with Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps, to hold a design/build event encouraging designers to "make a difference in two days", an exercise in design activism.

Do not let the beautiful soliloquies and exhortations of academics fool you; while high-minded in its conception, these events often function as an outlet for frustrated young designers who are tired of doing their bosses' cad work and want a chance to get a little dirty and have a laugh (a trend that has as much to do with 'recasting labor in architecture' as it does with design activism).  This notion of design activism- figuring out what needs to be done and then figuring out ways to get it done, irrespective of the "invisible (omniscient) hand of the market"- is one that is dear to us and we here at FASLANYC have long been inspired by academics such as Tom Fisher, Bryan Bell, Senor Sam Mockbee, Marthur and da Cunha, and Walter Hood, as well as the high-minded ambition of practitioners such as the folks at Agency Architecture, Mia Lehrer, Supersudaca and Architecture for Humanity.  
[The late Samuel Mockbee, smart and bearded]

Unfortunately, most of these initiatives suckle from the teat of corporate philanthropy and government largesse from (within the insulated cocoon of academia)- both of which have positives and both of which are extremely limiting to these otherwise wonderful initiatives.  The people above have shown that there is a need for this work, and a desire to do it.  The missing link is the mechanism for engaging larger constituencies and funding more visionary projects than those allowed by the corporate/governmental benefactors.  The Colombians and their private/public supported "social urbanism" is one model to follow, given the appropriate political will (which can perhaps be cultivated through Maurice Cox' methods of political engagement).  And perhaps there are ways to fund micro-endeavors Obama Campaign-style, exploiting the strengths of networked publics and internet technologies.  But until this is developed, one can understand the curmudgeonly practitioners who dismiss these endeavors as a frivolous, if important, undertaking.

Anyways, four intrepid folks, all young designers from North Carolina living in Brooklyn (basically, a walking cliche of a young NYC design group) got together and entered the event.  In the great design tradition of clever naming conventions, they called themselves Team NC State.  The Omnibus had a succinct little write-up about the effort that weekend.  

Most interesting, they liked what they were doing, and decided to keep it going.  Throughout the fall of 2008 and the next spring, they kept cutting up pieces of scrap wood, painting them and making them into little yellow birdhouses.  A couple of things here- the sophistication of this design is just lovely.  The birdhouses are made of scraps from local cabinet makers and fastened atop an old reject piece of scaffolding which is cast in a 5-gallon bucket, partially filled with concrete.  The cost per birdhouse is a couple of dollars, and each house is a mobile little unit which can be inserted into almost any crevice along the Gowanus, and can easily be moved later.  What's more, bird species can be an indicator of ecosystem biodiversity in urban areas, and indicators of environmental health in a neighborhood.  And people like birds.  It's fun to see them hunt and fly and build, many have different colors and behaviors, and many of them migrate, marking the changing of seasons and passage of time.  These factors suggest that birds are something of a socio-economic "keystone species" in urban environments.  And a few folks from the Gowanus Canal Conservancy started to notice.  
[two birdhouses at a street end.  the yellows stand out in their rusty environs]

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy is a community non-profit group that has been working hard in recent years to address some of the legacy issues of the Gowanus Canal.  This included working with DLand Studio to devise and promote the idea of a "Sponge Park" along the Canal, as well as proposing funded studies for stormwater control through the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Protection.  During this time, the main effort of the Conservancy on the ground has been the volunteer "clean and green" days.  A concerted effort is made to reach out to local businesses, schools, and neighborhood organizations to invite people to get involved in the work on the canal.  Most of this work is weeding and picking up trash.  

During 2009 the GCC started noticing the work of the Canal Nest Colony, and began helping obtain materials and a work space.  In return, team NC State offered their birdhouse initiative as an organizing mechanism for the community volunteer days.  Suddenly, volunteers had a wider variety of activities to engage in- bolting, painting, digging, hammering, and pouring concrete- and volunteer days ended not only with an cleaned patch of ground along the Canal, but also with the construction of something interesting.

