The Old American Can Factory, Staring Down The Specter of Whole Foods Gentrification

02/29/2012 3:05 PM |

A Rooftop Films screening at The Old American Can Factory.
  • southbrooklynpost.com
  • A Rooftop Films screening at The Old American Can Factory.

While residents of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens probably relished the news that nearby Gowanus would be housing Brooklyn’s first Whole Foods as early as next year, some of the grocery-to-be’s more immediate neighbors received the zoning approval with anxiety and disappointment. The Old American Can Factory, a 19th century, six-building industrial complex across the street, hosts a hive of creative, small businesses—many of whom wouldn’t be able to operate there if it weren’t for the low rent. Now some are worried that the new Whole Foods will change the neighborhood forever, and what once was one of the area’s last space’s untouched by residential development will succumb to the inevitable.

Rachel and Michael Berick are a husband and wife team who run Maptote, a screenprinting tote-bag company located in the Can Factory. When they first heard the news about Whole Foods, they were excited—then they heard how development might affect their $1,200 part of a shared office space’s rent. “There might not be a Can Factory eventually,” Rachel told The L over the phone. “It might become more residential, rent might go up, we might get kicked out and they might build a luxury apartment building where we are—I’m not sure. It’s definitely going to change the neighborhood, for sure. There’s a lot of small businesses in the canning factory it would likely affect.”

Others suggested more localized alternatives to the grocery chain. The Can Factory’s director, Nathan Elbogen of XOProjects, sits on the Gowanus Institute thinktank team, a research group dedicated to coming up with innovative ways to develop the area. Elbogen and the Institute proposed an industrial park instead—something home to creative, green and culinary industries, as well as a local business incubator and vocational training. But now that Whole Foods has approval from the Board of Standards and Appeals, the GI is concerned that the 52,000-square-foot complex will “forever alter the essential manufacturing character of the Gowanus neighborhood,” not to mention undermine existing zoning laws.

Rooftop Films is another creative venture that calls the Can Factory home. Since 1997, the non-profit film collective has hosted a popular outdoor screening series every summer, and in 2004 moved to its Gowanus location. “We at Rooftop Films value the Gowanus neighborhood as it currently is—a haven for artists, manufacturers, and affordable housing,” Mark Elijah Rosenberg, Rooftop’s artistic director told The L. “But we recognize that in New York change is inevitable. Although we believe that the land in question could have been used for more fitting and innovative purposes, we hope that Whole Foods will uphold its promise to serve the existing community: we hope they will provide space and support for local cultural activities, make an effort to stem traffic congestion, help to remediate pollution, and listen to the needs of the people who have been here before.”

Still, it’s not like gentrification is a new fad for Brooklyn, or something that couldn’t have been anticipated, even on the banks of a federally-designated, toxic Superfund site. “We always felt like the Gowanus, once they cleaned it up, would just become an extension of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope,” Rachel Berick said. “It’s just a matter of time I guess.”

You can follow Sydney Brownstone on Twitter @sydbrownstone