Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Minetta Brook: A Lost River Under the Streets of Manhattan

The irony of searching for a lost stream in Manhattan on a blazing hot day was not lost on those of us who took the recent Atlas Obscura tour with Undercity’s Steve Duncan, a “guerrilla” historian and urban explorer. The tour followed the 1.5 mile route of the now buried Minetta Brook, which originally ran above ground in Greenwich Village. The stream flowed through the western section of Washington Square Park, which was then just a marsh and ran out to the Hudson River at what is now Charlton Street.

Steve arrived wearing an orange mesh vest, a well-worn cap and nice leather shoes, ringed with bits of dried mud. The twenty of us stood at the Union Square Forever 21, listening to his introduction of the world under our feet. Rushing rivers under Union Square? Hard to imagine, we thought. Steve continued with an enthusiasm that wouldn’t flag over the course of three hours on the black tar streets of Manhattan.

Our first stop was a Subway sandwich shop. Too late for lunch, I wondered what the deal was. We paused long enough for Steve to point out the first of dozens of manhole covers he would point to throughout the day. It was in the middle of the street, partially under a parked car, partially under a big MTA bus rumbling by.

At our next stop we paused, at the corner of 14th Street and 5th Avenue to notice the designs engraved in the various covers sprinkled throughout the intersection. Was there a diamond pattern, squares, or grates? They all meant something and in all cases spoke to which municipal department needed it: electrical, sewage, water supply, runoff, subway, you name it. This one was easy. It said WSNY, which stands for Water Supply New York. The stop was brief and our motley crew of city dwellers wandered south along 5th Avenue, making a right on 12th Street, and pausing in front of the First Presbyterian Church. Standing in the shadow of the Gothic revival building dedicated in 1846, just after the stream was covered up, it became clear why the river was forced underground. One word: expansion.

Read the entire piece, originally published on Untapped Cities: New York.

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