The Jane Jacobs of Gowanus
Tom Acitelli Feb. 4, 2010, 11:59 a.m.
On a recent sunny Saturday morning, a group of 30- to 40-something Carroll Gardens locals stood outside Carroll Park at a table manned by local community activists, their discussion rife with words like “developers” and “preservation.” Upset that the nearby Hannah Senesh Community Day School was seeking a variance that would allow it to acquire public land, the activists were hard at work soliciting signatures for their petition against the change. Once I heard one of the concerned citizens utter the words “Superfund,” and “Gowanus Canal,” I had to ask, “Do any of you know Linda Mariano?”
One activist named Maryann piped up: “Everyone knows Linda,” she told me, declining to give a last name but introducing her attentive mutt, Ringo.
“She’s one of the most amazing women in this neighborhood!” yelled Jacqueline Raque, a Carroll Gardens resident originally from California. “In an area full of amazing women, she is a shining star,” she said.
Linda Mariano is somewhat of a local hero in Carroll Gardens to bloggers, business owners, and especially those residents who feel strongly about preserving the neighborhood’s character. It is, in part, because of her efforts that the EPA has nominated the Gowanus Canal—a stinky, garbage-filled body of industrial refuse—as a potential federal Superfund site. If passed, the large-scale cleaning project would include dredging the man-made passage for all of the dangerous metals and toxins buried deep beneath its oily, lavender surface over a century of industrial use.
An October article of The New York Times Magazine about the EPA nomination cites FROGG (Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus), a group that Ms. Mariano co-founded, as a mouthpiece for community members who supported the nomination and were adamant against the premature development of housing along what many consider to be a toxic site. Among her efforts, Ms. Mariano distributed fliers and pins with a logo depicting a whale that read “Gowanus Canal: Superfund Me!” Some of the posters can still be seen in the windows of houses in Carroll Gardens.
“We seek to improve the environment because of the level of toxins and contamination in the land,” Ms. Mariano says. “The Gowanus is what we would call an aquatic brownfield. We’ve responded to every developer who has put in applications for variance and rezoning, and not just with memos. We’ve gone to hearings and meetings and sent in written materials to various representatives—our gift from the gods is the Superfund nomination, I have to say.”
An EPA spokesperson later told Ms. Mariano that, normally, the nomination of a new Superfund site generates about 10 or 15 written responses. In the case of the Gowanus Canal, the EPA received more than 800.
The Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC) is a community group, with offices located on Court Street in Carroll Gardens. According to executive director Bill Appel, they are opposed to the Superfund nomination because it is akin to “putting a smallpox stamp onto someone’s home.”
Mr. Appel says that the FHA, for instance, has stated that they will not grant any mortgages within 3,000 feet of any Superfund site, which would include almost all of Carroll Gardens east of Court Street if the proposal goes through. He is also certain the Superfund process will take over 20 years to complete, never allowing the “barren wasteland” of undeveloped land around the canal to serve a purpose. While he recognizes the environmental concerns surrounding the Gowanus, he is more optimistic about the health of the waterway than Ms. Mariano and her fellow FROGGs.
“We’re here for economic development,” Mr. Appel said. “We’re in the business of bringing in taxpayers and viable jobs to the area. There’s no medical evidence that the canal causes long-term diseases here, and you’re not going to swim in the water or drink it.” Mr. Appel, a fifth-generation resident of the area, said he was no less concerned with preserving residents health than any other group in the area.
Ms. Mariano refused to comment extensively about Mr. Appel or the GCCDC (whom she and her fellow FROGGS refer to as “Guccis” after the Italian haute couture house), although she finds his attitude toward the environmental concerns foolish. (“This is the 21st century!” she says, incredulous. “We should clean things!”) Ms. Mariano, who is admittedly a staunch idealist, is certain that the GCCDC’s intentions are not sincere in regards to the community’s best interests. She also suggested that their relationship with developers like Toll Brothers, which has bid to build a large condo community on the Gowanus (with the strong support of Mayor Bloomberg), hurts their credibility and makes their intentions questionable.
With her husband, Joseph, Ms. Mariano has for 36 years been living in a brownstone on President Street, between Bond and Hoyt, an area she considers to be in Gowanus, the nascent neighborhood between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Both artists and retired teachers, the couple moved to the area from the West Village in 1974, well before this part of Brooklyn was hip (or particularly safe). Over the years they have built up their formerly dilapidated building into a do-it-yourself artists’ dream home. Upstairs rooms are jam-packed with paint, canvases and quilting materials, while the lower area, centered around a cozy kitchen, is a utilitarian gallery of colorful recycled materials and found objects, from doors to floor tiles.
Ms. Mariano has a special passion for industrial architecture and historic buildings—after three decades in the neighborhood, she senses the character and appeal that the warehouses bring and the creative, artistic types that such spaces attract—a recipe for the conditions that eventually lead to New York’s ubiquitous neighborhood gentrification. The unique character of a neighborhood like Gowanus has a particularly Jane Jacobs–y appeal: one where residential, light industrial and commercial spaces all interact to create a varied and diverse population (although now it’s admittedly gentrified, not unlike Jacobs’ own Greenwich Village).
“I’m a preservation person at heart,” Ms. Mariano said, “and I believe in this phrase people are starting to use, ‘adaptive re-use,’ and this is about just that.” She pauses reflectively, fingering the beads on one of the colorful Bakelite necklaces she often sports along with her handmade knitwear. “These buildings can be used rather than torn down. “
A perky and slight 66-year-old, Ms. Mariano spends her weekends working in a kitschy store on Court Street, where she can often be found mid-conversation, sporting a toothy grin, skinny arms waving emphatically as she describes her most recent exploits involving the local history or current developments of her beloved quarter of Brooklyn. With the timing of a seasoned comedian, Ms. Mariano’s storytelling is enough to make you pull up a chair and get comfortable: “Aha!” she loves to exclaim, “now if you think that’s interesting, well wait till you hear this!”
