Brooklynites let out a collective sigh of relief last week after City Councilman Brad Lander announced that he’d brokered a deal to save the iconic Kentile Floors sign in Gowanus. The sign, which has greeted generations of F and G train riders passing along the Culver Viaduct, will be donated to the Gowanus Alliance, which plans to erect it on a new site. Today, the original Kentile Floors company and its employees are but footnote to many who love the sign. But the Kentile sign is not just an emblem of gritty urban chic — it’s a vestige of a past Gowanus and its industrial history. This week, we sat down with Julie Golia, public history director of the Brooklyn Historical Society, to talk about the history of Gowanus and why the Kentile sign has such emotional resonance for the borough.
Let’s talk about the manufacturing history of Gowanus.
The interesting thing about Gowanus today is that the landscaping of its environment is so reflective of its industrial history. But before that industry existed, Gowanus was actually a creek and it was an incredibly productive ecosystem. That tends to be the case in New York — places that have the most vibrant natural history are the ones that get wiped out in the face of industry.
So Gowanus’s history is very much tied to Brooklyn’s history at large. Brooklyn remains a relatively rural place through the eighteenth century, even as the city across the river (because New York was a separate city then) was developing into a much more urban, commercial place (partially because Brooklyn was providing the agriculture, the food that allowed for that city). But as you start to see Brooklyn commercialized in the nineteenth century, particularly after the Erie Canal is established, you have more and more sort of commerce of the hinterlands.
Some parts of interior Brooklyn like Gowanus start to get developed, and so you have the shift from it being a creek to being a fully dredged canal so that it can build the industrial base that it has there. At its height in the late nineteenth century, there were many different kinds of companies there. There was storage there; there were factories there; there were gas companies, coal yards, lumber yards, flour plants, ink plants. So it was a very diverse place of industry. They were also the kinds of industries that made a lot of waste and because this was a canal, it became incredibly polluted very, very quickly in ways that we obviously can see and smell today.
Around the turn of the twentieth century it had gotten so bad that a system was created to actually pump a lot of that sewage out into the East River, lessening the problems of the Gowanus being almost impossible to be around a little bit — but of course that transfers the pollution out to that area.
Is it true that the canal has its own little strain of syphilis?
I read a story, maybe a year or so ago, where somebody did a deep analysis of a water sample there and it was actually quite frightening. You know, it is pretty amazing what is lurking in that water in ways that we can’t even imagine — and in ways that I’m sure will affect the property values around that area even as it continues to grow and gentrify.
Even crossing the bridge you can see the rainbow color of the canal…
So who worked in Gowanus?
Immigrant groups that settled there follow the pattern of what we generally call the “second wave” of immigration, because you start to see the area really expanding in the late nineteenth century. The immigrants that are coming into the United States at that time tend to be largely from southern and eastern Europe so it becomes, for example, a very big Italian neighborhood. And I was just saying that the area is becoming more gentrified, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it would not have been attractive to live near the place that you work. Part of the reason that the housing stock was available to newcomers was because it was inexpensive and because of its proximity to the places you would have worked.
I read that Mohawk Indians settled in the area starting in the 1920s.
Yeah, it was actually a little bit further north — it was more Boerum Hill. That’s an amazing story that people really don’t know about. To be honest with you, I didn’t learn about it until I became the historian here. It’s very different from the traditional Native American story that’s often told about Brooklyn and New York, which is a Lenape story. That’s a seventeenth-century story. By and large, thanks to shady land deals and disease, by the time you get to the turn of the eighteenth century you see very little evidence of Native Americans here. But the Mohawks were actually from upstate New York, near Canada, they were experts in working with steel. So they came down for the work and settled in Boerum Hill. And they have been there, in some cases, very small numbers, but continued to persist until the 1970s and ‘80s. Sadly forgotten, but should be known more.
Changing gears, can you speak about Kentile Floors?
Kentile: great example of the kind of industry that you would have found in the Gowanus neighborhood. The factory, I believe, was around Ninth Street and Second Avenue, established 1898. And, by the time you get to the middle of the twentieth century, they become known for producing really durable floors — floors that can survive heat, floors that don’t age badly, they don’t flake, they don’t scoff up. Part of the reason that they’re able to do this is because they use asbestos in the flooring and that eventually leads to bankruptcy by the 1990s. Massive class action suits against them — lots of working people got sick from it. Installers, plumbers, builders, people who were working with this flooring all the time. It’s a great example of an industry that was there because it was an industry working with volatile material. There’s a lot of waste involved in the creation of that.
Why do you think the sign became such a rallying point for people?
That’s such an interesting question. You know, the history of preservation is a really interesting one, particularly in the context of Brooklyn and the context of industrial Brooklyn. Brooklyn Heights is actually the first neighborhood in all of New York to get historic landmark status. That’s reflective of the way that people approached historical preservation in the 1960s. It was an old, genteel, beautiful neighborhood, residential. Brooklyn Heights has had its rougher moments, but it’s generally been a relatively middle-class (and now, obviously, upper-middle-class) neighborhood.
But the ethos of preservation in the early years was not necessarily about preserving industrial spaces. These were the kinds of spaces that were often seen as disposable, and more recently, as this has come to a head, people are becoming more interested in a broad understanding of what we should consider for preservation — and included in that are the architectural landmarks of industries like Kentile.
So I think the Kentile sign has become this incredibly visual symbol of that: an interest in preserving, at least on a visual level, those vestiges of a productive, working-class Brooklyn, even though that working-class Brooklyn largely doesn’t exist particularly in that space anymore and is priced out of those areas.
I guess that’s maybe a long way of saying, some nostalgia. But I also think that just the basic fact that the train comes up there out of the ground. It’s such a remarkable vista from that spot. I think it is very weird to envision looking north without that sign.
So how has Brooklyn’s skyline changed over the years?
Oh, that’s too hard a question! Which Brooklyn? Which skyline? The thing about Brooklyn is, Brooklyn is too vast, you know? The skyline looking from Manhattan or the skyline from Brooklyn looking at Manhattan? All of those things have value, different cultural and economic values to people, so, in a way, I think that view we’re talking about is actually not a view of Brooklyn. It’s about a view of Manhattan through the lens of Brooklyn. You know what I mean? It’s about seeing the skyscraper skyline of the lower end of Manhattan through the lens of a lower-built environment. It’s a very, very particular view. And it will be different when the sign is moved.
There are those two gigantic housing towers up in Greenpoint.
That’s the change that jumps out the most to me, absolutely. They are so jarring as compared to what the rest of the built environment of Greenpoint looks like.
It’s a shame. We get those shiny new developments, but we lose landmarks like the sign.
But on the other hand, people could have said that about the Williamsburgh Savings Bank when it was built in the early twentieth century. They could have said that about the factory buildings in DUMBO. All those buildings are just a product of the value systems of their time, including the Greenpoint ones. We often don’t think about how we now value the DUMBO buildings as these really beautiful buildings, but they replaced neighborhoods of two- to three-story wooden and brick houses. We have no evidence of those. Everything is redevelopment when you go back, when you look at it. It’s not anything new.
Look at the Brooklyn Bridge; the most beautiful, iconic, symbol of Brooklyn destroyed neighborhoods. We just don’t talk about that as a redevelopment project the way that we necessarily talk about the BQE as a redevelopment project, but it was.
This interview has been condensed and edited.