Gowanus always seemed to me a leftover neighborhood. It's composed of the blocks that Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill don't want for themselves. Still, for those who like landscapes that evoke New York's bygone industrial era (that would be me), it has its share of architectural and cultural attractions.
LYCEUM THEATRE: This triumphant structure stands on Fourth Avenue, the eastern border of Gowanus, between President and Union Streets. It was built in 1906 as a public bath, though it actually looks more like a theatre. Now, it frequently is used as a theatre, among other things. Anyway, it's active.
TWO TOMS: Walk west down Union and turn left at Third. The downtrodden patch of Third Avenue below Union Street has always been a favorite area of mine, mainly due to its hints at the Italian enclave the once thrived here. The classic corner Italian-American Grocery is gone, but the Glory Social Club is still around, as is Two Toms, an old-school Italian restaurant that feels like a social club. Plain tables, no decor and no menu; the waiter will tell you what's available. It's often closed for private parties.
MONTE'S VENETIAN ROOM: Walk down to Carroll and turn right, heading toward the canal. Monte's, though much altered, may be the oldest Italian eatery in the City, having been founded in 1906. They let you know that Frank Sinatra used to frequent the place by pasting the Voice's portrait near the entrance. During Prohibition, it was a speakeasy. Inside there are curved red banquettes and a huge mural of Venice that dates back to the Depression. That such a place should survive a century on a nondescript side street next to a fetid canal is a miracle in itself.
THE CARROLL STREET BRIDGE: Walk a few paces closer to the canal. Here is one of my favorite landmarks in the entire city. The Carroll Street Bridge may not look like much at first gander, but it is one of a kind. Or, rather, one of four of a kind. Built in 1889, it is the oldest of four remaining retractable bridges in the country. It is still cranked back every time a ship comes through. The Belgian bricks of Carroll Street give way to the wooden planks of the bridge, making for a very pretty picture. Artists often choose the bridge as a place to paint.
SOUTH BROOKLYN CASKET COMPANY: Walk north up Nevins Street to Union and turn east to Third Avenue. Gowanus doesn't have much industry left, but this outfit stands firm, because there's never a dip in the death market. When people on the B71 bus see the name lettered across the low, red-brick building, they usually laugh or gape in awe, not certain of what they're seeing. The name is too classic; it's like something a novelist of screenwriter would come up with. The business is the subject of ghoulish fascination for many, and the workers do not appreciate the curious who hang around trying to get a peek of what goes on inside. Sometimes, however, if you're lucky, you'll catch the workers loading their cargo onto trucks idling on Union. Brooklyn at work! And rest.
DAILY NEWS BROOKLYN GARAGE: Turn north on Third and walk to the block between Degraw and Douglass. This forlorn area of Brooklyn seems to have been where the big newspapers kept their warehouses. The New York Times facility is just up the avenue a few. Here is the former Daily News haunt. The News decamped a while ago, but we can still enjoy the bold, mausoleum-like structure, particularly the detail used in carving out the tabloid's signature image of the camera.
THE GOWANUS WATER STATION: Proceed north to Butler and turn left until you get to Nevins Street. Finding living history in Gowanus is tough; so many of the historic things have closed or disappeared. This beautiful pumping station is a supreme example of how utilitarian civic structures can bring beauty and majesty to an otherwise rough area. Check out the insignia with the Dutch windmill up top.
AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO ANIMALS BUILDING: Across the street from the pumping station, further down Butler, is a building erected in the 1920s by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal. It was the headquarters of all society activities in Brooklyn, and contained offices, an ambulance house and even shelters for animals. The words above the door say the building is the Rogers Memorial. Who Rogers was I have not learned.
ST. AGNES ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH: Turn left on Nevins, heading south. Turn right on Union and cross the UNION STREET BRIDGE—not as famous as the Carroll Street Bridge, but not an unenjoyable span. Walk to Hoyt Street and turn right to Sackett. As it so dominates the skyline around here, it's funny that the hulking St. Agnes doesn't get more attention. I think it's one of the more unappreciated churches in Brooklyn. It's the sole surviving creation of Thomas F. Houghton, the son-in-law of Brooklyn's most prolific church builder, Patrick Charles Keely.
MAGIC TOUCH RESTAURANT: To end, double back on Hoyt, walk south until you reach 3rd Street. Look up. Here is one of my favorite lost eateries in the city. The Magic Touch is long gone, but the swankarific sign hangs on for all to enjoy. I tip my top hat to it.