A quick visit to Portland this weekend didn’t feature much in the way of exploration, but it was a pleasure to stumble upon the Tanner Creek Tavern, a new restaurant in the Pearl District (corner of 9th and Everett) with a nice connection to hidden hydrology. The name says it all, but the spot has the distinction of housing some notable historical remnants celebrating Tanner Creek, including some maps and photos of the creek, which ran nearby for many of the early years of Portland’s history before being encased underground in the early 1900s.
The far wall of the restaurant contains a 1870s aerial lithograph of downtown, viewed from the east across the Wilamette River, with the ‘route’ of the creek highlighted in a faint blue. Some questions arise about the fidelity of the tracing of the mouth of the creek, but it does aid in reinforcing Tanner Creek.
Oddly enough, I’ve collected other versions of this map that are not as crisp of a reproduction (it typically comes with a chunky border and is oddly cropped on both sides, but hadn’t seen this particular one, via a link on their website gallery as well., which is beautifully shaded with the wooded West Hills up from the nascent downtown grid and a sparsely filled in east side.
There’s some references to the creek history on the menu, and a bit of a longer text via the website, a sidebar on the Legend of Tanner Creek:
“Tanner Creek was named after the tannery established in 1845 by Kentucky settler and Portland founding father, Daniel Lownsdale. With its headwaters originating in the West Hills, the creek traced its surface path down Canyon Road and through Goose Hollow before emptying into Couch Lake and the surrounding wetlands that now make up the modern Pearl District. Portland’s heavy storm runoff would often cause the creek to overflow, damaging property on the expanding Westside. City fathers tackled this problem in the late 19th century by burying the creek in an enormous brick-lined culvert excavated at some points to a depth of 50 feet. Today this subterranean public works project still functions much the way it did over a century ago. The creek meanders below the Pearl on its final destination to the Willamette River where it empties somewhere between the Broadway Bridge and the Portland Police Horse Paddock.”
A few other views show the space, an airy semi-industrial central bar surrounded by open seating with some wood accents. A really loved the central visibility of the map as the focal point.
Another wall visible from outside has photos of the demise, a set of 1920s era construction photos of the installation of the pipes that took the surface waters underground.
While I am probably same in assuming I was the only one in the place geeking out on a giant wall map of a hidden stream, it’s a decent attempt at connecting a place to place and imbuing a story into what are often sort of hollow legends that are crafted for bars and restaurants in lieu of real context. And, hidden hydrology nerdiness aside, the food and drinks are pretty good as well.
The margins of history, ecology, and culture overlap in stories about hidden hydrology. This is evident in a 2016 article by Putsata Reang in Oregon Humanities, entitled ‘The Farmers of Tanner Creek’ that looks at this convergence in Portland and the history in the Goose Hollow area to the southwest of downtown.
The article investigates the shadow economy of Chinese immigrants that gardened on the fringes of the city of Portland around the turn of the century. Alternatively referenced as “Vegetable Man” or “Chinaman”, Reang leads with the legders of the Mills family, who “likely hefted his produce in wicker baskets hung from a pole and slung across his shoulder, trekking uphill from the gulch along Tanner Creek in Southwest Portland where his garden grew and along the hill to the Mills’ mansion every day, faithfully, for much of 1907.”
The story also notes that around 1910 that these gardens and “vegetable men” started to disappear from life, a combination of urban expansion and racism which made the land more valuable and more likely to lead to displacement. Perhaps something we can learn from again with massive growth and gentrification that is occuring in Portland and many other cities. As Tracy Prince is quoted:
““It was real estate that was once undesirable and became desirable that disbanded the vegetable garden community,” says Tracy J. Prince, professor emeritus at Portland State University. “The same pressures are gentrifying Northeast Portland, having the black community move out.”
The draw for Chinese immigrants to the area may have been the location adjacent to the creek, which Reang mentions “the lure of that wild land and an interest in cultivating crops that many had brought from their homes in the agrarian Pearl River Delta of China, an area known for terraced farming,”
The land was considered less desirable by settlers, but for immigrants aligned with floodplain food production, using the rich soils to maximize yields. The first removal of the natural channel of Tanner Creek was also the reason for the gardens to exist:
“When a wooden bridge over the creek that connected the burgeoning neighborhoods from 14th Street to 17th Avenue North collapsed during a flood in 1873, the city used the calamity as an opportunity not only to repair the bridge, but also to tame Tanner Creek. That summer, the City of Portland contracted Chinese workers to build a 115-foot cylindrical culvert to pipe the creek sixty feet below Burnside Street, a solution that both controlled and ultimately prevented flooding in the area.”
The workers stayed and cultivated the areas, eventually growing on 20 acres of land, with many gardeners avoiding the perils of other urban jobs and selling their produce to local residents, many who employed Chinese cooks, according to the article. While the land was undesirable, there was no issue, even without ownership, to using it for production. The dark history of racism in Portland started early, as mentioned, and this was directed specifically at Chinese, as “Oregon’s state constitution of 1859 barred anyone of Chinese descent from owning property, which meant that the Chinese gardeners could be evicted from their farms at any moment.”
Eventually expansion and development led to the demise of both Tanner Creek and the gardeners that capitalized on the floodplains, land was taken for building the Multnomah Athletic Club in 1893, moving gardeners south, until eventually they were move out completely, as populations spiked around the turn of the century.
Ironically for a town that prides itself on food carts, the other mechanism, the adoption of policies limiting street vending – as the article mentions, quoting Marie Rose Wong, who wrote about the Chinese gardens in her book, Sweet Cakes, Long Journey:“In 1897, the Portland Common Council adopted an ordinance requiring street vendors within city limits to obtain a license—a move that angered white owners of several fish companies that were affected by the law. The white business owners protested and by 1910, the city adopted an additional ordinance limiting the area of downtown where street peddlers could sell their wares to an area that effectively covered most of downtown Portland. Those who sold meats, fish, ice, bread, and newspapers were exempted from the ordinance, which effectively banned only the Chinese vegetable peddlers from operating.”
The crux of the story is that there are hidden stories of people embedded in the narratives of hidden hydrology, in this case the fates of Tanner Creek intertwined with those that helped to literally build grow Portland, attempting to use the creek to cultivate a life amidst forces of racism and development.
The article is a great reminder of the layers of history that exist, from native peoples that occupied spaces these places prior to European settlement, as well as the diversity of those, many often overlooked in white washed histories, that contributed to the early life of these cities, and continue to contribute today. It also is a tale about development, and marginal spaces that seem worthless until pressures make them desirable, and that impulse to remove impediments to development.
