Canal Ecologies: Vacancy

Today’s excerpt from the Field Guide to Industrial Canals is on the topic of vacancy.  For earlier posts on hydrology and toxicity see here, or click here to peruse or download the whole guide.

[a vacant house on Admiral’s Row in Brooklyn, by the decommissioned naval yard; the yard has been turned over to the city of New York, though the vacant buildings on Admiral’s Row are dministered by the US Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard; image source]

Vacancy:  Borderlands of Intentionality*

If one wants to explore an industrial canal on foot and attempts to walk along its banks, they are likely to find that their way is frequently blocked by the fenced off, abandoned industrial properties.  Because of this, the best way to explore the canal is actually by canoe as one can move freely up and down, experience the water firsthand, and possibly get out to explore the shore should something catch your attention.  But why is it that vacancy, especially boarded up and walled off vacancy, is so prevalent along industrial canals?  And what can we make of it, in terms of our study to understand the generative capacity of the canal landscape within the city?

We should first acknowledge two much larger, more prevalent, and readily understandable trends regarding vacancy:  it is fundamental to the concept of real estate in general, and much industry in the Americas has been shifted to Asia in recent decades.  But we won’t dwell too much on those.  What is about the American industrial canal that makes it particularly susceptible to vacancy, and what does this ecology of vacancy mean?  It is there for two reasons, one seen, and one unseen.

The unseen we know a bit about- the toxic ecologies of the canals drive away people.  Who wants to pay top dollar for a city apartment on top of an open sewer?  Who wants to worry that their kids are being exposed to damaging amounts of chromium or pcb’s?  But the seen- the old factory, the coal silo, the conveyor system rusted still- is something that we might dwell on for a minute, it is the thing that holds our gaze and draws us down to the canal.

The canals were constructed according to the logistical needs of modern industry, and the great “bodies” of modern industry immediately sprang up at its edges.  In the Americas, this happened quickly; if industrial development was limited until after independence, the floodgates burst open soon after and a flurry of factories and mills were built in a hurry.  These were built intentionally, for specific purposes in a moment in time.  Compared to other forms of city building, they did not evolve- they were instant.  Great boxes and cylinders and trusses of brick and wood and steel were created at impressive scales.  But when the canals were no longer the primary platform for industrial traffic- having been replaced by interstates- companies left the canal banks for cheaper rents in the suburbs or anywhere along the highway.  The old factories, storage yards, conveyance systems, and silos were left.  Some of these were knocked down, but many of the well-built ones were left standing precisely because it is expensive to demolish something that is well-built.
[an abandoned tug is hauled out of the Riachuelo canal as Argentine Naval officers oversee cleanup operations]

Today we are left with a particular ecology of vacancy along industrial canals, each one a mix of demolished buildings with the rubble strewn across the lot and abandoned brick factories and warehouses that have been left to slowly decay.  And each canal offers particular attractions and repulsions.

The demolishing of a building leaves the property utterly exposed; there is no shelter either for plants or animals or people.  In addition the entire lot tends to be covered in several inches of rubble as the primary method of building demolition on these sites is to bring in the wrecking ball.  Afterwards the spoils are simply spread out over the site, as this is much cheaper than paying someone to cart it away.  Unfortunately, this rubble makes it difficult for anything to take hold here, but it does make a prime staging ground.  For that reason these places are sometimes repurposed as a salt storage lot for local departments of transportation, or occasionally they mutate into some local initiative- a community garden of raised beds or local tree nursery.  But mostly these places stay unused, coated in the destroyed rubble of their former usefulness, colonize by only a few of the hardiest weeds and insects.

The other vacant lots are perhaps more interesting for our purposes, those where the buildings and facilities still stand.  Their walls create shade and shadowy places, areas that are protected from wind, perches for birds and protection from lines of site from the streets.  Weedy trees and grasses spring from the protected cracks attracting kestrels and nighthawks, offering beetles protection and shade for mycelia, cover for rodents.  Some of the buildings are reused by punk artists.  The building known as the Bat Cave along the Gowanus Canal, actually an old Con Edison powerhouse, supported an entire rave scene for years before a leaking roof ultimately drove all of the squatters away.  Even now, it supports a thriving fusion ecology of weedy trees and shrubs and grasses, all munching away at the pavement and rubble below, turning it slowly into a sheltered place for insects, microbes and birds.  As rosy as that picture is, the opposite is also true- abandoned buildings can offer refuge to criminals and runaways and can serve as incubators for illegal or illicit activities that threaten the larger community.

This phenomenon brings us to one of the most interesting characters yet on the canal- the mythical form.  These mythical forms attract us to them; ahistorical but immediately understandable, strange yet familiar, these forms are from our shared past which is constantly being erased.  The old factory or pier, the silo, the concrete bunker- coming across these forms in the city stimulates the mind and attracts new agents, suggesting a history while recoiling from revealing itself.

[the Salt Lot on the Gowanus Canal; formerly the site of four warehouses, this now vacant lot is used for road salt storage in the winter]

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