APRIL 14, 2011
Reported by David Krieger, ULI New York Young Leaders Group
The Urban Land Institute NY does not shy away from exploring complicated land use issues in its conferences, writings and events and on April 14th it went a step further by embarking on a bit of Gonzo urban exploration at the infamous Gowanus Canal.
For the event, a group of over 15 adventurous souls trekked down to the Gowanus neighborhood to learn some of the local history and paddle down Brooklyn’s own River Styx. The participants were first lulled into a sense of complacency with a spread of local Italian specialties from legendary G. Esposito and Sons Pork Store. And, while being feted on eggplant and chicken Parmigiana, Brocolli Rabe and Sausage, ULI members were treated to a short historical account of the neighborhood by Buddy Scotto the unofficial neighborhood mayor, historian and local funeral director. Buddy brought some humor and community perspective to inform the discussion around urban redevelopment and also to set the table for the canal excursion that followed. One of the most interesting anecdotes involved Buddy becoming an accidental political bargaining chip during Nelson Rockerfeller’s run for the presidency and in turn getting a huge federal appropriation to build a sewer treatment plant for the Gowanus Canal neighborhood.
There are many possible lessons to draw from listening to the stories of a man who has spent well over 50 years advocating for changes in his little corner of the world. One of the most striking is that while real estate developers and perhaps artists and pioneering retailers are often credited with the transforming the urban landscape there is very often a much longer and more complicated back story. The markers of urban transformation that world eventually sees in the form of new shops and buildings very often comes on the back of years of local residents fighting for public recognition, city funding, critical zoning changes, tax incentives, brownfield cleanup incentives and local infrastructure improvements. This “invisible” advocacy is very often a critical precursor to the physical projects that eventually follow in their wake.
After being regaled with stories of mob encounters and presidential interventions, the ULI event attendees headed for the water. There was a real sense of reverie to the whole proceedings. The early evening sun cast a warm glow over the canal and framed the derelict, abandoned and strange structures that line the waterway in a softer more sympathetic light.