A great additional narrative of Goose Hollow, and where I remember first seeing these images of farms, is the book “Portland’s Goose Hollow” by Prince, worthy of a good summary on the site as well, as it does unlock some mysteries about “how Goose Hollow got its name and how Tanner Creek Gulch was filled.” Another photo from the Oregon Encyclopedia history of Goose Hollow shows a slightly different view, capturing the view, circa 1890s, of the creek running under the trestle bridge, with the Chinese vegetable gardens in the lowlands and Portland High School in the distance.
Another from the same source shows the Chinese truck gardens sprawling around Tanner Creek Gulch a bit earlier, from the 1880s.
Many thanks to my Portland friend and hidden hydrology contributor Matt Burlin for this link.
What’s in a name? Why does language matter? I asked this question previously in the post “Language as the Thread“, and it continually emerges and weaves through the study of hidden hydrology. The names of streams and places, which are shaped by geography and culture, enliven our discovery of the old and the new. I admit to a love of language, but had not specifically focused on toponyms to the degree I have until reading and following the fantastic Robert Macfarlane, who challenges us to expand these connections by “…collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena” and celebrating them. He calls the accumulation the word hoard. and can be best accessed in his 2016 book Landmarks.
For water, like other phenomena, there are many encyclopedias for terms and usage both regional and global to encompass the range of toponymic variations. And people also like making maps of these as well. The map that sparked this post I saw on Twiiter that was published in 2011 by Derek Watkins – “Mapping Generic Terms for Streams in the Contiguous United States” which “…illustrates the range of cultural and environmental factors that affect how we label and interact with the world.” [click to expand and zoom on the map below]
Even though I moved around a bit as a kid, i’m a straight stream or creek person, with an occasional Brook or Fork. The graphics break down multiple regional variants:
“Lime green bayous follow historical French settlement patterns along the Gulf Coast and up Louisiana streams. The distribution of the Dutch-derived term kill (dark blue) in New York echoes the colonial settlement of “New Netherland” (as well as furnishing half of a specific toponym to the Catskill Mountains). Similarly, the spanish-derived terms rio, arroyo, and cañada (orange hues) trace the early advances of conquistadors into present-day northern New Mexico, an area that still retains some unique culturaltraits. Washes in the southwest reflect the intermittent rainfall of the region, while streams named swamps (desaturated green) along the Atlantic seaboard highlight where the coastal plain meets the Appalachian Piedmont at the fallline.”
The focus on non-traditional toponyms for streams is great, although myself, like many others, mentioned “Where are Creeks, or Streams, or …” due to the absence of these being visible on the map. A bit of digging shows that and he mentions that “This map taps into the place names contained in the USGS National Hydrography Dataset to show how the generic names of streams vary across the lower 48. Creeks and rivers are symbolized in gray due to their ubiquity (although the etymology behind the American use of creek is interesting), while bright colors symbolize other popular toponyms.” Perhaps its just gray on black, but I think showing in one more visible color (a neutral light blue) and keying these would help paint a picture of all streams and then highlight the stranger ones. Minor graphic critique aside, it’s a cool exploration.
Watkins also references a British version, by James Cheshire on his site Spatial,ly where he created a map Naming Rivers and Places and maps brook, aton, water, river, and canal.
He adds that he: extracted the major rivers and streams in Great Britain from the Ordnance Survey’s Strategi dataset and coloured them according to whether they are a “river”, “canal” (not sure if this really counts in terms of naming), “water”, “afon” (Welsh for river) and “brook”. You can see that a clear geography exists. I was not surprised by all the “afons” being in Wales but I was surprised to see so many “waters” in Scotland.”
There are many variations I’m sure just from perusing some I wonder about the term Beck, which comes up in a lot of literature in the UK and the studies of some of the lost rivers I’ve read. According to the quick etymology it is used in Northern England, derived from “Old Norse bekkr, related to Dutch beek and German Bach . Used as the common term for a brook in the northern areas of England, beck often refers, in literature, to a brook with a stony bed or following a rugged course, typical of such areas.”
There’s another link to some simple toponymic maps on by Paul Fly in a set GNIS maps via flickr as well – where these are mapped with less at once so you see the comparative differences, along with some other iterations like Lake/Pond, and Branch/Run/Brook and a plethora of
The first of what I hope are many field trips and investigations is now up on the site in a section called Explorations. This will be the location for these site-specific journeys, and will be augmented with maps, narratives, soundscapes, and images layered to tell the Water Stories of these hidden streams and buried creeks.
For this initial foray, in Seattle, it was immense fun to wander the areas north of Green Lake and discover the history of Licton Springs. As you see from the map below, the historic routes show a stream flowing southwards into Green Lake. The reach of the waterway starts around Licton Springs Park, where it is sees daylight for a stretch, along with some other intermittent segments where it pops up in surprising ways, throughout the neighborhood.
The story of Licton Springs focuses on the significance to Native Duwamish peoples, who celebrated the place and it’s spiritual, reddish, iron-oxide infused waters, and to early settlers, who lived and recreated, bathed in thermal pools, and bottled and drank of the healing mineral waters.
Like many places, the history of how the place evolved and how it was maintained is of interest, but the journey of the now and the experience of a day of exploring the edges, the muddy margins, and the sloppy seeps (lost shoes included) connect the history of place to the experience of today.
Beyond the park, there are a number of other discoveries that paint a story of people and place woved together through the flow of water. Discovery of the story of Pilling’s Pond, a small section carved out of the flow of Licton Springs to provide a sanctuary where Charles Pilling became a world expert duck breeding in the middle of Seattle.
The discoveries also include a unique segment of stream fronting Ashworth Avenue, a single residential block with driveways and fences literally bridging over the final daylit segment of of Licton Springs, showing how each owner shaped, or left feral, their little piece of the wild.
The connection as well with the virtual, with the final connection is made to Green Lake. Now only connected via overflow, the tracery of Licton Springs, imagined perhaps in some abstracted water play forms, swales, and cascades, may still be allow the creek to be evident, if only in our imagination.
The link below expands on this summary, so check it out, go out and explore, and come back with some water stories of your own.
Last week was Part 2 of the Waterlines class, featuring archaeologist Dennis Lewarch, Suquamish Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, with a concept of ‘Before the Cut’. This was an exploration “using archaeological, ethnographic and historical data [to discuss] the effects of shoreline transformations on indigenous populations.” Similar to the first class, the depth and breadth of the cultural history, and his more expansive title ‘Archaeology and Ethnographic Background of Seattle and Prior Massive Anthropogenic Modifications” hints at the depth of this topic.
