New School continuing education alum Joseph Alexiou’s debut book examines one of the nation's most contaminated bodies of water, unearthing the fascinating backstory of a troubled New York basin. Gowanus: Brooklyn's Curious Canal, just out from NYU Press, depicts the infamous waterway's dark, colloquial history, from its Dutch colonial beginnings in the 1650s to the impact of modern industrialization, growth and prosperity. Alexiou, a journalist and licensed NYC tour guide, draws from archives and personal interviews with lively local characters to portray the 1.8-mile channel as a reflection of the surrounding culture. From mid-19th century gang wars to artist communities to sanitation disasters, Alexiou’s captivating account uses the neglected estuary as a vantage point for exploring topics that affect the greater metropolis.
Following a raging nor’easter in 2007, the Gowanus Canal drew national attention when a baby whale named Sludgie was discovered swimming in its polluted, sewage-infested harbor. Unable to survive the toxic conditions, young Sludgie tragically washed up on shore one day after her untimely arrival. For Alexiou, the sinister swamp was already a topic of obsession. In 2006, the Belmore, Long Island native graduated from Tufts University and moved into his first apartment, just around the corner from the canal. Between its crumbling architecture and mysterious lagoon, the South Brooklyn neighborhood provided what Alexiou described as "a fantastic metaphor for the self-discovery of a twenty-three-year-old fledgling writer."
Despite his humor and masterful use of language, the history buff admits that writing was not always his primary ambition. "I spent a long time in denial," added Alexiou, whose mother, Alice Alexiou, has published several books, including a biography of Jane Jacobs, the urban visionary. While Alexiou characterized his interests as “slightly more maritime” than his mother’s, the two share a penchant for cities and a talent for storytelling. Publisher’s Weekly praised Alexiou’s work as an “engrossing narrative of Brooklyn's development amid shifting economic cycles, waves of immigration, urban decay and its current renewal.” According to his former journalism professor Susan Shapiro, who teaches in the Creative Writing program at The New School, Alexiou’s “intelligent and impressive debut brings the Gowanus Canal to life with all its gore, political ramifications, and gentrified glory.”
Now 31, Alexiou writes for the New York Observer and Out Magazine, where he is an associate editor. He holds a master’s degree from Columbia University's Graduate Journalism School and took courses at The New School. In his spare time, he volunteers at Hullabaloo Bookstore in Crown Heights and assists the Gowanus Superfund with its cleanup and restoration initiatives.
What's next for the busy waterway aficionado? According to Alexiou, there's trouble brewing in Greenpoint's Newtown Creek, a sludge-filled dumping ground, overflowing with oil, pesticides and more creepy stories waiting to be told.
Alexiou will join Susan Shapiro for a free panel at the NYU Bookstore on Saturday, October 24th from 4:00-5:30pm.
Joseph Alexiou is a journalist, historian, and licensed New York City tour guide. Besides Gowanus, his passions include France and looseleaf tea. At The New School, he took Susan Shapiro's 15-week "Writing for NYC Newspapers & Magazines" class and got his first pieces published in Out magazine and Time Out New York; he also studied Spanish and Mandarin through The New School's Continuing Education program.
Sara-Kate Astrove, also known as SK, is an MFA Creative Writing student at The New School. She lives in Gramercy and enjoys rompers, jumpsuits and lurking. She is currently writing a memoir.