Gowanus, a scrappy Brooklyn neighborhood centered on the mile-plus-long canal that gives it its name and identity, has long been associated with industry, including coal manufacturing, tanneries, oil refining and even coffin making. But over the past decade or so, this low-lying area, sandwiched between tony Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, has transformed itself into a byword for green business, small-scale production and, ultimately, conversion itself, packing artists, metalworkers and forgotten-skill crafters into its reclaimed warehouses and attracting new galleries, cafés and nightlife. There's still an industrial, occasionally lonely feel to some of the blocks, but in that too you can find some desolate beauty and rusticity, especially close to the water locals wryly refer to as “Lavender Lake.” Read on for some of our favorite neighborhood spots.
Where it is:
Hoyt Street to Fourth Avenue, Douglass Street to 15th Street
How to get there:
For the most evocative entry, disembark from the F, G at Smith/9th Sts.; you can also take the R to Union St. or the F, G, R to 4th Ave./9th St.
Life on the Canal
Contaminated soon after its mid-1800s construction as a drain for area marshlands and a conduit for commerce, the canal lengthened a creek that, according to Dutch settlers, held oysters the “size of dinner plates” that were “the best in the country.” A few folks have dedicated themselves to bringing life—shellfish included—back to the canal and turning around its unsavory reputation. The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club was founded in 1999 as an offshoot of a group that worked to repair the flushing pump for the canal, which was named a Superfund site in 2010. Coveting direct contact with the waters they've helped clean, the club takes canoes out for pleasure paddles and sunset skims; you can join them May through October. Daily memberships are available for Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons if you don't want to pay the annual fee; either way, a bit of experience is recommended. Besides exercise, a paddle around will give you an eye-opening perspective on your surroundings. They operate out of a riverbank container at the canal terminus of 2nd Street but are seeking a more permanent boathouse.
A Walk Among the Ruins
Gowanus doesn't provide traditional tour-book sights, but crossing to and fro on the bridges that span the murky waters reveals the district's industrial past. The most evocative of them is the Carroll Street Bridge, the oldest retractile bridge in the States, constructed in 1889. Not that it has much competition: there are only four such bridges around, the design of its wooden deck slowly sliding back horizontally to allow safe passage of ships never having gained popularity. Crossing from the cobblestoned street across its planks and stopping to gaze at bobbing buoys feels nearly pastoral. The Union Street and 3rd Street Bridges are quite similar to each other, both drawbridges built in 1905. From the latter, some of Gowanus' most historic buildings are within a stone's throw. There's the so-called Bat Cave, the soaring Victorian-era Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power House turned party space and public art canvas; the graffitied brick pile is being transformed, if all goes well, into artists' studios. Nearby, at the corner of Third and 3rd, the squat, concrete Coignet Stone Building long stood dilapidated and alone on a vacant lot, a whisper away from being knocked down or falling in on itself. Erected in 1873 for a short-lived cast-stone manufacturer, it now has company in new neighborhood landmark Whole Foods, which hems it in. Staring from the other side of Third Avenue, the burnt-sienna walls of the Old American Can Factory were also thrown up in the late 1800s, though the place has been repurposed to serve as studio space for designers and filmmakers, as well as the site for a summertime rooftop film series. And close to the 9th Street Bridge, the unofficial emblem of Brooklyn hangs on as a (literal) sign of Gowanus' manufacturing past. Don't be content to see the Kentile Floors image on T-shirts; view the eight-story (unlit) neon sign while you can from the quiet intersection of Second Avenue and 9th Street.
Perhaps not surprising in an area of disused factories and warehouses, a thriving art scene has descended, its participants in search of cheap rent, open space and a place to display their DIY spirit. No gallery has been more formative than Proteus Gowanus (in the former National Packing Box Factory, the faded letters of which are visible from the Union Street side of the building; entrance is around the corner on Nevins), almost more of an incubator these days for curious projects and displays. To wit, the Reanimation Library curates a collection of out-of-circulation titles, many focusing on specific disciplines—great for when you need to learn The 99 Critical Shots in Pool (coauthored by one Ray “Cool Cat” Martin) or reference the World Treasury of Mushrooms in Color. In another exhibition space, Bkbx displays works that are textile heavy and environment focused, while the Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum is a cabinet of curiosities that champions taxidermy—and offers classes in the discipline. History buffs will enjoy visiting Proteus' Hall of the Gowanus, which holds artifacts of the canal and neighborhood that date back hundreds of years; flip through old newspaper clippings from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle to catch up on crimes of the times. Just down the street, The Green Building takes up a late-1800s brass foundry. Since the business ceased in the 1980s, the building has hosted religious services, club nights and private affairs; a space in the complex is dedicated to the Show Room, which tends to feature promising young NYC artists; its tall white walls and glass patio doors make it a bright, soothing spot to view work. Plenty of other neighborhood artist spaces abound; indeed, around 200 artists took part in an open studios event in fall 2013, sponsored by Arts Gowanus.
Two establishments that have made upper Third Avenue a sort of Restaurant Row of late are Littleneck and The Pines. The former, perhaps not unexpected with water so nearby, is a refined clam shack: in its cute confines, decorated with rope and fishing supplies, you can get a $14 single-malt-based cocktail to go with your oysters or belly-clam roll. The Pines is geared more for landlubbers, bringing locavorish items—say, boar belly and maitake mushrooms or Wagyu beef and sunchokes—to the shores of a canal that has rarely seen the likes.