Lots of details here, but the idea that in the past 14,000 years of occupation by native peoples, after migration from the north via the Bering Land Bridge and along the outside edge of the ice. There are various theories, but that the retreating glaciers opened up a path between that allowed access, and continuous occupation is found throughout the Northwest in archaeological sites 12-13000 years of age. Once here, the land has changed via sea level rise, mudflows, earthquakes, tsunamis, subsidence, alluvial processes, and more. The story is thus the land shaping people, and the people shaping land. The defining characteristics of the different tribal groups are called adaptions, and place origins of geography, such as the Saltwater adaptation, particularly the Suquamish who lived near the sea, versus the Riverine adaptation, the Duwamish people who lived near the river. Other adaptations are tied to lakes and inland/upland areas, all of which collectively shape the speech, family community, and cultures. For Lewarch’s presentation, the focus discussed a larger history of regional indigenous occupation of the Seattle area, with focus on some of the areas near Seattle that had significance.
Black River Origins
One of the main points of origin for Duwamish people, based on the above adaption, is the Black River, where four original villages were located. An excerpt from the 1909 USGS Topographic map of the area shows the former drainage, where the Cedar River flowed in from the east, and the Black River drained the south part of Lake Washington, near Renton. This confluence also was fed from the south by the former route of the White River, as all of it flowed into the Duwamish and out to the Sound. The names of the settlements of the ‘People of the Lake Fork’ and the inhabitants near the Little Cedar River, and their evolution in living off the land and the river ecosystems for many years.
The demise of this home place began with channelization of the Cedar River into Lake Washington, and ended he lowering of the lake when the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were built in 1916. The elevation of Lake Washington was lowered nine feet, to the same as Lake Union, which severed its outflow to the Black River, captured in the photo below shows the river after the lowering of the lake, where it slowly died and has (mostly) been subsequently buried. For more on the Black River history, a short blurb on this from David Williams here.
The map from the Wikipedia page on the Black River also shows the before and after and the erasure of the original location of Duwamish settlements through reconfiguration of the hydrology of the region, another in a long line of massive manipulations in the region. The Duwamish People were living in the area, and continued to do so, even as the Black River was dying. They were relocated to reservations, and as Lewarch mentioned, they were sent to coastal areas near the ocean, and being a river tribe, kept returning to the river to fish for many years after, where they lived on a property owned by Erasmus Smithers, until it was burned in 1896. There’s inevitably a long history of settlement and resettlement and disenfranchisement throughout recent history I’m glossing over, but the idea of a river tribe not having a river seems par for the course of how tribes were treated. Secondary to this, the subtle differences between different tribes were not recognized, with many Suquamish or other tribes in the region being lumped into the Duwamish by colonists.
The Duwamish River obviously had a significant place in the history of this river tribe, and the estuary connected the river people with those of the sea and the density of place names in that zone . A number of archaeological sites amidst the oxbows of this area. The 1899 US Coast Survey shows the bay and larger estuary, with the area of downtown Seattle starting to build out, but prior to the majority of the land filling to come.
A map of these old configuration juxtaposed with the channel that exists today shows the level of land filling and manipulation done to this area to carve out industrial lands. From the fantastic Duwamish Revealed site: “About 100 years ago, the Duwamish was straightened and dredged, reducing 14 miles of winding river to 5 miles of industrial “waterway.” Nearly all of the native habitat – mudflats, marshes, and swamps surrounded by old growth Cedar, Douglas Fir, and Hemlock trees – was replaced by agriculture, then industry. The Duwamish is home to three Native tribes: The Duwamish, the Muckleshoot, and the Suquamish, and has immense cultural importance to them. The word “Duwamish” is an Anglicized version of Dkhw’Duw’Absh, meaning “people of the inside” in Lushootseed, the language of the Coast Salish people.”
While native peoples were instrumental in building the city and working in it’s saw mills, fisheries and other industry, rapidly changing Seattle began to try to eliminate the native residents of the city, passing laws in 1863 to make it illegal for Indians to live in Seattle unless they worked for whites, villages and settlements were burned. Native peoples moved north as development occurred, and tended to stay near the water, occupying places within the network of piers and wharves. One such place was Ballast Island, formed from ships dumping rocks after their voyages, which slowly accumulated into made land. A photo from the area shows the colonization of this space by Native peoples, who camped out around the wharfs fringes, being ogled by early Seattlites. In 1891 they were forcibly removed, one in a string of forced removals that shaped the early history of the area.
West Point & Shilshole
Moving away from downtown, the occupation and history of West Point, the point that was formerly military outpost and now Discovery Park, along with being the massive sewage-treatment plant. This area was a tidal marsh that was occupied and used, with the formation of sediment along with earthquakes shaping. When the treatment plant was being expanded, a significant archaeological effort was undertaken, beautifully documented in this online resource from the Burke Museum. Shilshole also has a significance to Native Seattle, with the native word meaning ‘threading the needle’ to get into the small mouth that led into Salmon Bay, which was littered with shell middens and other features showing occupation, similar to other areas on the coast. Prior to the creation of the locks, this area . One long-time resident was Salmon Bay Charlie. A great resource for this and other Seattle history is the blog by Paul Dorpat featuring ‘Seattle: Now & Then‘, where you can investigate the area in some more detail. From the post: “Salmon Bay Charlie and his wife lived in their cedar plank home on the south shore of Magnolia’s Salmon Bay. For half a century Charlie, also known as Siwash Charlie, sold salmon, clams and berries to the first settlers and later to the soldiers at Fort Lawton. Today’s historical view shows Charlie’s house at the turn of the century, taken by the photography firm, Webster and Stevens.”
A bit to the east, the connection between the eastern edge of Lake Union and Lake Washington is a good discussion of place names, including the connections between Lushootseed, or Coast Salish names and colonist names. This brought up a discussion of the area below,
I rotated the Waterlines map to match the same orientation, and the references to the area marked B, which was a village site named sɬuwiɬ, “Little Canoe Channel” that marked the mouth of Ravenna Creek, where Lewarch mentions there were stories of salmon runs up Ravenna. There’s also Lake Union, marked as #21, which is called x̌ax̌əču meaning, “Small Lake” and Foster Island, in an area named staɬaɬ or “Baby Fathom” showing that even with a translation there is still a story missing. Perhaps a shallow zones at the mouth of the creek. The cut, marked as #18 which is named sxʷac̓adwiɬ translated as “Carry a Canoe” meaning it probably wasn’t passable as a waterway until later when the Denny’s opened it up as a log-sluice to move timber between the two points.
