Off the Beaten Path: Gowanus

The industrial Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, situated on the Gowanus Canal between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, has been a citywide punchline for years. The canal is so polluted (typhoid, cholera and gonorrhea have all been detected, among many other microbes), the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 2010. There’s a distinct sour garbage odor that wafts from the oil-slicked water in the summer, when the wind blows just so. An ill-fated whale who accidentally swam into the canal in 2007 was nicknamed “Sludgy” for obvious reasons.

There’s more to Gowanus than a smelly, refuse-filled waterway. The area has long been home to a prideful Italian-American community–an extension of nearby Carroll Gardens, some of whom still remain, nestled in the few residential streets surrounding the canal. Artists and musicians moved in at the end of the 20th century, seeking low rents and an off-the grid vibe. The enormous “Batcave,” an abandoned power station, was home to squatters, graffiti artists and impromptu punk rock shows up until a year ago.

Changes are afoot. The Batcave is being turned into an arts center. And, with a scheduled $500 million cleanup starting soon and a bevy of real estate development, the rest of the neighborhood is quickly transforming into a bit of an adult playground. Warehouses are turning into Miami-style shuffleboard palaces and live music venues. The industrial chic Green Building event space, which sits directly adjacent to the canal, is one of the most coveted wedding venues in the borough. It’s so popular, in fact, that sister space 501 Union opened across the street in 2013. My husband jokes that the expansive South Brooklyn Casket Co. warehouse, situated on prime Union Street, is weeks away from selling its space to a generic speakeasy bar, which will be named… “The South Brooklyn Casket Co.,” complete with cocktails like “The Mahogany.” (Too soon?) The ‘hood is still a long way away from turning into the next DUMBO, with plenty of curiosities, industry and grit along the quiet, uncrowded streets.

Below, a few places to check out in the area.

Eat

  • Littleneck: Neighborhood-y seafood centric restaurant with an inventive menu and a killer clam roll
  • The Pines: Well-reviewed high-end restaurant with a seasonal menu
  • Ample Hills Creamery: Two-story ice cream palace with roof deck. Location-specific “It Came From the Gowanus” ice cream flavor pokes fun at the environs.
  • Runner & Stone: Serious bakery with a full lunch and dinner menu. We sometimes make the trek from our apartment for their buckwheat baguette, fresh out of the oven everyday around 4:30 p.m.
  • Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Crazy-good world-renowned bakery with a rotating roster of pies. I love any iteration of berry pie and black-bottom oatmeal pie.
  • Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbeque: Brisket-driven BBQ restaurant
  • The Bahche: Huge cafe with an abundance of seating rare for NYC
  • Two Toms Restaurant: Old School Italian restaurant with indeterminate hours and a classic, red-sauce menu
  • Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: Syracuse-based BBQ temple that attracts patrons from all over the borough. The baked wings and fried green tomatoes are standouts.
  • Monte’s: Another throwback Italian restaurant whose first iteration opened in 1906. Stakes its claim as the oldest Italian restaurant in Brooklyn.

Drink

  • Canal Bar: A dive bar-lovers bar: good beers, good jukebox, free popcorn and a backyard in the summer
  • Threes Brewing: A brewery and beer hall that brews its offerings onsite. An expansive dining room and event space is packed with locals on weekends. A rotating cast of Brooklyn restaurants like Roberta’s serve a small menu alongside a curated beer list.
  • Haylards: Local’s bar with a pool table, live music, small bites and cocktails
  • Lavender Lake: Cocktail-driven bar with a large backyard popular for birthdays
  • Black Mountain Wine House: Cozy wine bar with a working fireplace

Do

  • Royal Palms Shuffleboard: Huge maybe-ironic (I don’t even know anymore) indoor shuffleboard club with South Florida-style cabanas, tropical drinks and a food truck that parks inside
  • Film Biz Recycling: A warehouse full of quirky film industry prop and set design remnants. Some are available to buy, while stranger items, like gurneys, can be rented by the week. Sixty percent of the materials this non-profit receives are donated to local charities.
  • Brooklyn Brine: The (tiny) storefront of the pickle company whose wares are sold all over the city and beyond
  • School of Rock: Learn to play a musical instrument or hit that high note at this one-stop music learning shop.
  • Brooklyn Boulders: A rock climbing facility with the kind of space big city climbing enthusiasts long for
  • Gowanus Print Lab: A screen printing studio with a variety of classes, including t-shirt printing, stationery and typography
  • The Bell House: A live music and events venue with a crowded calendar. See bands like Crooked Fingers, attend a Little Mermaid sing-along, Brooklyn comedian Eugene Mirman’s Comedy Festival or a Pat Kiernan-hosted trivia night.
  • Twig: Kooky moss terrariums filled with imaginative worlds in a variety of shapes and sizes. Workshops available for those who want to make their own
  • Whole Foods: A real sign of changing times, this 56,000 square foot Whole Foods features a greenhouse, a rooftop bar and a manicured canal-side walkway.
  • Morbid Anatomy Museum: a gift shop, library, exhibition space and lecture series exploring macabre fascinations.

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From top: Royal Palms Shuffleboard; the Derby pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds (image via Howard Walfish, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license); Canal Bar (image via pixonomy, Flickr.com; made available under Creative Commons license; rental items at Film Biz recycling–yes, that’s a prop electric chair; Gowanus location of Ample Hills Creamery

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