How I discovered the Gowanus Canal on my first night in Brooklyn in 1985

Art Chang
3 min readMay 20, 2023

Remarks at Gowanus Canal Conservancy Gala May 16, 2023 at Brooklyn’s Bell House

Photo credit: Wendel White

On my first night in Brooklyn in 1985, I discovered the Gowanus Canal. I didn’t know of its unsavory reputation as a mafia dumping ground. I didn’t know that 13 million gallons of raw sewage a day were being discharged into the canal. And I couldn’t know that Jonathan Lethem would one day create the myth that the canal is the only body of water that is 90% guns.

Finding the canal was equally frightening and enthralling to two fresh college grads, one from Ohio and the other from Minnesota. Getting lost was part of the adventure in the dark ages before Google Maps. And we were. Totally. Lost. We walked from our new apartment in Fort Greene in search of – Juniors. Oops!

Yes, in 1985 it really smelled to high heaven. But try to bring your minds’ eye back to 1985. Imagine the worn cobblestones and broken asphalt, the cracked wooden boards on the Carroll Street bridge, and through the gaping cuts in the chain link fence a darkly glistening, silent body of water. Somehow magical.

Thanks to some truly surprised and amused residents of the Gowanus Houses, we eventually found our way to a wonderful dinner at Juniors.

The changes in Gowanus are personal for me as a resident and civic leader. From my experience helping to put Queens West in the ground, I know the promise and the pain of these projects and their importance to the entire city. As does GCC Board Member Andy Simons, who I met working on Queens West.

In those days urban redevelopment came with the heavy hand of government. Today, over 30 years later, development has evolved and GCC is at the forefront of that change.

We have to take a moment to appreciate the improbability of success. When GCC was created in 2006, it faced daunting and important questions:

  • How to open Gowanus to a broader community?
  • How to create a bridge between the affluence of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope?
  • How to address environmental crises?
  • And how to do all this while centering equity and social justice?

After all, what’s magical about Gowanus is more than the physical setting, it’s the community. GCC has to protect the interests of the existing community in advance of the influx of new residents:

  • Residents – in public and private housing
  • Artists
  • Industry

Success required a steward, a trusted convener and facilitator. That’s GCC.

A critical milestone along the path deserves mention: in 2016, the Gowanus Neighborhood Coalition for Justice was created to ensure that equity and social justice would have a meaningful voice.

Then in 2021, the improbable became reality; 15 years of hard work came together in the “Points of Agreement”:

  • $200MM for NYCHA
  • $250MM for parks, infrastructure and workforce
  • Commitment to support a new Waterfront Business Improvement District

Today GCC is at a pivotal moment. There’s the responsibility to steward the hard-fought gains of the past into the future. And now there’s the exciting opportunity to develop the Waterfront Business Improvement District, 20 acres of parks and open spaces and their programming, centering the arts. That’s where the Steering Committee we’re honoring tonight comes in.

I’m thrilled to introduce the video about the people helping to realize this shared vision

But before the video, I have one word for the Board, the staff, supporters, residents, elected officials and most importantly for GCC’s tremendous leader Andrea Parker.




Art Chang

Fighting for Equity. Columbia Professor. Board Chair of Former 2021 Candidate for NYC Mayor. NYC Votes, Casebook, Queens West