Over the course of 2009, 25 new birdhouses were designed built and installed, and prying eyes started to notice (including ours).  These delicate little yellow boxes were beautiful beside the oily blues and rusting browns of the Canal.  What's more, the bucket-footing allowed for the houses to migrate season to season, slowly finding their way to the micro-habitats along the Canal that best suited bird species.  And the numbers of volunteers at the community clean and green days began to grow.

The Canal Nest Colony, birthed at the behest of the Urban Omnibus with the encouragement of Bryan Bell, is part of a groundswell of creative, hedonistic, and clumsy efforts along the Gowanus in the late 2000's.  The Gowanus Canal, as an example of Sola-Morales' terrain vague- is attractive precisely because it is a "ruined place characterized by a lack of productivity..." that acts as a space of freedom and an "alternative to the lucrative reality that characterizes the late capitalist city."  As such it is can operate simultaneously as an open sewer, ecological laboratory, and hipster playpen.  

The growth of the Canal Nest Colony, involving community members and groups, the original team, and a local ngo opened new possibilities for the 2010.  Next week we will examine some of the efforts, changes, alliances, and setbacks that the project encountered this year, including the superfundi-ing of the Canal by the Environmental Protection Agency, the expansion of the CNC team, and the help of city agencies.

A quick aside about SpongePark.  DLand Studio and the GCC promptly got into a slap fight over the park when Susannah Drake of DLand trademarked the name in 2009.  This is a shame, because the idea has some merit.  However, will all of the inane organizations that continue to heap awards on the "Spongepark" please stop?  It is a nice idea but is not novel and is not even at a conceptual stage yet (review the drawings for yourself).  It is in no way better, more thoughtful, or more sophisticated than a final project from sophomore year and should be treated as such- "good start; make a real project, or even a real study, and we'll talk about funding and honors."  Jesus God.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Oh that Gowanus-ness

FASLANYC is back from a short hiatus.  This week we will be happily picking back up with the last installment of mammoth's group reading of The Infrastructural City.  This week is the first installment of a four-part post covering the Gowanus Canal and the Canal Nest Colony Project in Brooklyn, NY.

In addition, we have some exciting new developments to mark the year anniversary of regular posts.  Our very own Don Roman de la Mancha has been studiously learning English and will become our regular South American correspondent.  Developments south of the border have long interested us, and it is a stated belief and goal of us at FASLANYC that designers in the US should not be so Euro-centric, and that we have much more to learn from the sudacas than we admit.  DRDLM will be helping in this effort, focusing on the countries of Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and Colombia.

Lastly, gentleman landscape architect/bike repairman/bait store owner H. Willis Montcrief will become our southern correspondent, reporting on developments south of the Mason-Dixon line.  You can still expect a poorly-written, pedantic, and faux-intellectual post every Sunday/Monday, but we hope to begin adding shorter, more informal posts occasionally throughout the week.


And what is that you smell?
Oh, that!  Well, you see, he shares impartially with his neighbors a piece of public property in the vicinity; it belongs to all of them in common, and it gives to South Brooklyn its own distinctive atmosphere.  It is the old Gowanus Canal, and that aroma you speak of is nothing but the huge symphonic stink of it, cunningly compacted of unnumbered separate putrefactions.  It is interesting sometimes to try to count them.  There is in it not only the noisome stenches of a stagnant sewer, but also the smells of melted glue, burned rubber, and smoldering rages, the odors of a boneyard horse, long dead, the incence of putrefying offal, the fragrance of deceased, decaying cats, old tomatoes, rotten cabbage, and prehistoric eggs.
And how does he stand it?
Well, one gets used to it.  One can get used to anything, just as all these people do.  They never think of the smell, they never speak of it, they'd probably miss it if they moved away.