According to Lewarch, the notes from Waterman were sort of a mess, so the editors compiled it into something readable, including an amazing figure in Seattle history, Vi Hilbert, a Puget Salish and “a conservationist of the Lushootseed language and Culture”. While Waterman interviewed a small group of around 25 native people for his work, it generated over one thousand place names. And as Lewarch mentioned, all of those interviewed said if they had talked to the Elders, they would have ended up with 1000s more, a sad testament to a cultural history lost forever. Another resource for this is Coll Thrush’s book ‘Native Seattle‘ offers a great section with maps of those place names developed along with Anthropologist Nile Thompson, a snapshot of one below with the accompanying Lushootseed language and origins. Many of these as I mentioned ended up on the Waterlines map, with more abbreviated descriptions. The one below shows the NW corner with Green Lake in the center, and West Point, Lake Union, and Salmon Bay, along with areas along the coast marked.
Lots of threads to follow and stories to connect. In general, the talk focused on the Indigenous cultures and their resilience, both pre-European settlement and after colonization, displacement, and more. He ended up with a quote from Chief Seattle, and discussion both of the potential misinterpretation of his words by the translator, and whether it was an environmental, or social statement, but the multiple meanings that resonated strongly in Seattle history. He quoted a passage:
“And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.”
It could be both a warning or a statement that shows that resilience of Native people wasn’t just in survival, but left a permanent mark on the landscape and people. The culture and place of what Seattle is and the way we should live is etched in history and resonates in the places dotting the map of Seattle, including waters visible and hidden.
A preliminary presentation featured Amir Sheikh, one of the primary collaborators on the Waterlines Project, and he discussed much of the history and process of the overall project and methodology along with framing the concept of place names using Lushootseed language, as featured on the Waterline maps (see my post on language here). One video he showed was “Djidjila’letch to Pioneer Square: From Native village to Seattle metropolis“, a video which takes the viewer “…from Native village to metropolis, the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle has undergone dramatic transformations. This animation provides a bird’s eye glimpse at some of the social, economic, and landscape histories of the neighborhood through time.”
A short rumination from Akiko Busch in the NY Times asks us to Learn a River’s Name Before It’s Gone resonated with me around the idea of language as the cultural thread that weaves. Describing a road trip, where she wrote down the list of over 100 rivers crossed, concluding that “If we couldn’t hear the sound of the water itself, the syllables of the names became a new way for me to chart this country.” The simple idea of knowing the name of something (or someone, for that matter) and although we go a bit crazy with naming storms, Busch posits that:
“it would likely be of greater benefit if we could find a similar pleasure in learning a few of the names that identify those features of the natural world we live with all the time. Which is to say, instead of making up new names, we might consider learning the names that already exist.”
Data and science are critical elements in understanding on many levels, but words and names provide a level of connection. Busch continues: “Giving something a name is the first step in taking care of it. Place names help us to attach landscape to history and region. And when it comes to the question of attachment, we are not just speaking of how names are attached to places, but how humans become attached to places.” Stories of places abound, and continued attacks on environmental regulations aims to further degrade our protections, so “perhaps we could make the effort to learn as many of the names of those places — and the trees, the rivers, the ranges, all the species that live there — as possible, before it’s too late.”
The naming, of course, needs to respond to pre-European settlement, as much of the work of ‘finding’ hidden hydrology uses maps that are made by Europeans and often (purposely or ignorantly) erase place names that have be tied to places for years. As we look back into history, we are challenged to find not just the names of places on a map, but to search a richer heritage of Native place names. The work on the Welikia Project explains: “The Lenape people inhabited Mannahatta for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. They named their island home “Mannahatta,” meaning “Island of Many Hills.” We use the term “Mannahatta” to refer to the island as it was in 1609, and “Manhattan” to refer to the metropolis of today.” When they expanded the concept to the larger NY City metro area, they also adopted the Lenape expression “Welikia,”meaning “my good home,” and infuse place making with Native settlement patterns often in their work.
The Waterlines Project here in Seattle is a great example of connecting Hidden Hydrology to Native language, providing on the map a key with Coast Salish Place Names.
The place names on this map, written in the Lushootseed language of the Coast Salish people, are drawn from elders who worked with ethnographers in the early twentieth century, from the work of linguists and scholars such as the late Vi Hilbert, and from an atlas created by Coll Thrush and Nile Thompson for the book Native Seattle. Place names are stories: proof of presence, archives of meaning, evidence of ancestry, and a reference for treaties and other legal connections to territory. They provide context to the ongoing presence and strong connections to the city for Native people as co-managers of our shared resources. Refer to “An Atlas of Indigenous Seattle” for further information on the Native place names found on this map.”
I’m inspired to learn the names (those of the present, past and distant past) of the local places across history and dig into some of these local resources as I continue to compile my working base of Seattle and Portland Hidden Hydrology. I found a post by local writer David B. Williams on his GeologyWriter blog – which was helpful in summarizing Seattle’s Stream Names, for the more recently naming, and soon to come is some documentation of my recent muddy exploration of Licton Springs, which is named for Liq’tid (LEEK-teed) or Licton (Item #9 above), the Lushootseed word ‘Red Paint’ for the reddish mud of the springs.
Mexico City has been featured a few times recently in the New York Times, with a focus on some of the fascinating hydrological history and its implications to modern urban life. I was very ignorant of the specific characteristics of the city, and while I love Mexico have only had the chance to spend a long layover in Mexico City proper a few years back. I learned much in these few articles, with a desire to dig deeper as well.
The history of Mexico City as a city has many facets, but two emerge in this context. First is the concept that the city is built on a lake. This map shows the configuration of the area around 500 years ago, about the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico.
Tenochtitlán, the major urban center, was established in 1325, a larger island surrounded by smaller areas islands amidst Lake Texcoco – shown as the City of Mexico below. This aided in defense and provided agriculture using the chinampas, islands floated for growing crops.
The city was rapidly transformed via defeat and colonization:
Then the conquering Spaniards waged war against water, determined to subdue it. The Aztec system was foreign to them. They replaced the dikes and canals with streets and squares. They drained the lakes and cleared forestland, suffering flood after flood, including one that drowned the city for five straight years.
The article focuses on both this concept of geological transformation. The second part of the story of Mexico City is the Grand Canal. This infrastructural intervention was completed in the late 1800s, and ” a major feat of engineering and a symbol of civic pride: 29 miles long, with the ability to move tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater per second. It promised to solve the flooding and sewage problems that had plagued the city for centuries.”
The City being built on a lake has led to subsistence due to geological forces, and the need for drinking water has meant well drilling on a huge scale – both leading to elevations of the city being dramatically lowers. This makes gravity-based infrastructure like the Grand Canal a bit problematic, as they can no longer freely drain. The city, which occupied a metropolitan area of 30 square miles in 1950, now occupies closer to 3000 square miles, so and the almost 22 million inhabitants exert massive pressures on the land.
