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Why Everyone Wants a Piece of Gowanus

The renaissance of Gowanus. Whoever thought those words would be used together? As it turns out, many who did probably got rich in real estate. The neighborhood formerly best known as a toxic-waste site is now home to thousands of artists (Arts Gowanus), luxury apartments (365 Bond), cool restaurants (Freek’s Mill), hot clubs (The Bell House), a rock-climbing mecca (Brooklyn Boulders), a prominent venture-capital firm (Brooklyn Bridge Ventures), and even an esoteric tech conference (the Ethereal Summit). Not to mention that certifier of upscale arrival: Whole Foods.

The toxic waste in the Gowanus Canal endures, awaiting the outcome of its Superfund cleanup, but now the neighborhood faces new challenges. The arrival of hundreds of millions of dollars in real-estate investment threatens to change what many people appreciated about Gowanus: its scruffy but sturdy industrial buildings, its diverse population, a thriving arts community, and a general DIY spirit of adventure. In a panel discussion this week at the Brooklyn Historical Society, titled “Gowanus’ Triple Bypass: Change Through Art, Design, and the Environment,” five aficionados of the neighborhood wrestled with the idea of balancing opportunity and preservation. “I think change is inevitable, but I don’t think any particular part of change is inevitable,” said Abby Subak, an artist and executive director of Arts Gowanus. “I hope it’s not too late to be really intentional about what kind of community we want to have.”

Joseph Alexiou, author of the fascinating Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal and the moderator of the panel, said the Gowanus situation reflects a larger struggle: “Every story in New York City is a real-estate story.” In a thriving metropolis, the impulse to get a piece of property and assert one’s control over it runs through all civic endeavors, he said. As Exhibit A of creeping gentrification, Alexiou showed a photo of trash floating in the canal, which on closer inspection was a pile of discarded issues of the Wall Street Journal. Over the next few years, the urban struggle that Alexiou describes will determine whether Gowanus winds up looking more like every other neighborhood or retains part of its gritty flavor. Among the insights of the experts: