The Gowanus Canal: Fifth / Sixth Streets
5th Street is bisected by the canal. 6th Street only exists on the east side of the canal with the analogous street on the west side called Nelson St.
The six acre brownfield on the west bank of the Gowanus Canal between 5th and Nelson Streets was the home of a manufactured gas plant (MGP) which converted coal to gas for use in buildings, street lights and industrial processes. Manufactured gas was widely used in the late 19th and early 20th century, but competition from oil and natural gas led to the end of most manufactured gas production by the mid 1960s.
The plant at this location was built by Citizens Gas Company and opened soon after the Gowanus Canal opened in the 1860s and provided convenient shipping of coal to the plant. The plant initially consisted of three gas holding tanks, a retort house and coal storage areas. The plant was purchased by Brooklyn Union Gas (later renamed KeySpan) in 1895. A fertilizer plant on the lot just to the south closed sometime before 1915 and that lot was used for additional tar handling facilities and oil storage tanks. The plant reached its peak size and output in 1939. As manufactured gas became less popular, the site was converted to an oil gasification plant in 1952 before closing in the 1960s. The plant was subsequently demolished and Brooklyn Union Gas sold the land in 1969.
Manufactured gas production creates significant toxic materials, notably coal tars that seep into the ground and do not degrade with time. The careless handling practices of the 19th and early 20th century lead to significant contamination of the area and ignorance of the problem once the facilities had been demolished. The lot to the northeast on the canal became a concrete plant. The lot to the north along Smith Street became a truck maintenance facility and parking lot. In 1971, a large warehouse was built on the lot to the south. The main lot itself remained barren when I visited in 2008, although plans were to get superfund money to clean up the site and turn it into a mixed-use development for the wealthy and powerful called "The Public Place".
Next: Gowanus Canal: St. Mary's Playground