Some great interactive graphics from the NYT show the canal in the context of the ancient lake bed that sprawls through the region (see how this relates to the map above).
This plays out in the map below, which highlights the worst place of subsidence – the darkest red portions sinking around 9 inches per year.
[Click maps for larger views or check them out in the original article for overlay]
The problems, as mentioned, are based on some bad decision-making in urban planning back centuries ago. This have been exacerbated by climate change – meaning lack of drinking water for many and the potential to lead to health issues, mass migrations to other cities, or conflict, which will be played out around the globe. This example of non-coastal impacts of climate change is one of the most interesting aspects of the story, as much attention has been placed on sea-level rise but less on inland communities. “Mexico City — high in the mountains, in the center of the country — is a glaring example. The world has a lot invested in crowded capitals like this one, with vast numbers of people, huge economies and the stability of a hemisphere at risk.”
One way this phenomenon is visible is in the architecture, with subtle rolling building forms as seen below creating waves of differential settlement. An animation of the process shows the action creating this building form, due to differential layers of volcanic soils and clays, which drain and hold water at dramatically different rates.
What happens when the water is drawn down creates instability reflected in the constant sinking and retrofitting of buildings. Kimmelman explains the impacts: “Buildings here can resemble Cubist drawings, with slanting windows, wavy cornices and doors that no longer align with their frames. Pedestrians trudge up hills where the once flat lake bed has given way. The cathedral in the city’s central square, known as the Zócalo, famously sunken in spots during the last century, is a kind of fun house, with a leaning chapel and a bell tower into which stone wedges were inserted during construction to act more or less like matchbooks under the leg of a wobbly cafe table.”
Aside from the quirky buildings, there are major issues throughout the region, more pressing as climate change increases. Kimmelman mentions that “development has wiped out nearly every remaining trace of the original lakes, taxing the underground aquifers and forcing what was once a water-rich valley to import billions of gallons from far away.” That conveyance of water is so difficult, that many residents are unable to get water easily, especially from taps. This has led to an economy of ‘pipas’, “large trucks that deliver water from aquifers” to fill tanks. Approximately 40% of residents get water this way.
The other issue is the difficulty of removing sewage and drainage, again because of geology and topography, along with leaks and inefficiencies of the aged infrastructure. The Grand Canal is no longer able to gravity flow, described as “wide open, a stinking river of sewage belching methane and sulfuric acid”. Pump stations are installed to assist this, and the canal, albeit ‘visible’ is marginalized, traveling under roadways and being polluted via impervious surfaces along the way.
While portions of the Grand Canal are still visible, the hidden hydrology and it’s implications, heightened by climate change, are evident in sinking buildings, lack of drinking water, and substandard infrastructure, a trifecta of issues that come back to the origins of a water based city from seven centuries back. I mention long history, and this is a lesson in how quickly the decisions of the past can turn on us with population growth and a changing climate.
Per Kimmelman: “The whole city occupies what was once a network of lakes. In 1325, the Aztecs established their capital, Tenochtitlán, on an island. Over time, they expanded the city with landfill and planted crops on floating gardens called chinampas, plots of arable soil created from wattle and sediment. The lakes provided the Aztecs with a line of defense, the chinampas with sustenance. The idea: Live with nature.”
The idea at the time, and even today is valid, but the modern challenge is confirmed by Loreta Castro Reguera, “a young, Harvard-trained architect who has made a specialty of the sinking ground in Mexico City, a phenomenon known as subsidence” who was interviewed in the article.
““The Aztecs managed. But they had 300,000 people. We now have 21 million.”
A follow up from features the further story of the hydrology of Xochimilco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was covered by Victoria Burnett in a February 22nd story “An Aquatic Paradise in Mexico, Pushed to the Edge of Extinction” This article picks up the thread of the canals and islands from the original settlement. “With their gray-green waters and blue herons, the canals and island farms of Xochimilco in southern Mexico City are all that remain of the extensive network of shimmering waterways that so awed Spanish invaders when they arrived here 500 years ago.”
The article focuses on the impacts of water usage in the region, with water from Xochimilco being pumped to other areas of the city, creating sink holes and draining canals which threaten the livelihoods of farmers and tourism industries. The canals have long supported both industries, and also include wetlands and the infamous farming techniques called chinampas, which date back to Aztec era, and include ‘floating gardens’ in the shallow lakes. A photo of these from 1912 show the this in action:
The article discusses the residual impacts of development on the aquifers, which impacts the regions waterways, but also, similar to the previous article, creates subsidence that impacts buildings and sinkholes. The visible whirlpool in January lowered the water level quick enough to cause alarm before it could be stopped.
The water tourism in the area, typified by the trajineras, a blinged out local gondola, has been impacted as well. One of the operators takes heed of the omens of water, stating:
“Nature is making us pay for what we have done”
In additional to development (building on the chinampas), there is pollution of the canals themselves, which has jump-started some efforts to reduce water use of the aquifer through rainwater harvesting, but the immensity of the problem of supplying water for a region with 22 million people is massive. The balance between providing water and maintaining the cultural heritage means the possible loss of knowledge of chinampa farming, as well as health issues for locals. This could quickly become irreversible, unless action is taken, as mentioned by Dr. María Guadalupe Figueroa, a biologist at Autonomous Metropolitan University, who ends the article: “…without a serious conservation effort, the canals will be gone in 10 to 15 years. But much of the damage was reversible, she said, adding: “It’s still a little paradise.”
The two articles reminded me of a couple of articles I had filed away for future posts. With the interest piqued from the above coverage, I dove into a 2016 CityLab post “Mexico City’s Invisible Rivers” which focuses on the work of Taller 13 and their plans to “uncover the 45 rivers that flow under the Aztec capital, hidden underground for decades.” The first phase involves the Piedad River, and the idea of daylighting 9.3 miles of the corridor. shown in some detail below (with many more images on their site via the link above or via an online document here).
There’s a lot of similarity to the Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul (mentioned here in the Lost Rivers documentary post) in terms of the final look and feel as well as the transformative potential, as mentioned in the article by urban biologist Delfín Montañana”
““This project shatters paradigms. It proposes to tear down a private road, which you cannot use unless you have a car. What we propose is that we remove the cars, open the pipes, and treat the water. We need to transform the model of our city”
The hidden gem in the post is the document “La Ciudad de México 1952 1964” published by the Departamento del Distrito Federal. México, This document outlines the public services of the city, including chapters on water and sewer that have some great info (with, in my case, some translation).
Sections on potable water and drainage show ‘modernization’ along with maps of these systems (of passable by not great quality). The following shows the drainage system of the time, which involved a lot of pipes and images of pipes being built, and people in pipes.
