Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal

Since the 70s and 80s, artists and other newcomers in search of cheap rent put sweat equity and creativity into restoring and transforming decaying factories and warehouses in Gowanus, the neighborhood surrounding the heavily polluted canal in South Brooklyn. And then many of these same newcomers organized in favor of preserving abandoned buildings, in the interest of protecting the “character” that the formerly bustling industrial hub had accrued by virtue of being largely deserted. This story of the efforts to preserve the appearance of industrial decay is the section I found most interesting about Gowanus, Joseph Alexiou’s history of the neighborhood and canal.

The book wends through the various stages of the neighborhood’s history, starting as a teeming estuary, burgeoning with molloscs, fish and birds, peopled by Lenape native americans; an agricultural hinterland for Colonial New York; the site of momentous revolutionary battles; the subject of decades of speculative endeavors to profit from urban infrastructure in the 1800s; an economically booming, polluted, class-divided industrial powerhouse with factories producing coal gas, chemicals, leather products; warehouses storing and transporting imports and exports, and dense, rundown housing for successive generations of immigrant wage workers through the 50s; a depopulating haven for organized crime families and people in poverty left behind by subsidized white flight to the suburbs; and then the subject of bohemian rebuilding, and competing pressures for redevelopment and preservation.

Across the stages of the area’s history, book tells the story of the fitful and never-successful efforts to build drainage infrastructure for the former estuary once it was paved over, through the latest attempts at drainage and cleanup. The combined stormwater and sewer system, a design that seemed thrifty and ingenious when it was invented, failed miserably, ensuring a future of sewage overflows.

In telling the stories of Gowanus across time to the present, there is a key element that Alexiou leaves out. Recounting the story of the contemporary settlers striving to preserve the area’s “industrial zoning”, he skips over the important story of when and how zoning was introduced to begin with. In the area’s industrial heyday, Gowanus included housing for factory and warehouse workers near the industrial sites where they worked. The workplace conditions and pervasive pollution were hazardous for the laborers health. Residents who restored warehouses as live-work lofts are eager to preserve the area’s distinctive appearance of post-industrial decay, but are not nostalgic for the good old days of coal gas manufacturing plants and tanneries. Industrial zoning was implemented to protect residents, but also contributes to sprawl, long commutes, and the de-industrialization of urban areas. There is a story to be told about what economic functions can be combined with modern standards for safe working and living conditions, but the book doesn’t tell it.

Also, the contemporary preservationists oppose newly proposed housing as “overdevelopment”, while showing a lack of nostalgia for earlier levels of population density in the area’s industrial heyday. Why should they get to turn the clock back to the depopulated state of the neighborhood when they moved in, rather than the density levels of the working class neighborhoods when the factories were churning out products? The reader can empathize with the neighborhood activists who lament the change change that is transforming their gritty, post-industrial paradise. But to cope with the end of an era, it is healthier to hold funerals than to seek to animate zombies.

Moving from substance to style, this book makes me appreciate the challenge of telling a compelling topical history. The genre turns a microscope on its singular subject to illustrate a set of changes across time. Works in this genre are not intended to be a definitive source on the sub-stories they tell along the way; this book isn’t intended to be a comprehensive source on Revolutionary battles, or 18th century industrial finance and financiers, or 19th century working conditions and labor conflicts. Success in the genre depends on readers being delighted by insights into the background and origin of familiar things; but depend on the writer’s judgement – how to tell just enough of each story to provide a dramatic arc, and to illustrate and move forward the themes of the book, and how much of one’s hard-earned research to leave out.

I found Gowanus to fall short in the art of pacing needed to excel in this genre; there were too many specifics about the troop movements of British and American armies, an excess of details regarding the architectural ornamentation and decor of the 19th century financier’s mansion, perhaps a few too many instances of gruesome industrial dismemberments than needed to get across the hazardous working conditions. Lingering on the evidence in each of the book’s episodes, it wasn’t clear which elements of the book’s themes the story was seeking to move forward. I’m glad that I read the book, but found myself occasionally skimming the details. The pacing challenges illustrate the difficulty of creating an work in the genre that is excellent, not just interesting.