(Thomas Wolfe, "You Can't Go Home Again", 1940)

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was once a meandering tidal creek whose brackish waters produced oysters so succulent and sizable they were harvested by the Dutch settlers and shipped back to Europe by the barrel-full.  With the growth of industry and the concomitant population explosion in Brooklyn in the middle of the 19th century, the old Gowanus Creek was channeled and deepened to create the 1.8 mile-long canal, finished in 1869.  This allowed for brown sandstone ("brownstone") and other construction materials quarried in New Jersey and upstate New York to be brought into Brooklyn, where they were used to erect the future mecca of Hipsters and Hassidim.  
[before cheap pizza places, New Yorkers would stop in at the oyster houses and oyster carts that were throughout the city]

[ships in the Gowanus Bay in 1867 where the soon to be channelized Gowanus Creek empties into the bay]

Like most industrial canals, the Gowanus was always conceived as a teleological logistics platform.  Industries reliant on barge traffic, such as manufactured gasworks and tanneries, sprang up along the canal.  By 1906 there were over 85 barge trips per working day (excepting the lord's day) and the canal was a "maritime superhighway for barges bearing coal, sand, oil, and brick".  It was also the provenance of the "huge symphonic stink" that lent South Brooklyn "its own distinctive atmosphere" and was considered an American embarrassment.

Now the Gowanus Canal primarily functions as the collector outlet for 14 of the combined sewer overflow points in Brooklyn.  If you are ever in Brooklyn during a rain and are an insane masochist, jump on a bike and head down to the Canal where 2nd Avenue dead ends.  About ten minutes after the rain begins you will feel an acrid stink in your pores, and a sulfuric odor reminiscent of Dante's fumache lagoni will wash over you.  This is because raw sewage is upwelling in the Canal just ten feet away and mixing with the heavy metals, petrochemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the deep sediments and waters of the Canal.  It is disgusting, and disheartening.
[the disturbance in the water just beyond the green sign is 
raw sewage upwelling into the canal just after a light shower,
photo courtesy of Erin P.]

The blocks immediately adjacent to the Canal have been left mostly to bus repair shops, industrial scrap yards, concrete plants, the vacant vestiges of past energy industries, and carting companies that lumber through Brooklyn at night looking for cyclists to flatten.  Four of the streets from the city grid continue across the Canal, but most reach dead ends at the Canal.  The Canal itself dead-ends at Butler Street where the Boerum Hill neighborhood begins.

And yet, the Canal has a certain attraction.  It is a sublime landscape with the old ruined factories and rubble heaps and scrap yards interspersed among garages and warehouses.  The F/G trains and the Gowanus Expressway cross overhead and at night the little lights in the subway cars are beautiful.  If you go there on the right night and watch the subway crawl along the tracks and see the distant skyline of Brooklyn and Manhattan, if you notice the bats diving for insects against the dark silhouettes of the strange warehouses and factories around you will feel that New York City is the place for you; that despite our propensity for creating ugliness, beauty is bigger than us.
[in the 1950's the canal was notorious as a dumping ground for murdered people.  here cops are looking for a body the morning after a car drove into the canal.]

[the canal and the surrounding fabric in the 1960's]

Of course, the canal was not always seen in this light, and will not always be like this.  For the last generation the landscape here has been in a derelict state, neither productive according to its original intent nor converted to some newly appropriate use.  It is terrain vague, an "abandoned area, obsolete and unproductive... which represents an anonymous reality." [sic]  And this terrain vague, the fracturing of the historical narrative, permits the creation of new mythologies.  

Terrain vague, as the site of a failed teleological construction, offers a landscape exploration space for the probe head mechanism which is not accounted for in capitalist territorialization characterized by the consumption/disposal binary.  A derelict site of failed or obsolete intention serves an attractor for exploration and provides a point of departure for the creation of new patterns of use.  It offers the chance to construct new mythologies.

With the slowing of industrial maritime activity in Brooklyn in the 1940's thanks to the construction of the Verrazano Bridge and the Gowanus Expressway, and the ceasing of regular dredging operations by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1955, the lands and waters were left open for new agents who could find room to operate here.  These include blue crabs, fiddler crabs, and swallows, as well as punks, homeless kids, rave partiers, artist communes, kayak enthusiasts, prostitutes, in addition to neighborhood groups, school teachers with a bivalve interest, and private developers.  Now that agents of all levels of prestige and power are focused on the Gowanus Canal, this list is rapidly changing.  In the coming three weeks, we will detail one initiative- the Canal Nest Colony- which we have begun working with since first reporting on it last year.
[the Department of Sanitation salt lot on the canal, the new home of the Canal Nest Colony]