A colored map of the historic Mexico from the document takes us full circle, to the hydrological history, a city literally built on a lake, economies as well built on that watery foundation, and now dealing with the consequences.
The recent post Aquae Urbis Romae discussed the Waters of Rome project by Katherine Rinne. As mentioned, the map referenced most heavily in her work is the 1551 Bufalini map, which shows conceptual topography and figure ground relationship. Like anything, once you dive into the maps of a particular area, especially one with the history, you can quickly fall down the rabbit hole. So dive in.
The maps as a whole is broken into twelve tiles, so zooming in on an individual view shows the richness of the illustration.
Taking a similar view from the Northwest as the Tempesta map, Matthuas Merian’s 1642 Topographia Germaniae printed a color version, showing the view in 1641, and definitely highlights how the use of color can change the nature of a map.
Coming 200 years after Bufalini, the (argubly) most famous map of Rome is one of my favorites, the 1748 Map ‘Grande Pianta‘ by Giambattista Nolli (more commonly known as the Nolli map). This work of art is infamous for its detail and being the precursor of the expanded ‘figure-ground’ diagram many of us use today.
The idea of the interior public spaces as ‘void’ on the map is worth a close-up, as you can see above a bit, but it’s easier to read here, where you can see the plaza spaces (bottom of Piazza Navona on the upper left) versus the interior spaces such as the circular Pantheon and the structure of local churches:
And I love the way some of the gardens are represented, which gives a somewhat different feel from plaza spaces – sort of creating a spatial hierarchy and network of green spaces.
After searching, I found the term for the illustrative border, not sure if that’s the cartographic term, but the veduta ‘italian for view’ is typically a cityscape. The one the Nolli map illustration was done by Stefano Pozzi.
There are some other high resolution version of this as well, and if you have the means, they can be purchased here, here and here.
For the interactive options, a project of University of Oregon spawned an online interactive version of the Nolli Map: “The Nolli website presents the 1748 Nolli Map of Rome as a dynamic, interactive, hands-on tool in both written and graphical form. The map not only provides rich information, but it has the ability to be updated with new data over time to embrace expanding knowledge.” The viewer is ok, and the thematic symbols are interesting, but resolution is a bit too small, objects aren’t clickable and the interface is somewhat hard to navigate.
For some other options, there’s an OS app as and another digital version from B-Open Solutions which is a simple georectified copy overlaid on the modern map, allowing for easy zoom, multiple underlays, and opacity shift to see the before and after (which amazingly is not that different – owing to the quality of Nolli’s map-making). It also includes the ability to click on the original legend for Nolli’s map.
Detail shows the homage to the interior public spaces from Nolli, and something about the sparseness of linework (albeit a copy) makes this a beautiful addition to the map library .
CODA: DEEP HISTORY
As I emerge from the rabbit hole, it reminds me of the rich history of mapping, and the skill of the mapmakers in the absence of modern tools. While this is not about hidden hydrology per se, the map as a tool, inspiration, and guide is a thread that permeates mine and others interest, and the concept of multiple maps documenting ‘long’ history is impressive. In that spirit (inspirations and rabbit holes) one must go even farther back, and visit the Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project, which documents the Severan Marble Plan of Rome. Be forewarned, you can lose yourself in this one. Some background:
“This enormous map, measuring ca. 18.10 x 13 meters (ca. 60 x 43 feet), was carved between 203-211 CE and covered an entire wall inside the Templum Pacis in Rome. It depicted the groundplan of every architectural feature in the ancient city, from large public monuments to small shops, rooms, and even staircases”
There are available a little over 1000 fragments, many with few marks and some painting the rich historical story of the map.
To give an indication of the immensity of the effort, some more from the site, “The Severan Marble Plan is a key resource for the study of ancient Rome, but only 10-15% of the map survives, broken into 1,186 pieces. For centuries, scholars have tried to match the fragments and reconstruct this great puzzle, but progress is slow–the marble pieces are heavy, unwieldy, and not easily accessible. Now, computer scientists and archaeologists at Stanford are employing digital technologies to try to reconstruct the map.”
The concept of indeterminacy is built into any study of hydrology, whether contemporary or historical. Rivers, creeks, streams are in constant, dynamic flux with varying levels of human influence from relatively pristine to the buried, channeled and culverted forms that are often our focus on this site. The term, obviously means ‘not determinate’, but elaborating somewhat in simple terms via Webster, is “not precisely fixed in extent; indefinite; uncertain” or via the OED “Not exactly known, established, or defined“.
The idea of looking at historical maps to unlock the stories embedded is further complicated by this variation of time, as maps represent a fixed point in time but are not a specific known entity. This happens in many cycles, including daily, tidal, and also seasonal variations, but over time, this accumulated energy creates meanders that snake across the floodplains driven only by hydraulic rules and adjacent land characteristics. Less dynamic rivers or streams may maintain fidelity over time, while highly dynamic streams can move.
There have been some interesting aerial versions of stream change via the recently launched Google Timelapse, however, my go-to for visualizing indeterminate river are the Harold N. Fisk’s 1944 study of Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River. Fisk was a Professor of Geology at Louisiana State University. Known as the Fisk Maps, these made the rounds of landscapeandmappingblogs over the past decade, blowing people away with both their complexity and artistry.
The ability to use two-dimensional graphic techniques to represent temporal change is the subject of much discussion in visualization and landscape urbanism circles, to name a few, and these maps are often held up as positive examples of showing dynamic processes. A wealth of information is found on the US Army Corps of Engineers’ site for the Lower Mississippi Valley Engineering Geology Mapping Program including the full report, large format. [Note: these files are large so I’m not directly linking to the zip files direct – so follow the link above]
The expanse of the Lower Mississippi alluvial valley drainage shows how much movement the river on it’s 600 mile journey through the Central Gulf Coastal Plan from southern Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico a massive delta landscape that has been massively altered by natural and human processes for decades, showing that even with our technological advances, the river often still doesn’t obey our wishes. [Aside: For some great reading on this, check out McPhee’s ‘The Control of Nature’, one of the best on the topic]
The idea of dynamism is key and the study of this change over time offers an interesting dilemma. The ever changing paths of meanders are able to be mapped in modern times, but previous paths require understanding geologic cues to trace that which had not been mapped. The black and white maps show the overlay of dashed meanders with aerial photography, which in the mid 1940s, was not new, but was still a relatively nascent planning technology, albeit rapidly expanding due to advances in World War II. It will be interested now with accessible tools like Google Earth and the constant documentation of detailed aerial and satellite imagery to see how a study like this would be done today. This map below is one of the figures in Fisk’s report, showing dramatic changes of a section of the river at a historic ‘Diversion Point’
The main report has predominately black-and-white imagery, probably due to reproduction costs in the 40s, but they still hold up. Any who has read a geotechnical report knows many of the techniques for representation of borings and soil strata know they can sometimes be a bit try and technical. This report is somewhat dense (and to be honest I’ve only skimmed some parts) but the visuals are so compelling.
