A Body in the Gowanus


Over the years I heard all kind of stories about the reputation of the Gowanus Canal. You never knew what you might see in its waters. But on this beautiful day, I saw the worst, a human body.

I had gained a fascination with this putrid, stinking body of water that cuts through my neighborhood in Brooklyn. Sort of hidden from the beauty of Brownstone Brooklyn, the canal was surrounded by industrial buildings nestled in the lowlands between the gentrified neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. It was a nowhere land with a toxic history. Today, it is a Superfund site.

My friend and colleague Kevin Larkin came with me to the Carroll Street Bridge over the Gowanus Canal so I could shoot a 360° photo of the bridge. You didn’t hang out on the Gowanus with expensive equipment alone for hours.

The Carroll Street Bridge is unique. One of the last drawbridges built to move laterally off the water, it’s architecture is truly spectacular with a dainty little brick house for the bridge tender. We were packing up equipment to leave when Kevin called me over to the bridge railing.

“Take a look at what that is floating in the water,” said Kevin. We could see a shape but couldn’t tell from the distance what it was. I pulled a telephoto lens and focused on the shape.

“Oh shit,” I said as I realized what we were looking at. I focused the length of the shape and realized the heels of shoes breaking the surface of the water were definitely attached to the feet of a body.

As the realization hit us, I remembered the neighborhood legends of how the Gowanus was the dumping ground of mob hitmen for generations. Just at that moment, a police van came across the Carroll Street Bridge, and while being glad to see them, it did register that they were going the wrong way on the one-way bridge. I waved at them to stop.

The NYPD sergeant driving the van didn’t look happy to talk to me. “What’s up?” He said.

“I hate to tell you this, but we just found a body floating beside the bridge,” I said.

Another cop slid open the side door of the van and hopped out. He walked to the rail and looked down.

“Well,” he said. “You just ruined my day. Now I have to ruin yours as well. You can’t leave till the detectives say its ok for you to go.”

Over the next couple hours, we received an education in the tactics of the NYPD. The van load of police stayed till two detectives and another cruiser with two patrol officers arrived. That was our first half hour.

The next half hour was spent explaining to the detectives why we were there and the circumstances that led to finding the body. At least I never felt like a suspect.

The third half hour was spent watching the NYPD scuba divers arrive and prepare to go in the fetid waters to retrieve the body. They complained non-stop about how bad the water was and how it contaminated their equipment.

As they were pulling the body from the water, we finally got a view of the victim. He was african american, probably in his late thirties – early forties. And he hadn’t been in the water very long. I have had some experience photographing bodies over the years. Not something that I like to dwell on, but a body that has been in the water for a length of time is not something I really want to experience ever again.

In the fourth half hour, the FDNY arrived with a fire truck to clean off the divers. They were sprayed down and then each of them scrubbed down their equipment and peeled off their wetsuits. They had no exposed skin going into the water and removed and cleaned everything that had touched the Gowanus water. An ambulance crew arrived and covered themselves in plastic gowns and gloves as they moved the victim into a body bag. The detective finally came back to us and told us the victim had been killed by having his throat cut, probably with a box cutter. If they found out anything else, they would call us and let us know. With that we were free to go.

Kevin and I would talk about this for years as our horrifying Gowanus experience.

About four months later, I received a call from one of the detectives. He told me the victim’s name and said he had been released from prison the day before his murder. The investigation had gone nowhere, and they had no idea what had led to his murder. They thought maybe he had gone to the canal looking for a prostitute, failed to pay, and was murdered for that. In all my visits to the canal, I can honestly say I never saw a prostitue out soliciting anywhere around it. It was just too desolate a location.

As it is cleaned over the next few years, I hope to see people enjoying its waters as a playground. I truly hope no one ever has my experience again.