Crossing the bridge over the Gowanus Canal–a Superfund site filled with oozing coal tar, sewage, mercury, gonorrhea, and assorted other filth–most New Yorkers wouldn’t really want to stop to look at the view. But as photographer Steven Hirsch shows in a new series, the sludge is actually kind of beautiful.
Hirsch, who grew up in Brooklyn but never visited the canal until 2010, was mesmerized the first time he saw the oily water. “I sat by the side of the bank with a friend, and all of the sudden a bubble of oil started percolating in front of me,” he says. “I thought, what is that, and picked up the camera and started to shoot.”
Though he didn’t do much more at the time, he returned to the canal this year. “I started exploring it more thoroughly, and I came across a gold mine of slime,” Hirsch says. Most of the shots were taken in the spring after heavy rains filled the water with toxic runoff.
It’s likely that the slime was at least partially made of raw sewage, since the canal is one of the city’s unfortunate dumping grounds for overflowing sewers after storms. The water is also a cocktail of heavy metals like arsenic, thanks to over a century next to the remnants of the area’s industrial past, including coal yards, factories, and foundries.
The stunning photos use heightened contrast, but show the real colors and patterns of the canal’s goo. They’re a reminder of exactly how filthy the Superfund site, now in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood, is. What we can’t see is even worse.
The bottom of the canal is covered with at least 10 feet of toxic sludge, and home to pathogens that have mutated and evolved to live in the muck, as Popular Science‘s Dan Nosowitz explains in a detailed look at what would happen if you take a drink from the Gowanus (pro-tip: Don’t do it):
“We found that everything we threw at it, every kind of imaginable pathogen, was growing there,” [microbiologist Nasreen Haque] told me. But here’s where it gets nuts: in the stagnant water of the canal, fed by chemicals from raw sewage, tar, and rotting garbage in the sludge at the bottom of the canal, they’re breeding and evolving into new forms we’ve never seen before, in concentrations seen in few other places on Earth.
Last year, the U.S. EPA approved a half-billion dollar plan to clean up the canal. It won’t be done until 2022–and even then the water will probably not be crystal clear–so there’s still plenty of time to gaze into the murk. Still, the EPA doesn’t advise visiting. As Nosowitz writes: “The EPA recommends people avoid the canal water, the land around it, the air above and adjacent to it, and anything that swims or crawls in it.”
Maybe it’s best to just look at Hirsch’s photographs, which will be on display at New York’s Lilac Gallery from November 12 to December 1.