I recently visited Proteus Gowanus to see their Migration show, which includes photocopies of a portion of The The Wallace Gould Levison Collection in The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives. Levison was a member of The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in the early 20th century. The photocopies are from an entertaining account he wrote of the release of sparrows into Brooklyn by members of the Institute which includes anecdotes about the members.
The space at Proteus Gowanus is charming, with rooms tumbling into one another, each housing a different exhibit housed in a different style. One room is divided into two sections, one displaying the history and future of Gowanus, and the other holding The Reanimation Library. The first portion of the room is a cluttered, homey sort of space, with maps and photographs hanging on the walls, found objects trailing across the shelves, and books on the table. The second half of the room contains the library. The Reanimation Library is a collection of nonfiction works which are no longer in circulation. As I perused the shelves, I wondered if my parents had used these books, or others like them, as reference materials in their youth. But what truly struck me about the collection was how it made me feel about the preceding display and the neighborhood of Gowanus more generally. Here was a room devoted to bringing books back to life, just as spaces like Proteus Gowanus are doing for the neighborhood. This feeling increased when I sat down to look at the design project book design project book on the table. Page after page showed ideas for ways to create a beautiful living space surrounding the now polluted canal. I suddenly felt that I was watching the reanimation of Gowanus.
Armed with this vision of the future, I decided to delve into the Museum Libraries and Archives collection for information on the neighborhood’s past. Georgia Fraser’s The Stone House at Gowanus, Scene of the Battle of Long Island presents the neighborhood during the colonial period. The neighborhood was originally settled by the the Dutch as farmland surrounding the Gowanus river.
As the title of the book suggests, The Old Stone House, on third street and fifth avenue, is an important monument of the revolutionary period. During the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn, George Washington used the house as his headquarters. This was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, taking place on August 27, 1776. The battle was fought in what is now Prospect Park and ended with the full retreat of the American Forces. Despite the American loss, the battle remains important to the history of the neighborhood and brings prestige to the Old Stone House.
In the 19th century, the canal was built along the river for transport during the developing industrial period. The canal was used for shipping and the region surrounding it used for production and distribution for over a hundred years.
During the mid 20th century, the canal had such importance to the community that a young woman, titled Miss Gowanus, down the canal each year, tossing flowers into the water as she went. But even then the appearance of the canal and its environs was growing bleak.
Meg Belichick created an artist’s book, Miss Gowanus, which shows the industrial significance of the canal coupled with the resulting pollution. She used products of the canal to create the book. The book is only fifteen years old, but it is almost impossible to view the photographs (images Miss Gowanus) due to the petroleum sheets above each page. The sheets have lines of a poem about Meg and her sister fishing, but they are badly cracking. The book also has a lead cover (which required gloves to open). The overall effect of the book is to show how pollution has obscured and beauty of the industrial past.
Despite the current polluted state of the canal and the disused industrial land surrounding it, plans for the cleansing of the canal and for redevelopment bring promise to the area. Leslie Arnett’s The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus: Legacy, Industry, and Artistry relates the history of the neighborhood from the Colonial era to the present day with personal anecdotes and interviews, but strongly highlights the developing artistic community in the neighborhood and the promise of what is to come.
—Katy Christensen, guest blogger for the Brooklyn Museum Library and Archives