Large, multi-page pull outs of regional geologic sections remind me of the early figures of von Humboldt, which contrary to more modern interpretations had a certain life to them.
Even the meander diagrams (in this case showing uses of clay plugs to control river bend migrations) are pretty cool in black and white.
Similarly, detail diagrams of braided stream topography and floodplain deposition are works of art, while also attempting to communicate immense amounts of technical information.
My hidden gem here is this graphic table of Geologic Time which traces Eras base a billion years and overlays the idea of big time with the relative amount of our recent human history. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this reproduced in modern geotech reports, or somewhere, but there’s something about serious report containing imagery of cave-people and dinosaurs to put the breadth of time in perspective.
Anyone who’s attempted to communicate using black and white figures knows they are tough to pull off graphically. The above examples show that there’s a lot of information that can be conveyed in simple linework and that it doesn’t need to feel static. That said, the beauty of the Fisk maps are the dynamic color plates, easily highlighting change and dynamic processes. A representive full map below shows the interplay of linework, hatching and color to bring the technical information to life.
A close up of a different map, showing the immense amount of information in meanders, oxbows, eddies, and the extensive floodplain of this massive river system.
The legend shows the color coding scheme based on when the rivers were mapped (solid) and those dervied from clues via aerial photograph analysis (hatches).
The entirety of the set of meander maps (that were rectified) has been stitched together – and is sort of incredible, via a Nerdist post from 2014. I’d love to print out these full size and display somewhere.
These meander maps are a next iteration of earlier mapping, derived from a series of Stream Channel maps from 1939 (also available via the LMV Mapping page) that show the most recent survey work (when I say recent I mean 1700s to early 1900s. It’s still impressive (and a bit simplified) to see the amount of channel change. Not sure if Fisk was involved in these maps, as they predated his involvement in the final report, but there’s similarities in graphic style and content.
While the maps of the meanders get much of press, I’m also a big fan of the Stream Courses (these are also part of the Fisk report, downloadable as plates via LMV Mapping page) which are larger maps showing multiple, color-coded maps of stream change over the past 2-3000 years. One of the maps below shows a section of the main step and remainder of the valley.
The key gives some idea of the way time is juxtaposed spatially on the map.
You can pinpoint the specific stream courses and alluvium in an enlargement, telling another complex story of river movement.
The reports and links abound with interesting information, such as the Entrenched Valley System, which delineates a dendritic network which contains the main channels and tributaries of the Lower Mississippi basin. This visual technique is somewhat more topographic, hinting at the tracery of valley to upland and basin shape that would be visible, and perhaps offered some resistance to channel migration over time.
This entrenched valley structure is shown in larger context, as the main stem outfall potentially being directed towards a real hidden river – a “submarine canyon” in the Gulf of Mexico. I’d be curious if that is the actual hydrology based on our current knowledge, but I’d not thought of subsurface hydrological flow influencing river systems (although in retrospect it makes perfect sense).
Some other interesting maps that tie in basin and river specific info are accessed via main LMV Mapping page. These show geological investigations and Alluvial Deposits throughout all of the basins. Clicking on a basin will get you to specific 15 minute quadrangle maps, selectable within the study area.
The maps show distribution of alluvial deposits, which is less about channelization than the overall reach of the floodplain hydrology. The difference between low-lying Baton Rouge, for instance with a wide flat deposits.
… contrasted with a more northern location, Caruthersville, Missouri which shows a long series of bends and oxbows left over time.
I also love the annotated sections showing strata via geological investigation, in this figure for Caruthersville highlighting predominate soil types.
As mentioned, the idea of indeterminacy is writ large in the study of hidden hydrology as it connects historical ecology to the modern metropolis. History is a series of touchstones over time, and the information we have is always incomplete, requiring us to interpret the data points we have and make inferences to that which exists in the gaps of knowledge. If we are to use the historical maps and sources we must understand this process (and perils and pitfalls) and be respectful of what we know and that which we can never know. Indeterminacy, as with life, is the heart of these explorations.
The work of Fisk on these maps is also a great example of looking back in time at a dynamic system and unlocking the story in visual terms. The visualization challenges can be addressed in a number of ways, and technologies of visualization exist today that our predecessors didn’t have, but also show that we don’t need to rely on too much technology to tell a vibrant story – a pen and paper, perhaps some color, as proven above, can tell many tales.
A diversion from the explorations of precedents of cities, we turn to Swimming To Heaven: London’s Lost Rivers by Iain Sinclair the “british writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist” I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised, as was one of those singular experiences that transcends disciplinary boundaries of urbanist, historical, literary, and hydrological worlds. While the topics is Lost Rivers and exploration of the urban, the meditations on water and experience inform a larger connection with place, history, and language akin to what I reference in the title as ‘Poetics’.
Sinclair starts to explain the motivation early:
“Walking over or alongside the buried rivers of London stitches a form of collective memory in our sides.” (3)
Mentioning a continuing fascination and obsession with the water, Sinclair points out early on where the book derived from. “My neurosis persists: the only ways worth negotiating with this world, while still hoping to connect with the rhythms of the cosmos, are by walking and swimming. Which brings me to the haunting complexity of London’s buried rivers. They’re not lost, not at all. Just because you can’t see a thing, as Ed Dorn points out, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. The rivers continue, hidden and culverted as they might be, to flow through our dreams, fixing the compass of our moods and movements. The Walbrook, the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Westbourne, the Effra, the Neckinger: visible or invisible, they haunt us.” (5)
A previous book by Sinclair (which I have not read) is a meditation on his home place, captured in detail in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, which referenced again in Lost Rivers, when he mentions,“Hackney, before the coming of the canals and railways, was quite a desirable suburb” (14) and “…all these blessings derived from the existence of a founding river, the Hackney Brook. Now bricked over, made into a sewer, lost to us.” (15)
Sinclair connects this to the lost rivers, “It is not possible to understand the growth and development of Hackney, for example, without registering the presence of that subterranean river, the Hackney Brook” (5-6)
Hackney Brook as lost river thus becomes the inspiration, per Sinclair. “I think we should first of all take on the conceit of the ‘lost’ river as being applicable to the whole of London. How do we define a lost river? Are these simply rivers that have become degraded by exploitation, the excesses of mechanical industry? They are present, certainly, their names coded into the streets, but you’d hardly know that they’re there. Or are we talking about rivers that have disappeared — been culverted — and I think that’s more like it. I the mid-nineteenth century, there was a moment when many inconvenient tributaries were culverted, because we needed to introduce, by way of the civil engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a very effective sewerage system. A circuit of London’s waste to be washed away, purified, dumped into the Thames.” (15-16)
Sinclair laments the path that led to the burial of streams like Hackney Brook, or others throughout London. “The old rivers, with their intensely local benefits and pastoral memory traces, were also deemed anachronistic. Either rivers were of use, for transport or water power, or they were hidden, as carriers of disease and conduits of filth and waste.” Seen as progress, “…a sewage system was a proud Victorian boast of progress, contrived to lift the citizens of this powerful imperial metropolis away from the fetid stinks and oozes of the earlier, louder and stickier city of collisions.” (16) His rivers lost to this modernization, are the “…rivers of memory, of inspiration” (7) and thus derive from the idea that “certain areas of the city have their individual sense of time”. (13) While Hackney Brook is the local place for Sinclair, he posits that “…the most mythologized of London’s lost rivers is the Fleet.” (16)
This is seen throughout history, beginning with Wren’s concept for London post-fire in 1666 could have transformed the city differently, utilizing the River Fleet (now buried) as a Venetian canal.
