The area around the Gowanus Canal wasn’t always the most ideal spot to bring your family for a day of wholesome recreation and a scoop or two of Ooey Gooey Butter Cake ice cream. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Gowanus waterways made this South Brooklyn nabe a shipping hub and center of heavy industry that included oil refineries, machine shops, chemical plants, and cement mixers—all of which spewed unparalleled amounts of toxic waste into the canal. Not exactly the kind of place you want to spend a Saturday afternoon. So how did it become the hipster family hangout it is today?
Bear with a bit more history: By the late 1970s, the shipping boom had died out (replaced in large part by trucking and the BQE, completed in 1961) and, according to the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, more than half of the manufacturing sites along the Gowanus were abandoned. Gowanus was a ghost town, save for artists and musicians who took advantage of the low-cost space, for another couple decades.
But as the neighborhoods that sandwich Gowanus became more and more gentrified, those same warehouses that turned the area into an environmental disaster—the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in 2010—have become ideal spots for indoor recreational businesses looking to cater to the young families of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Turns out, abandoned warehouses make for pretty sweet climbing gyms and archery ranges. So want to perfect your backhand or practice skateboarding tricks or try slacklining on a cold winter day all within a few blocks (five of the seven spots below are all on the same block)? Head to Gowanus.
The climbing gym was one of the early successful recreation-fitness businesses to take advantage of Gowanus’s lofty spaces when it nabbed more than 22,000 square feet of it in 2009. Kids and adults can learn the literal ropes in classes, camps, and one-on-one lessons. It’s very crowded on the weekends, but always worth it (and for people-watching alone; I spotted Maggie Gyllenhaal there on a recent visit). 575 Degraw Street (between Third and Fourth Avenues)
Homage Skateboard Academy
Just up the block toward Fourth Avenue from Brooklyn Boulders is this skateboarding facility, opened in 2010. Whether you’re 3 or 30, the academy’s instructors can help you navigate the space’s ramps—and the city streets—on a board. 615 Degraw Street (between Third and Fourth Avenues)
This sleek, 7,500-square-foot space, with 43 shooting lanes, is one of my favorites. Since it opened in 2014, it has turned almost everyone I know above the age of 10 (the minimum age to participate) into archery addicts. It’s hard not to get obsessed when they make it so much fun; introductory classes include lighthearted competitions and balloon popping. And if you’re just there chaperoning the littles, it’s a superchill place to hang out. 480 Baltic Street (between Bond and Nevins Streets)
While shooting arrows becomes a skill you want to practice, throwing axes is more of a onetime thing. But a fun onetime thing! And with beer! And kids as young as 8 can participate! 622 Degraw Street (between Third and Fourth Avenues)
Brooklyn Fencing Center
Want to feel like an 18th-century Italian aristocrat? Take up fencing. This welcoming spot, opened in 2003, teaches all ages how to lunge, riposte, and parry—and look good doing it. 600 Degraw Street (between Third and Fourth Avenues)
Court 16 BK
Indoor, state-of-the-art tennis courts, sized for varying ages and skill levels. What? I’m not a tennis player myself, but I’ve spent enough time gawking through Court 16’s all-glass exterior wall—and have heard enough tennis lovers gripe about the dearth of courts in the city—to know that this place is a gem. 526 Baltic Street (between Nevins Street and Third Avenue)
CrossFit South Brooklyn
The Gowanus CrossFit outpost, on Degraw since 2007, feels like a family affair, with a class or workout club for every age, interest, and fitness level—all taught by supportive, inclusive, nonjudgmental coaches. Among CrossFitters, this location is a favorite “box.” 597 Degraw Street (between Third and Fourth Avenues)