- Joseph Alexiou
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By the end of 1869, the BIC had erected more than sixty houses, the first ever for sale or rent on lots that would come to be known as Park Slope. The buildings were placed somewhere in the vicinity of Third Street and Fifth Avenue, and also leading up to Seventh Avenue and mainly marketed toward upper-middle-class professionals. Forty-four were handsome brownstone “mansions.” The rest were fronted with brick, considered a lower-class material at that time.
as early as 1902, Brooklyn police had tracked down and seized a moonshine still that had installed at Smith Street and Ninth Street. The operation was a partnership of three Jewish Brooklynites, David B. Rothstein, Nathan Bluestone, and Bernard Brodsky. Their illegal still, at the time the largest of its kind in Brooklyn, consisted of a three-story wooden building that purported to be a grocery store, although the only product for sale was sugar. Inside Rothstein housed his wife and six children, along with two large boilers According to the Eagle, the distillers didn’t even use corn, but “bought sugar by the barrel to convert it into alcohol,” and would hide the 150-proof spirit in paint cans kept in a storefront on nearby Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street (cleverly disguised as a paint store to operate as a front for distributing the white-colored liquor). The still, which produced approximately fifty barrels of high-quality spirit a week “exclusively for the Hebrews of the city,” sold the cans for a dollar fifty per gallon.15
Regardless of its origins, it is one of the most ancient place-names still in use in the modern-day New York. “Gowanus” is clearly older than “New York” and “New Amsterdam,” and certainly much older than the name “Brooklyn.”
The earliest European pioneers and their subsequent generations used “Gowanus” in reference to the lands extending outward from the creek and surrounding marshland—once settled by Europeans, the name soon grew to mean the hamlet that formed south of today’s Downtown Brooklyn, extending through the neighborhoods of Sunset Park down to Bay Ridge, or the colonial town of New Utrecht. Gowanus was also the name of a village established therein, along the bay between modern-day Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Eighth Streets. Writes historian Stiles, “It was originally laid out in village lots, and the old stone ‘Bennet house’ which stood in the middle of Third avenue, near Twenty-seventh street, and was taken down when the avenue was opened, was probably a remnant of the original settlement.”21 The name also refers to the bay that runs along the western coast of Long Island with the present borders lying approximately from Butler Street down to Hamilton Avenue, and from Bond Street to Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. And as with all place-names, the definition of what constitutes “Gowanus” may yet again change.
In a way, the Gowanus is a microcosm—a lens through which to view the passage of history, and in particular the growth of Brooklyn and its unique identity in relation to its environs.
The canal, built between 1853 and 1874, would serve as a thriving transport lane for more than fifty years during the height of the industrial era in the heart of the extensive neighborhood development of the large area once referred to as South Brooklyn. This denomination contains the present-day neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope, some of the most sought-after and expensive real estate in all of New York City—much of which owes a great deal to the Gowanus Canal. In addition to providing a conduit for transporting the building materials that engendered these buildings and the commercial goods that filled them, the Gowanus was an energy source for the growing city.
Al Capone grew up near the banks of the Gowanus, and later on it became a center of bootlegging and illegal alcohol production, a main source of mob income.
a giant subway bridge and platform, the Culver Viaduct, which cuts across the Brooklyn horizon like a rickety black zipper. Just under eighty-eight feet tall, it houses the highest subway station in New York City and, according to the MTA, the world. It exists because digging a subway tunnel under the Gowanus Canal was structurally impossible.
On March 28, 1704, two important public highways were established by order of the colony’s Assembly, “for the transportation of goods and the commodious passing of travelers.” The first was named the “King’s Highway” and eventually became Fulton Street, the main road in Brooklyn, running from the ferry landing eastward, past Jasper Danckaerts’s church toward the town of Bedford, at the time a community separate from Brooklyn. The second highway—eventually called Old Gowanus Road—was four rods wide (or sixty-six feet), with a fenced and gated path built specifically for transport, running from the old Flatbush Road (just before the toll gate leading out of Brooklyn) southward, on roughly the same path as today’s Fifth Avenue, and then toward the Gowanus “mill neck.”
As if Litchfield were not busy enough with his house, midwestern railroads, or European tours, he found the time to begin sowing his urban crop. Beginning in 1853, he graded and paved several city-mapped streets on his empty meadows using entirely his own money. Flushed with cash, the railroad mogul was spending with great abandon on roads what others did on stock trading or luxury goods. The first and most important was Third Street: up to that point there were no streets running the length of the Gowanus meadows that would connect his newly developing neighborhood to the rest of South Brooklyn.