Gowanus Canal’s Map Man

“People should care about their backyards. The moment you make a connection to home, you start caring.” –Eymund Diegel, TEDxGowanus featured speaker.

In the cast that involves New York City’s hidden streams, there are many characters who play vital roles in telling the story of a stream. For Gowanus Canal, you have the swimmer, the poet, the documentary filmmaker, the historian, and if I had to audition for a role, I would be the tour guide.

gowanus 1

But when it comes to the most important character in this drama, it would be the urban planner, an individual whose research incorporates the topography, hydrology, biology, geology, demographics, zoning codes, history and maps into consideration when laying out a vision for Gowanus Canal.

dieg 2

In effect, the living encyclopedia for this stream is Eymund Diegel.

In the course of research for my book, I found his maps to be very helpful in making the connection between the historical Gowanus Creek and the present Gowanus Canal. The term used to describe Diegel’s work is GIS: geographic information system, the use of maps and aerial surveys to determine a variety of property-related issues.

About Me

Growing up, I’ve always been a map fanatic. While my classmates decorated their bedrooms exclusively with celebrities, my bedroom was a map room, with a little bit of space reserved for Patrick Ewing, a Mets pennant and a Darryl Strawberry #39 souvenir towel (he’s now a pastor). From my grandfather’s collection were maps of the Eastern Front, from my National Geographic subscription were easy to hang poster maps, and from my father’s AAA membership were road maps of states and regions. In seventh grade, I competed in the National Geography Bee. Although I’ve auditioned numerous times for Jeopardy, I haven’t seen Alex Trebek since that day.

old maps

My mother once told me that I should have been born 500 years ago, when exploration made cartography a lucrative career. (this entire continent is named after one)

old nys map

Here in New York City, anyone can have access to the DoITT CityMap, Digital Tax Map, and numerous maps of city services. For historical maps, the New York Public Library has its online map collection. And all these mapping tools are free of charge to the public. How many other cities provide so much data free of charge? It makes a researcher’s work much easier. Thanks to GIS, cartography is cool again with practical use.

The Gowanus Canal Map Man

When Eymund Diegel looks at maps, he analyzes them and mashes them together into collages such as the one below, where the past and present coexist. The imagery of Diegel is akin to a deejay sampling various compositions. Not content to sit behind a desk, Diegel has canoed on the canal in search of hidden natural springs and industrial leaks. He launched balloons with cameras for aerials of properties adjoining the canal. He is a panelist on a hyperlocal version of the celebrated TED Talks.

dieg 1.JPG

As a tour guide, I look at a Diegel map as a work of art and a reference. It enables me to stand on a nondescript sidewalk and say with certainty that a Revolutionary War battle took place on it. His maps enable me to imagine the past and stand on the same location where water once flowed, see dips in the street grid as valleys elevated by fill and rises as shaved remains of once taller hills. Along with Gowanus Canal, he peels back layers of history to reveal its entire watershed and tributaries such as Vechte’s Brook.

dieg 4

What Eric Sanderson did for lower Manhattan, Diegel is doing for Gowanus and its vicinity, because that’s his neighborhood and his home. If I had to specialize, you’ve probably noticed that I have a particular interest in Flushing Creek as it’s close to my home, has a sizable watershed, numerous tributaries, and a rich natural and human history.

Books on Streams

As today is Wednesday, I would like to share some stream-related reading materials. In keeping with last Wednesday’s international theme, the books presented deal with their respective streams. Not so hidden, unless we are discussing their beginnings. Click on the titles for details.

Murray River, Australia

Mekong River


Columbia River


My bedroom was once filled with maps but I’ve grown up since then. Now my home is filled with books, much to the regret of my wife who tells me to use a library instead.

5 thoughts on “Gowanus Canal’s Map Man

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