Not everything has sprung up in the past few years. Gowanus' Italian heritage shines at Two Toms, a 60-year-old red-sauce joint that feels like, and nearly serves as, a private social club (call ahead for reservations); and Monte's, reportedly an old favorite of Sinatra's and various mobsters. In 2011 new owners overhauled the century-old restaurant by restoring the wooden bar and focusing on thin-crust, brick-oven pizzas. Casual Italian is the thing at Bar Tano, where large corner windows, warm lighting and a pressed tin ceiling, not to mention the rumble of the train overhead, could serve as an emblematic neighborhood diorama.
A bit of a barbecue battle is also being waged locally: there's roadhouse Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, with its smoky 'cue and giant mobile of upside-down glass bottles, and traditional Fletcher's, all long tables, bright lights and porky, bark-edged ribs.
Cafés & Bakeries
For a neighborhood heavy on turning raw materials into finished products, it's fitting that one of its stops for caffeinating on the go is named Crop to Cup. The company sustainably sources a variety of beans and roasts from Ugandan coffee farmers and provides a small café space at the front of its homespun office; mosey up to the counter, order a pour over or espresso, enjoy it on a high stool and feel good about yourself. If you're looking for baked goods to go with your joe, head to Runner & Stone, which excels at fresh pretzels, crusty miche and flaky chocolate-and-banana croissants, but also serves inventive sandwiches at lunch (say, broccoli fritters with harissa) and locally sourced meals at dinner. Of course, for sweets, it's hard to top Four & Twenty Blackbirds. Producers of a hit cookbook, sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen have got pie making down to a near science, turning out seasonal flavors like rhubarb (spring/summer) and brown butter pumpkin (fall/winter), more esoteric fillings (cranberry sage) and year-round faves like lemon chess and salted caramel apple. Linger over a slice and strong coffee, enjoying the reclaimed wood tables, tin walls and warm tearoom atmosphere.
Celebrating the old moniker for the waterway, Lavender Lake sits yards away from the canal. The inside is airy, but the expansive back deck's the thing—a perfect spot to sip a craft beer, snack on impeccable house-made potato chips and imagine you've just dropped anchor. Over on Third Avenue, the maritime tribute continues at Halyards (the name refers to rope generally used to raise sails); its expertly made Manhattans and well-chosen drafts add fuel to spirited trivia nights, TV-themed events and friendly games of pool. If you're looking for more of a jukebox-and-sports joint, divey Canal Bar will likely be your speed; the free popcorn and drinks specials don't hurt, and it's the local home for fans of the Chicago Bears. On the outskirts of Gowanus, Rustic Black Mountain Wine House is a place to get cozy on cold nights; sit near the fire, nibble on charcuterie and choose your tipple from a well-edited wine list. Low-key Lowlands offers a long wooden bar, brick interior and picnic-table hangout in the back on an industrial stretch of Third Avenue; Monday nights are given over to roots-music jams, which attract fiddle players, banjoists and others interested in keeping the circle unbroken. We'd be remiss not to mention the Roof at Whole Foods; in keeping with an operation that has a greenhouse farm in progress and thrives on wind and solar energy, the café-bar dishes up plenty of local foods and microbrews with a serving of great views. Of course, perhaps all other nightlife will pale with the opening of the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club. Note, this is the kind of large-scale shuffleboard they play on the Lido Deck of the Love Boat or the mean streets of Florida retirement communities, not the sliding of pucks on sawdust-strewn tables that you see in some City bars.
The 2008 opening of The Bell House was perhaps the biggest cultural, um, bellwether for Gowanus. This old printing factory by the bleak intersection of Second Avenue and 7th Street is a great place to see rock old and new, with a wide stage room and a front area that serves as a worthwhile bar even when there's no show on. It's not all indie music, either: you're nearly as likely to come across a comedy night, story slam or celebration of Johnny Cash as you are Mission of Burma. Another warehouse-to-rock-club conversion has taken place at Littlefield, where in addition to regular Monday comedy nights and album-release parties, art shows are on exhibit. Newer still, on the tiny single-block street of Whitwell Place, ShapeShifter also displays art on its white brick walls. But the name comes from the space's dynamic ability: the stage and seating can be manipulated to fit the needs to the performing (or recording) artists—typically in the jazz vein, sometimes with World and experimental influences.
Gowanus is framed by two stalwarts espousing the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. Up on President Street, Film Biz Recycling is the kind of place you could get lost examining old phones, plastic fruit, forgotten bowling trophies and other useful props for home or, taking the name to heart, any cinematographic projects you might want to enter into (that's where most of their stuff comes from). Similarly rambling, Build It Green NYC, not far from the Smith/9th subway station, recirculates all sorts of furnishings and fittings in as-is condition—there's a giant room almost totally given over to old doors—and fits some (barely) used books and albums on its premises too. Looking for something a bit more specialized and on a smaller scale? No problem. Brooklyn Brine is your community pickle emporium, offering whiskey-soaked pickle chips, spicy deli spears, fennel-infused brined beets and other potent combinations. (The man behind it, Shamus Jones, has also opened a down-home vegetarian restaurant around the corner, the Pickle Shack, that features an excellent beer list and, of course, plenty o' pickles.) Specializing in the kind of handiwork that neatly updates Gowanus' scrap-metal past, Cut Brooklyn spotlights hand-forged steel knives by Joel Bukiewicz. Walk in on a Saturday (or Wednesday; the place is open only two days a week), greet the house cat, skirt the two motorcycles parked inside and you might spot just one or two pieces for sale; this kind of craftsmanship sells itself, and doesn't come quick (a chef's knife takes 11–14 hours to make) or cheap (prices run $350–$650)—though it does come with lifetime service.