She cares so deeply about the involvement of the city and of developers in the area that her twinkly-eyed irony sometimes code switches to flat-out rage: Her long graying hair, usually pulled up into a partial bun, shakes with anger as she literally turns red at the mention of big-named architects and developers who have offended her ideals in some way. At times, this range of emotions she lets out seems a bit hyperbolic, but it is this boundless energy that has her forever hitting the pavement and perusing the area streets, keeping up with the most recent changes and conditions, even in the most inclement weather.
Ms. Mariano’s passion transformed her from a concerned resident into neighborhood historian and preservation activist. Community groups and journalists tap her for information, especially when it’s about the environmental conditions surrounding the Gownaus Canal or local development.
MS. MARIANO’S CAREER as an activist began in 2002, when condo developers applied for a variance that would have led to the demolition of a hangar-shaped warehouse at 450 Union Street (also known as 450 Union or, simply, the Green Building) on a corner of Bond Street, right near her home. She and several concerned neighbors united to fight against its destruction.
“I saved that building!” she shouts about the lime green structure, now currently home to an event space and art gallery. “It’s an old industrial space that belongs [in the neighborhood] way more than some chichi condos for rich people! For two years we went to meetings at the Board of Standards and Appeals to defend our position. At first, I was so nervous to speak in front of the board, my knees knocked together and my glasses fell off my head—it’s like they’re judging whether you live or die!”
But after two years of hearings, Ms. Mariano recalls, the board voted against the variance and her efforts won. “The last time I spoke in front of the board,” she says with a glowing grin, “audience members were stopping me and asking me if I could speak on behalf of their group!”
Ms. Mariano co-founded FROGG in 2004, soon after the 450 Union Street victory, along with her husband and longtime community members Margaret Maugenest and architect Marlene Donnelly, among others. Its inception can also be traced to the Gowanus Stakeholders’ meetings, a series of information sessions sponsored by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corps of Engineers (the latter organization had nominated numerous sites along the Gowanus for placement in the National Register of Historic Places). Ms. Mariano and her cohorts used to attend bi-monthly talks from 2004 through 2006, although meetings themselves were mostly a “waste of time,” she says, since the government officials lacked much needed data. At one point they asked, for example, if the Atlantic Yards site was on the same water table as the Gowanus. According to Ms. Mariano, it is.
However, it brought together a group of concerned locals who were interested in learning more about the environmental conditions surrounding the canal. Soon they began meeting regularly through FROGG, acting as watchdogs for all of the actions of local developers and researching as much as possible about the environmental conditions surrounding the Gowanus.
FROGG co-founder Margaret Maugenest is an artist who has lived for 26 years in a Nevins Street loft (“at the heart of Gowanus”), and worked with Ms. Mariano ever since their efforts to save 460 Union.
“We wouldn’t be where we are now without Linda,” she said in a phone interview. “She gathers all of the information from every newspaper and printed source—she has boxes and boxes of files and clippings and printouts, from the EPA and the Army Corps, Columbia University studies, a vast library.”
According to Ms. Maugenest, Ms. Mariano is a “neighborhood scholar” who relies on cold facts to submit formal inquiries and responses to every brownfield applicant and developer proposal to use Gowanus land for development. She cites Ms. Mariano’s skill at calling agencies, putting in freedom of information requests and similar procedural motions. Without facts to back up their claims, FROGG wouldn’t be able to have the effects it has, she says.
“[Linda] is always very diligent in watching local papers for announcements of brownfield applications and being on top of new applications going in,” Ms. Maugenest said. “Developers are required to notify the community [and they do so] in the tiny print, tiny local paper. Unless someone were actively reading those on a weekly basis, you would never know and so Linda always keeps us informed.”
Katia Kelly writes the Carroll Gardens blog Pardon Me For Asking and also works with FROGG. “Linda’s one of the pioneers of Gowanus. She loves it for its rawness and that it’s just not Manhattan,” Ms. Kelly said. The 25-year Carroll Gardens resident and blogger finds that Mariano’s earnestness explains her passion for the saving the neighborhood.
“She has this spirit of calm, this belief that truth will prevail. Even with the mighty Toll Brothers, she just said ‘it’s not going to happen, right will prevail.’ She never gives up hope,” Ms. Kelly sighed melancholically, wishing she had the same level of optimism as Ms. Mariano.
NOWADAYS, WALKING DOWN Smith Street with Ms. Mariano is a slow process. Not because she moves slowly, nothing could be further from the truth, but because at least once every block someone stops her to say hello and catch up on neighborhood news. But despite her cheerful demeanor and buoyant declarations of love for her neighborhood (“I like the open sky and feel very comfy the way I live, and want to keep it that way,”) she sees herself forever fighting a community battle, even if it’s just over a piece of wall.
Most recently, she tipped off local bloggers about the possible destruction of a ConEd-owned Third Avenue wall said to be part of the original Dodgers stadium, known as Washington Park. After the story gained some attention, the Daily News and Brooklyn Courier picked it up—although the response from the preservation groups was as emotional as Ms. Mariano’s, with some stating that the wall was not part of the stadium. Armed with articles and clippings about the wall, Ms. Mariano thinks differently.
“Kathy Howe from New York State Parks and Preservation called me in the first week of January,” she said, “and she said to me, ‘That wall is just a remnant!'”
“And I said, ‘Excuse me!'” she said emphatically. “Remnants? I like remnants! They’re all we have and they’re part of our history.”