How the Bible Became Holy

My favorite part of How the Bible Became Holy is the story of how the Jewish community of Alexandria, a Greek-speaking diaspora community in the Hellenistic Ptolemaic empire, who were excluded from cultural and civic institutions centered around the study of Homeric literature and greek philosophy, developed synagogues as institutions for worship and study centered around the public reading of Greek translations of the Hebrew bible.

In the intellectual and cultural context where Greek philosophy was studied as a guide for living a good life, the works of the Bible were similarly employed by Alexandrian Jews as the base for homiletic teachings.  In this persuasive telling, the revered, central, literary and normative roles of the Bible evolved as a backformation from Hellenistic cultural practices.  

Other elements of the book are interesting, but sometimes less persuasive. Michael Satlow, professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University, traces the evolution of Biblical narratives starting with elements of the Hebrew Bible in 10th century BCE through their roles and canonization in Rabbinic Judaism and institutional Christianity.

In the 10th Century BCE Satlow explains the emergence of shared stories helping to unite a loose Israelite confederation, and fragments of law codes and prophesies and proverbs collected by scribes under the Judahite Kingdom in the 8th to 6th centuries BCE.  Satlow make a case that biblical texts did not have a high profile during the biblical period. Literacy was low, and written texts, including components of law codes adapted from other law codes circulating at the time, were scribal exercises written largely for an audience of scribes.   But positive evidence is minimal for this or other hypotheses about the origins of material from this period.

Satlow brings forward another set of hypotheses with fragmentary evidence relating to the evolving roles of the bible among the Pharisees and Saducees, feuding Jewish political/social parties and schools of religious thought in the century before the destruction of the Temple in 72CE.  Satlow holds to a the scholarly opinion that the small, ascetic religious sect that decamped to desert by the Dead Sea, and left behind a large repository of texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a Saducee splinter group which fled vicious Hasmonean politics in the 1st Century BCE (other schools of thoughts hold that the Qumran group were Essenes).  In a volatile age, the Qumran group sought certainty through the use of revered written texts as the source of oracular prophesies and secret codes, helping to pioneer these uses of biblical texts.

Meanwhile, Pharisees, Satlow argues, emerged from a rural aristocracy relying more on oral traditions than texts.  However, because oral traditions weren’t written down, there is minimal evidence, other than the later-written Rabbinic traditions that asserted continuously transmitted oral traditions back to Sinai.  Rabbis began reluctantly committing the “oral torah” to writing starting with the Mishnah in the 3rd Century of the Common Era. Satlow observes that the Mishna is surprisingly lacking in scriptural citations, and attributes this to an attitude de-emphasizing scripture; but could it be because the scriptural connections remained part of an oral layer, according to the stories the Rabbis themselves told?

The distinctive Jewish treatment of biblical texts, where the text itself is frozen and revered, while new, strata of creative legal, homiletic, and literary interpretation build on the text, dates to the Talmudic rabbis and their descendants, which Satlow attributes to a convergence of Pharasaic oral tradition and Saducee reverence for text.

The book also explores the roles of the scriptural tradition in emerging Christian Gospel literature.  Use of scripture varied by audience, as Christianity spread among Gentiles and Jews; works aimed at Jewish audiences used more scripture than works aimed at Gentile audiences. Christians built on the use of biblical texts as oracles to add a superstructure interpreting previous writings as predicting and foreshadowing the emergence of Jesus as Messiah.  Apparently, Christians got around to creating a fixed canon in response to movements to exclude perceived heresy. Readers who are more familiar with the evolving role of scriptures in Christianity will have stronger reactions to these parts of the book.

How the Bible Became Holy provides interesting food for thought about how this set of ancient texts books evolved the various attributes that make them “biblical” – objects that are treated with reverence, that serve as central literary texts that are interpreted on an ongoing basis, and are used as guidance for religious adherents’ lives.