This post is draws on an ongoing project about the Gowanus Canal, a severely polluted industrial waterway in South Brooklyn that was named a Superfund site in March 2010. The canal was constructed in the mid-nineteenth century, and by the 1880s, it was a vital conduit for moving building supplies (including the stone for Brooklyn’s brownstones) into and manufactured goods out of the rapidly growing borough. A range of industries mushroomed around its perimeter: manufactured gas plants, coal yards, tanneries, cement and paint factories, printing presses, and chemical works. In the 1920s, the canal was the busiest commercial waterway in the U.S., but postwar deindustrialization brought about its rapid decline as a transportation infrastructure. Today, the area hosts continuing small-scale manufacturing, several public housing projects, pockets of rapid gentrification, art studios, empty warehouses, a plethora of development proposals, grassroots environmental activism, hipster dance parties, and EPA research teams.
I. Death and Decay
There's a longstanding popular association of the canal with death, criminal activity, and uncanny hauntings. In Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, a character jokes that the Gowanus is “the only body of water in the world…that was ninety percent guns.” Newspaper reports from the nineteenth century record frequent drownings in the canal, often suicides; the twentieth century saw the emergence of the rumor that the canal served as a dumping ground for the corpses of those killed by the mob. I'm interested in the semiotic process that linked the canal to morbidity and criminality.
One of the things that's sparked my curiosity about the canal is its evident attraction, in recent years, for a growing number of artists, urban explorers, anarchist squatters, photographers, writers, amateur historians and archaeologists. They (or we, I should say) are drawn to this uncanny legacy, and to the aesthetic and affective qualities of the canal and the surrounding landscape, with its derelict factories and crumbling warehouses. Many of the visual artists work with images of ruin, contamination and decay—in the words of one photographer, who’s been shooting the canal for decades, “the pollution creates...a great canvas.” The New York Times City Room blog, citing the canal’s “faded industrial-maritime glamour, beautifully framed vistas, de Chirico-esque natural lighting and abiding mood set somewhere between peaceful and desolate,” recently appealed to readers to submit entries for a “little online show of Gowanus artwork,” and received hundreds of images in response. I've mostly thought about this aspect of the canal in terms of aesthetics (in particular, those of the modern/industrial/urban ruin, a subject whose appeal seems to be rising), which suggests to me a question about the relationship of aesthetics to semiotics.
II. Smell and Contamination
Even in its early years, the large quantities of sewage and industrial effluent dumped into the canal created a pollution problem that earned it the nickname “the Lavender Lake.” During the 1880s and 1890s, the canal's notorious stench was noted in sanitary reports, newspaper coverage, and even songs.
The problem persists today, compounded by the presence of a century's accumulation of industrial waste (Walter Mugdan, EPA's Region 2 director, says that in many Superfund sites, the EPA measures contaminant concentration in parts per millions or billions, but that in the Gowanus Canal, they must measure in parts per hundred—the sediment layer at the bottom of the canal is 4.5 % coal tar, a byproduct of manufactured gas production). The canal is still a dumping ground for biological waste--more than fifty times a year, rain overwhelms New York City’s sewer system, dumping some 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and storm runoff into urban waterways. It's mainly this sewage that's responsible for the characteristic stink of the Gowanus today. I've argued elsewhere that the stench of the canal has become a means of indexing other forms of contamination in the canal--the dangerous, unseen materials like PCBs and PAHs--and the fears they inspire. Unlike these slow-acting carcinogens, the smell is a palpable register of the canal's pollution, perceptible in immediate sensory form. (Betty Lester, a local resident and activist, echoes other locals when she links the two: “I'm no scientist and I'm no expert, but I believe they gonna find it's more contaminated than they thought. You knew from the smell that it was unhealthy.”) My limited encounters with semiotic theory so far have emphasized visual and verbal (or at least aural) signs, but I'd suggest this is an example of a semiotic relationship materialized as scent. So another thing I'd like to consider might be the ways to think about semiotics in relation to different sensory registers: touch, smell, taste, and so on.