A follow-up to the previous post allows for a bit more expansion on the fundamental sources for New York City.  This includes the Welikia Project and it’s beginnings as Mannahatta, as well as the comprehensive book by Sergey Kadinsky on the Hidden Waters of New York City.  We delved deep with Steve Duncan’s sewer explorations and blog Watercourses and Undercity,  Together these make up a solid fundamental base of hidden hydrology work in New York City.  This also complements some of the projects I’ve covered, including the project Calling Thunder, which evoked the power of historical ecology via animation, the explorations around hidden infrastructure of photographer Stanley Greenberg, and some of the walks and installations focused on hidden streams with artist Stacey Levy.

That said, there’s still much more, so a postscript is in order to provide a bit of additional context to even claim to be a passable (although not even close to comprehensive) review of some of the city, with a focus on including some tours, art, history, and more.

SOME TOURS

One aspect of any place is explorations, and there is no shortage of tours around hydrology in New York City.  The group NYC H2O is a great resource for this, with a mission “…to inspire and educate New Yorkers of all ages to learn about, enjoy and protect their city’s local water ecology.”  They’ve hosted some great events in the past year alone, including tours with Steve Duncan, Sergey Kadinsky, and artist Stacey Levy as well as many others. City as a Living Laboratory (evolved out of the work of artist Mary Miss) also provides some great events, include walks, such as this one exploring the past and future of Tibbetts Brook with Eric Sanderson and others.

There are some less formal characters as well, like local activist Mitch Waxman, featured here in a NY Times article from June 2012, “Your Guide to a Tour of Decay”.  The article shows how he discovers, teaches and advocates about the hidden history of Newtown Creek in Queens, where, as quoted in the article: ““You have these buried secrets,” he said, explaining the thinking behind the occult conceit. He’s spotted early-19th-century terra-cotta pipes protruding from bulkheads, antique masonry sewers connected to who knows what. He added: “There really is no telling what’s in the ground there.”

And, for a somewhat related example, there’s always the amazing precedent of Safari 7, a self-guided subway based audio tour and map that highlighted “…urban wildlife along New York City’s 7 subway line”.  A map of the guide is found below.

SOME ART

In terms of some hidden hydrology based art installations, there are many that span permanent to ephemeral.  In the site specific realm, is Collect Pond Park, which was located in Manhattan historically as “…a large, sixty-foot deep pool fed by an underground spring” that was filled in the early 1800s.  A post here by Kadinsky & Kevin Walsh on Forgotten New York discusses the project and includes this rendering that highlights the interpretation of previous pond in the design of the new park. This includes a “…footbridge spanning the pond’s waist hearkens to the original pond’s shape, providing a historical link to a pond that has had such a huge role in the city’s history, before and after its burial.”

Another site is a fountain at Albert Capsouto Park, which references some hidden hydrology. From the Parks website:  “The centerpiece of Capsouto Park is a 114-foot long sculptural fountain by SoHo artist Elyn Zimmerman. This fountain bisects the interior space. Water spills from an 8-foot tower into a series of stepped “locks” evoking the canal that once flowed along the Canal Street. A sunning lawn rises up to meet the fountain from the south and granite seat walls adorn the fountain to the north.”

Capsouto Park Water Feature, 2009 – Elyn Zimmerman & Gail Wittwer-Laird

We discussed previously some of the hidden hydrology art of Stacey Levy, which was the tip of the iceberg of vibrant art scene in NYC interpreting hydrology as the medium.  One larger effort worth noting is Works on Water, which is “…an organization and triennial exhibition dedicated to artworks, theatrical performances, conversations, workshops and site-specific experiences that explore diverse artistic investigation of water in the urban environment.”  Their mission statement by the team sums up the potential:

“New York City has 520 miles of coastline. Its waterways are often referred to as “The Sixth Borough”. We are artists and curators dedicated to working with water to bring new awareness to the public of the issues and conditions that impact their environment through art.”

The sum of work there is worthy of it’s own future post.  In the interim, a few of the key contributors to Works on Water have their own complementary endeavors, such as Liquid City, a water based project by artist Eve Mosher, a self proclaimed “…water geek, urban enthusiast and playworker in training”, whom is “…fascinated by our waterways, the space they inhabit the roles they play in our daily life and finding ways to create a greater engagement across disciplines and a greater awareness in the public narrative.”

