Yesterday I featured Build Your Block pillows, a collection of cushions from designer Patrick Chirico that encourage couch-side urban planning. Each pillow depicts a different type of residential building commonly found in Brooklyn: the sleek Williamsburg contemporary, the brick 5-story walk-up, the iconic South Brooklyn brownstone, and others. Well, it looks like Chirico forgot to include another type of Kings County dwelling that's been in the news lately: the illegal, off-the-grid houseboat docked in the middle of a toxic Superfund site
It’s news to me, but apparently there’s a four vessel-strong community of houseboaters living on the Gowanus Canal, an infamously foul 1.8-mile body of water that was finally designated as a Superfund site in March 2010 after many decades of being an all-around gross (but beloved and somewhat charming) presence in South Brooklyn. 
Explains the EPA: As a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation's most extensively contaminated water bodies. Contaminants include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics." The EPA estimates that it will cost about $300 to $500 million to clean it up.
So if cities like Seattle and Amsterdam can have thriving houseboat communities, why can’t Brooklyn — even if the moorage is on the ultra-toxic side? Picking up on a recent NY Post article that exposes the “latest hipster attraction” on a “the cancer-causing cesspool” where, if you fall in, the water will “corrode you before you drown,” The Huffington Post and other news outlets have zeroed in on one of the Gowanus' decidedly more respectful houseboaters, an environmentalist and “freelance green builder” named Adam Katzman.
Reportedly, Katzman, 29, has been living aboard the two-story, 350-square-foot “Jerko” rent-free for about two years now. And while the other houseboats docked on the Gowanus sound like ramshackle, v-neck T-shirt and PBR-heavy pleasure ships, Katzman has transformed Jerko into an urban green living laboratory complete with a homemade rainwater harvesting and filtration system, solar panels, a parabolic solar cooker, a vegetable and herb garden, and a composting toilet.
Painted to resemble a circus clown and remodeled with mostly salvaged materials, Jerko even has a floating bamboo garden that Katzman hopes will help oxygenate the severely polluted water. Not shockingly, however green and good for the Gowanus Jerko may be, the legality of Katzman’s living situation is questionable.
Permits, property taxes, and docking rights aside, Katzman is one of four subjects — the Homesteader, the Urban Farmer, the Forager, and the Off-Gridder — profiled in Back To Nature NYC, a fascinating multimedia master’s project from Columbia University journalism grad students Gianna Palmer and Yardena Schwartz. Watch Katzman, the Off-Gridder, in action aboard the Jerko in the video clip below. 
Not mentioned in all of the recent hubbub about Jerko and the other Gowanus houseboats is that ecological design project Expedition Gowanus officially launched Jerko — full name: "Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum" — as a "laboratory and show space for do-it-yourself sustainability experiments" during a GreenHomeNYC-sponsored DIY block party in the fall of 2010. It's unclear if Katzman, who acts as coordinator for Expedition Gowanus, has been living full-time aboard the vessel from the get-go, although I'm guessing that he has. Back to Nature NYC notes that before residing aboard Jerko, he "dabbled in backpacking, camping, rent-striking and squatting."
Also not mentioned: Jerko will be (or has been already) relocated from its Gowanus home to Pier 59 in Far Rockaway, Queens, "for use as a meeting place, studio/workshop, live aboard, and/or other creative endeavors."

As someone who lives in close vicinity to the Gowanus Canal and who is intimate with its oil-slicked waters (no, I’ve never canoed in it) all I can say is: Not for all the tea in China would I live on it. Or, more appropriately, not for all the free rounds at the Gowanus Yacht Club. But I do applaud what Katzman is doing, and I wish him all the best at his new moorage. I think Brooklyn’s rent-paying land-lubbers could learn a few lessons in self-sufficiency from the humanure-composting captain of the nation’s most unlikely houseboat.

[NY Post], [Back to Nature NYC] via [Huffington Post]

Jerko video screenshot: Back to Nature NYC; Gowanus Canal photo: Listen Missy/Flickr

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Jerko: Little green houseboat on the Superfund site
Step aboard Jerko, an off-the-grid houseboat/urban sustainability laboratory that's been moored in one of America's filthiest waterways: Brooklyn's Gowanus Cana