On Our Coffee Tables:
Gowanus Waters

BOOK: Gowanus Waters

AUTHOR: Steven Hirsch



Steven Hirsch’s abstract photography of the Gowanas Canal is collected in this handsome volume, and the images (almost entirely devoid of context) are exquisite.


Years ago, Hirsch was walking along the canal’s banks and noticed the beautiful and ephemeral appearances of oil slicks, of pollutants on the surface of the water…and so he began photographing them, with vivid and lovely results.


Chronos (2014), Steven Hirsch


The canal is now, at long last, being cleaned up (it is a Superfund site) and so these brief moments of beauty are becoming rare. We can, of course, hope, that another form of beauty (a more natural beauty) will soon emerge. In the meantime, here we are in 2016 and, as is usual, things are in a state of transition.


Aphrodite (2014), Steve Hirsch


There are two competing narratives describing the changes to New York City over the last few decades. For some, the dirty old city was full of surprises, full of life, art, and creativity. That which was colorful, unclean, exciting, free, and anarchic has given way to a city that’s a sanitized version of its former self, a playground for the rich, clean, yet oddly dull and sterile. It’s harder and harder to find a dive bar, or even a neighborhood place. There’s a Starbucks on every corner. This is true.

For others, New York City was truly a concrete jungle; menacing, criminal, dangerous, covered in graffiti, unruly, ungovernable, and foul. It’s now safer, cleaner, and has beautiful parks and public spaces, Disney extravaganzas in Broadway theatres, more high-rise luxury apartments than ever before, lovely boutiques, restaurants, and visits by well-heeled tourists from around the world. This is also true.

Steven Hirsch’s gorgeous photographs show us a bit, a very small bit, of that first story, and the glimpses of beauty in the sludge that most of us don’t see. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if this is a 21st century manifestation of romanticism…finding the sublime in decay, the way that 19th century poets were inspired by the fragmented ruins of antiquities.


Mania (2015), Steven Hirsch


In any case, the photographs are truly lovely and very much worth a look. The introduction by critic Jordan Teicher informs us that “Hirsch’s eye for abstraction will find other treasure troves—he’s become fond of dumpsters lately—in parts of New York that would go unnoticed by the rest of us.” I, for one, am looking forward to that.


RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3.5 Whistles




Asteria (2014), Steven Hirsch



A Patchwork Planet, Anne Tyler

A Room With a View, E.M. Forster

An Infamous Army, Georgette Heyer

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan

Bunker Hill, Nathan Philbrick

Burmese Days, George Orwell

Cannery Row, John Steinbeck

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cockpit Confidential, Patrick Smith

Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Envious Casca, Georgette Heyer

Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee

Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin

I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

Longbourn, Jo Baker

Malice Aforethought, Frances Iles

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut

My Life in France, Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson

Out of the Blackout, Robert Bernard

Plotted: A Literary Atlas, Andrew DeGraff

Possession, A.S. Byatt

Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and Other Modern Verse, Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith

Ringworld, Larry Niven

Rose Madder, Stephen King

Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Ed., Lewis Carroll & Martin Gardner (with original illustrations by John Tenniel)

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

The Dancer of Izu, Kawabata Yasunari

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Oliver Sacks

The Martian, Andy Weir

The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah

The Mother & Child Project, Hope Through Healing Hands (ed.)

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce

The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories, Saki

The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin

What If?, Randall Munroe

Up At the Villa, W. Somerset Maugham


Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com


Photographs Courtesy of Steven Hirsch and powerHouse Books

Lead-In Image: Helios (2015), Steven Hirsch