From another post from Chris Haile expands with an explanation of the plan in more detail: “From the remaining part of Fleet Street which escaped the fire about St. Dunstan’s Church a straight and wide street crosses the valley passing by the south side of Ludgate, and thence in a direct line through the whole City terminating at Tower Hill, but before it descends into the Valley where the Great Sewer [the Fleet, a tributary of the Thames] runs… Passing forward we cross the valley, once sullied with an offensive sewer now beautified with a useful canal, with wharves on each side, passable by as many bridges as streets that cross it.” (from Haile 2/1/14)
Sinclair meditates on this plan – and the brief moment before the opportunity was lost. “There was that moment when Christopher Wren felt that he could initiate, with a revamp of the Fleet, a new Venice, right at the river’s mouth, close to St Paul’s Cathedral: a shining rational city of domes and bridges and splendid public works…. Wren didn’t have CGI futurism as a tool, ersatz utopianism, but he did have drawings that suggested Fleet-as-Venice would be a wonder of the age. Except that every soon, and inevitably, the river was a ditch, a sewage creek crusted with dead dogs.” (22-23) The dichotomy of river as urban canal versus the reality of river as sewer is perhaps the dominant theme of lost rivers, culminating in the Great Stink and the Victorian modernization of municipal sewers, which has Sinclair adds, had the result that finally, “the river was enclosed, sealed over, lost.” (23)
Sinclair also evokes a number of literary figures in the book, asking “What is this affinity of London visionaries, writers and mystics, with living water?”. (7) This includes William Blake, who “…lived close to the Thames, tracking the River Fleet to Hampstead, to visit the Linnells, Blake is making a return to the source. He is swimming uphill, absorbing the potency of a partly submerged stream; one of the arteries of his city. There is a very particular sense of London and its geography. And underlying all of this are torrential lines of verse in the great epic poems and wild waters of inspiration surging, stalling, tumbling over weirs and falls.” (6-7)
Another poet inspired by the Fleet is Aiden Andrew Dun author of the long poem Vale Royal“…registers the accretions of fable associated with what he calls the ‘River of Wells’. Dun tracks the fleet from the seven springs of Kenwood, through Camden Town to Kings Cross. He speaks of a river famous ‘for healing and medicinal waters’.” tapping the deep vein of “…meaning and mythology of the Fleet. In practical terms, he leads walks that he calls ‘river pilgrimages’ through the historic traces of the submerged stream.” (17)
Dun “remind us that the Fleet ‘still runs under Kings Cross today’… ‘As late as the mid-nineteenth century’, he says, ‘it ran on the surface through a green and pleasant land. But south of the Euston Road at this period it was already bricked-over and buried’.” (33)
From Vale Royal:
Kings Cross, dense with angels and
histories / there are cities beneath your
pavements / cities behind your skies. Let
me see! (34)
Building on the work of Dun and Blake, Sinclair continues to delve into literary ruminations on the lost rivers. He mentions that “Text, under the influence of buried rivers, becomes porous.”(30) which is true of London poets Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher both of whom “…treat our lost rivers. Both of them track South London streams, in the thick of local particulars, towards and erased history, to emerge in the contemporary world of political opportunism, civic discord.” (37)
Anecdotes abound as well, with diversions on the subterranean sewers in The Third Man, which was set in Vienna where we picture Orson Welles – “flapping overcoat running through picturesque sewers. Welles was not ever keen on going down into the tunnels, so they ended up recording sound effects under London: in the Fleet.” (23)
And a special one I’d love to look at closer, the Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead (Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism) by Thomas Boyle, which “The stream rushes on, now under the pavements, slaughterhouses, prisons, book stalls, down the valley of the Fleet, towards myths of albino hogs in the sludge of dripping subterranean spaces… Legends of animals, escaped from Smithfield, feeding on refuse, living in darkness… It has been said that… Hampstead sewers shelter a monstrous breed of black swine.” (35-36)
The literary and the sensational intersect in the sewers and buried rivers of cities, something that is unlike other books on Lost Rivers that take the approach of tour guide, ecological investigator, or historian. Sinclair: “However contradictory your approach to writing about the city, whether you’re a modernist using conceptual methods of research, combined with walking, bus trips, photography, painting, or whether you’re a traditional poet obedient to strict form, rivers infiltrate your projections as memory strips or teasing songlines.” (39-40)
The dialogue is critical without being overly environmental or sentimental. In his discussions, there are moments when the impact of buried rivers sometimes comes to the surface of the writing.
“When rivers lose their status, spiritually and materially, the land is drained of value.” (52-53)
The loss of value becomes transactional, “Hidden rivers are part of an attempt to found a celestial city above the degraded particulars of the nexus of business and banking.” (25) The cost below for another type of city seen above, the “subterranean streams brooding beneath speculative developments in the new suburbs of the west.” (62-63)
This is where we enter the poetics of Lost Rivers, the book a lovely and dichotomous metaphor of the above and below ground city – the old and the new, that looks at loss yielding “…this vision of hybrid London, rus in urbe, snaking away to source, beyond the reservoirs, parks, spring pools…” (49) while also connecting to “London’s plural nature: city within city, upside-down topography, rivers flowing under the ground, heaven inside the ball of earth.” (37)
Unless noted, all quotes from: Sinclair, Iain. Swimming to Heaven: The Lost Rivers of London. London: The Swedenborg Society, 2013.