Floodwaters rushing into the basement studio complexes of 540 President Street. (video by Hermann Mejia, courtesy Johnny Thornton; screenshot and all images Maya Pontone/Hyperallergic unless noted otherwise)

On Friday, September 29, heavy rains flooded several areas across New York, causing major disruptions to public transportation, work, and cultural life. Artists at 540 President Street in Brooklyn who were preparing for Gowanus Open Studios at the end of this month instead spent their weekend scrambling to salvage their work after about 50 basement studios were submerged in half a foot of water.

Located near the canal between 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue, the studio building is nestled in the heart of the low-lying Gowanus, a neighborhood historically vulnerable to flooding and contamination from sewer overflow. 

On Saturday afternoon, a clean-up team was mopping up the large puddles of remaining water and collecting water-logged artwork and materials to add to a heaping trash pile outside.

In one studio, photographer Jan Rattia was still sorting through his work. Working part-time as a visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute, Rattia said he often works in his studio space during his off-hours late at night. 

“Thankfully, my hard drives and my negatives are okay,” he told Hyperallergic. “The bad news is that I lost finished work that was framed in very specific ways from the last 10 years,” he explained, adding that he was still assessing his soaked equipment.

In Brooklyn Art Cluster, one of the building’s other basement studio complexes, painter and printmaker Ella Hepner lost works and art materials that she had left on the floor before the flooding. 

“I had a lot of paintings wrapped in plastic separated with cardboard, and the water had gone through all of that,” Hepner told Hyperallergic, explaining that while “a lot of it was salvageable,” the wooden framings split as a result of structural water damage. 

Hepner said that when moved into the affordable Gowanus studios, she refused the recommended flood insurance to cut rent costs. Working a full-time job to support her art, she said that “the possibility of paying more for a studio is out of the question.”

“I wasn’t taking [the flood risk] as seriously before, but I also think it’s indicative of a lot of serious issues in New York,” Hepner said. “You’re kind of trapped into a space because it’s affordable, even if it’s at risk of flooding or at risk of climate damage.”

Gowanus’s combined sewers, which collect both sanitary waste and rainwater, frequently get overwhelmed during rain storms when the system’s pipes reach capacity. Combined sewer overflow is currently the biggest polluter of the nearly two-mile-long Gowanus Canal, dispensing about 363 million gallons of raw sewage and contaminated run-off into the waterway annually, according to statistics from Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a local nonprofit group focused on building a resilient Gowanus Watershed. 

Outside 540 President Street, a pile of discarded artwork and materials that was caught in Friday’s flooding.

As Gowanus undergoes widespread housing development projects after it was rezoned, the city has taken measures to alleviate flooding in the area, such as investing in resilient waterfront architecture that is adaptable to sea-level rise and daily tidal flooding and passing new regulations that mandate on-site stormwater management systems for emerging developments. 

“It may seem counterintuitive, but the construction underway in Gowanus is actually going to take pressure off of the sewer system,” Andrea Parker, executive director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, told Hyperallergic over email. “This is because of the Unified Stormwater Rule, which requires all new construction in NYC to detain and slow the release of stormwater to the combined sewer system, and requires new construction that is over 20,000 square feet to retain stormwater.”

In the meantime, Arts Gowanus has started a fundraiser to help the artists who lost work in last week’s flooding. Johnny Thornton, executive director of Arts Gowanus, told Hyperallergic that the Open Studios event is still planned for the weekend of October 21 and 22.

“I think all the artists would be devastated to cancel it now,” Thornton said. “It’s already in process, and so we’re gonna gear up and do whatever we can.”

Maya Pontone (she/her) is a Staff News Writer at Hyperallergic. Originally from Northern New Jersey, she currently resides in Brooklyn, where she covers daily news, both within and outside New York City....

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