09 April 2009

Lost City's Guide to Gowanus

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.

: 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.

: 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.


Ken Mac said...

Brooks, what is the best subway to Gowanus?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

The R to Union Street or the F to Carroll or Smith & 9th. It all depends on where you want to begin your approach.

BestViewInBrooklyn said...

Fantastic little tour! I remember walking over the bridge in the 90's; the route was much different then. I've always wanted to stop in at Two Toms, but the timing was always off.

Thanks for this.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Yeah, it's hard to catch Two Toms open. Thanks, BVIB.

lakelover said...

Swankerific is a greatly underused term.

Francis Morrone said...

Lovely tour of one of my favorite parts of New York. One minor thing regarding St. Agnes: There are at least five surviving Houghton-designed churches in Brooklyn (the best, IMO, being St. Francis Xavier on Sixth Avenue at Carroll Street) not counting the ones he co-designed with his father-in-law. A walk from the father-in-law's St. Mary Star of the Sea to the son-in-law's St. Agnes really shows how the Catholic Church grew and prospered in Brooklyn over half a century.

Plow to Plate said...

I'm glad you appreciate Gowanus as much as I do. I have lived here for 25 years. after escaping from SOHO. I have a beautiful view of St. Agnes surrounded by open sky. Gowanus is under siege right now - developers. What else is new, right? i.e. Toll Bros. wants to build 450 unit 12 story condos by the Carroll Street bridge. That would ruin the historic feel there BIG TIME! Superfund for Gowanus might stop those mega-monstrosities from appearing.

Marie O'Neill Kravette said...

I grew up in Gowanus Projects, 195 Hoyt St. I loved St. Agnes church, I went to St. Agnes school on sackett St. My gr. grandparents lived on 829 Union St..I was sad to hear that they turned the school in to co-ops...Does anyone remember the O'Neill family and the Lombardi Family on Union St???
I miss brooklyn so much.

NativeNYer said...

Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but just to let you know that as of May 2010 Monte's has closed. Last time I passed by there was a Marshals notice or some such thing in the window.

NativeNYer said...

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but as of May 2010 Monte's has closed.

ModemmeX said...

Curious about the 4th Ave/9th Street station in Park Slope - underneath the overpass it seems like there were shops at one point - any info? I live nearby. PS love your blog! - Michelle

Gowanus Larkspur said...

Monte's is alive and thriving. better hurry to the Two Tom's- one of the Tom's died recently.
Two swans are nesting on the Gowanus this spring and I've seen a sea gull
pull a crab out of the mud.