Notes on "GOWANUS CANAL" by Jim Lampos
I wrote "Gowanus Canal" when I first moved to Brooklyn, where I lived for many years in the working-class neighborhood near the Canal. Today the area is getting chic, with many art galleries springing up. Back then, you’d be hard pressed to get a cop to go down there. I would take long walks at night through the surreal industrial landscape, sometimes not seeing another soul for hours, ending up at the Red Hook piers, looking out over the scuttled fishing boats and tugs, and the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor. But living around there wasn’t all doom and gloom. Take the Red Hook races for example.
Guys from the neighborhood would hold drag races on the Columbia Street pier every Sunday afternoon--it would attract hundreds of people and racers from all over the five boroughs. I’d go there religiously.....two cars would start at the ocean end of the pier, and race each other to the land end. The pier itself would be lined with people--there was barely enough room for anybody--the cars would whizz by you, inches away from the spectators and from each other. Once false move, and everyone was in the harbor! But the drivers were just too good for that--they knew their cars, Chevys, Oldsmobiles, and Caddys, big-ass muscle cars from the late 60s and early 70s that they worked on themselves. It was a real party. The cops finally put an end to it toward the end of the 80’s, and started to generally pay a little more attention to the area. Back then, it was almost completely lawless, which made it a place of unparalleled brutality and surprising beauty.
The neighborhood down toward the Canal where I lived was very tight knit, most people on the block had lived there for years, some for over 50 years. My next door neighbors were old Vaudeville comedians. Izzy, pushing 90 around then, would put on his striped pants and do his routine for us on summer afternoons. Around the block, I was known as "the guitar guy". A musician stood out like a sore thumb back then! In the poem that follows, I tried hard to get it all down. The brutal and the beautiful. Some of it seems naive to me now, but I wrote it with open eyes, an open mind, and with honesty, which in the end, may be some of the benefits of naiveté. The stories from before my time come verbatim from my neighbors. For those that live near the Canal now, and will live there in future generations, perhaps this poem will help them to know the ghosts that built the streets they walk on, and lived in the houses they now live in. --J.L. 10/26/99
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