From Slabsides to Gowanus

The old adage holds true: to meet interesting people, go to interesting places. On the front porch of Slabsides, John Burroughs’s rustic writing cottage that still sports bark on its logs, I met James Walsh at an open house in late May amid the freshly green forest and curious visitors. As it turned out, he was both a Burroughs enthusiast—no surprise there—who shared an Oscar Wilde quip about the white bearded sage of Slabsides (a nice old man, but he needed a new suit), and a gallery curator from Gowanus—a great surprise, for I’d recently discovered that section of Brooklyn defined by its old industrial canal. Attending a wedding in early April, I’d slipped away from the brass klezmer music for a respite to explore the low brick neighborhood that mixed old factories with young people, a combination that reminded me of my own young adulthood in gentrifying Hoboken in the 1980s. The nearby dead-end streets led me to fenced-off views of the canal with its green and gray waters and an odor much like the Hudson’s that I fondly recalled in a poem, “Sunday Afternoons the River Smelled Like Engines.” As I returned down a quiet factory street toward the wedding hall, I came upon a sidewalk sandwich board for an art gallery, the only sign of life on the block. “Ah-ha!” I thought. “An arts district!” And I wasn’t disappointed. The gallery hostess welcomed me into a warren of rooms that served as a small cultural mecca accessed from an old factory courtyard, a DIY version of Mass MOCA. A small bookcase offered poetry titles from Ugly Duckling Presse. Historic maps of the neighborhood filled several walls. Musicians tuned instruments in a back room for a 4 pm concert. The hostess explained that Gowanus is a Superfund site, which keeps out the upscale developers and enables artists to remain. The Hoboken of my memories rushed through its industrial/arts district phase back in the 1980s when everything went condo, even a church, so I was heartened to find this boho version of urban life now thriving in Gowanus. And on the Slabsides porch I learned that James Walsh has a gallery called the Observatory in this complex where he’d recently held a show about Burroughs. The opposite ends of my life suddenly connected. After the brick romanticism of Hoboken in the 1980s, I’d quit the city for a Catskills log cabin in the the later 1990s, where I’d first read John Burroughs, the Ur-Catskills cabin dweller. Perhaps that woodsy romanticism hadn’t been so different from my earlier years living a block from the Hoboken piers. Both had been explorations far beyond the suburban lawns of my childhood. And both Hoboken and the Catskills remain well springs of my creative imagination. Now they touched together through this chance connection between Slabsides and Gowanus, two places where as a visitor I also felt deeply at home. Later, James Walsh sent me a wonderful poem by Noelle Kocot written in honor of his gallery that I’ve been rereading with continuing pleasure for this past month.

The Observatory
(for James Walsh)

We were all great in the observatory.
We were having a star party,

Fields of ions unfolding.
Our faces were intense, as the faces

Of shells,
Where we could hear a certain song

Go by. The collision
Of our hearts with the road that stretched

Before us
Was a deep-sky revolution.

An angel race was dancing
On our breastbones and behind our inner eye.

Dimension/possibility in the observatory.
The star party spread itself

Thin in outer space. The theory is not
That we live beyond icy waters:

The theory is that if drivers begin to switch
Off their headlights,

We will gnaw at our new plants
With their roots of pliable tin.

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