The Gowanus Canal stunk. There’s no other way to describe it.

Entering the Sixth Street Basin sometimes felt like visiting Jurassic Park. When the oil gathered, the stench was incredible, but the colors and shapes could be outstanding.

The canal’s ‘black mayonnaise’ is a lethal mix of oil, coal, pesticides, rotting debris, raw sewage, chemicals, and heavy metals, which includes arsenic, benzene, chromium, mercury, and lead. Add in millions of gallons of sewage every year, and diseases like typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis have found there way into its water. In more recent years, it has been diagnosed with gonorrhea. The canal’s coastline has been poisoned by a century of industrial use, including chemical factories and manufactured gas plants, which left behind coal tar plumes that have sunk 153 feet underground.

Black mayonnaise is the “result of chemical waste that was discharged from the industries that operated along the canal as well as by New York City sewage and street runoff,” wrote Christos Tsiamis, the EPA’s Senior Project Manager for the Gowanus Superfund cleanup. “The combination of the chemicals and sewage gave the sediment the soft texture of mayonnaise, while the combination of liquid tar from the manufactured-gas plants, petroleum products (such as motor and lubricating oils), decomposed organic matter and sewage gave to this sediment its black color.”

The neighborhood around the canal was abandoned for so long that graffiti artists had a field day and buildings were falling to the elements. But even in its filth, there was a great deal of beauty.

All images are ©Mark D Phillips. Photos may be licensed and downloaded through our site.

Mark D Phillips' photographic collection documents his generational view of the Gowanus Canal from abandoned, industrial filth to the beginning of gentrification and the EPA's start to cleaning the Superfund site.

“I discovered the Gowanus Canal in 1989, an abandoned, desolate location in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn. The more time I spent on its length, the more I came to love it,” said Phillips.

All images are ©Mark D Phillips. Photos may be licensed and downloaded through our site.