Liquid City: Currents (Eve Mosher)

Her project aims to be the following  “1. A research database of collected resources and video stories of people working on the urban waterways. An open source compendium for creative inspiration,  2. An interdisciplinary floating think tank/lab working on creative interventions about the urban waterways, and 3. A traveling think tank/lab sharing resources, traveling the Great Loop’s urban waterways.”   A fascinating work on her site is the Waterways System Map below (click the link for the fully interactive version) which involves “mapping the existing system of the waterways” in extraordinary detail.

Below is another of Mosher’s project, from  exhibit: “As part of Works on Water, I collaborated with Clarinda Mac Low to create a large scale floor painting of the NY waterways. Intended to ground people in the specific site of water as material within the exhibition, the waterways acted as a guide into the exhibition space.  Overlaid on the waterways was a video in which I represented the historic waterways and Clarinda imagined the future…”

A different project led by Kira Appelhans, adjunct assistant professor, Integrated Design Curriculum, Parsons The New School and Richard Karty, postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Studies, from 2011 is entitled Waterlogged. The endeavor “…explores the process of mark-making in the landscape from glacial to hydrologic to human.  We will examine the existence of remnant waterways and their relationship to the city’s organizational patterns and forms.   Using printmaking, restoration ecology, public space design we will explore the ecological impact of the intersection of historic waterways and urban infrastructure.”  The diverse artworks are captured in a video as well as a booklet ‘Remnant Waterways‘ (pdf) which showcases the work of students, including prints inspired by buried streams.

Iteration 3 – Eve Neves
Print by Mikaela Kvan

In the realm of photography, the work of Stanley Greenberg and Steve Duncan show two sides of underground New York City, and photographer Nathan Kensinger, who investigates “The Abandoned & Industrial Edges of New York City” shows a third.  He has an ongoing series entitled “New York’s Forgotten Rivers” where he has been documenting “New York City’s last remaining aboveground rivers and streams, in all five boroughs.”  An image below shows one of these photos.

Another recent exhibition “To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: The Croton Aqueduct at 175” that just completed it’s run at the Museum of the City of New York, offers a similar theme, with the tag line: “Uncover the hidden history of New York’s original water source, buried beneath the city”, it features “…newly commissioned photographs by Nathan Kensinger, tracing the aqueduct’s route and revisiting sights that Tower had sketched nearly two centuries before.”

Shifting from the visual to the literary, I previous mentioned the great Robert Frost poem covered in Hidden Waters blog, focused on Minetta Creek.  Another literary reference worth a look is this 1998 poem by Jim Lampos “Gowanus Canal” about the partially hidden and very polluted waterway in Brooklyn.  The whole thing is worth a perusal in detail, but I was struck by this passage, which evokes some of the history of place so acutely:

“I’ve come with a notion 
Old Gowanus, to recollect 
the splinters of dreams 
and severed fingers 
you’ve tucked away, 
the stolen pistols 
and sunken treasures 
you’ve saved 
the piss, tears 
dreams and sweat 
you’ve claimed. 
Recollect–shitty Canal 
stinking to the heavens– 
that you were once a river 
and hills rose from both 
your banks.  Brooklyn Heights 
nourished you as it returned 
your borrowed waters sweetened 
with the blood of revolution. 
A city was built 
all around you– 
a city of pizza parlors, churches and 
Whitman.  A city of pigeons, 
ice factories and hit men.”

SOME HISTORY

Tons of possibilities to cover in the history genre, as New York City has a million stories, In picking a few, I decided to focus on the ones that rose to the top due to their sheer uniqueness.  The one that was amazing to read about comes via Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG, referencing a complicated series of posts about Fishing in the Basements of Manhattan that goes back to the NY Times blog ‘The Empire Zone’ and eventually a post link to a comment from 1971 Letter to the Editor, which mentions this potentially tall tale:

“”…We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.  With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.  One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.  Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother…”

Going way back, a few folks referenced what seems an interesting resource, “Springs and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx, New York City: At the End of the Nineteenth Century” by James Reuel Smith, in 1938, in which “…he reflects on the rapidly changing city and on the practical and aesthetic pleasures offered by the remaining springs: “In the days, not so very long ago, when nearly all the railroad mileage of the metropolis was to be found on the lower half of the Island, nothing was more cheering to the thirsty city tourist afoot or awheel than to discover a natural spring of clear cold water, and nothing quite so refreshing as a draught of it.” 

A photographer as well (see more in this collection “Photographs of New York City and Beyond” , his images are great documents of these sites which I’d imagine are mostly gone, although recently noted is a new discovery of a well in Brooklyn that dates back to the Revolutionary War era.

James Reuel Smith. Unidentified woman drinking at Carman Spring, on W. 175th Street east of Amsterdam Avenue, New York City. undated [c. 1897-1902]. Glass plate negative. New-York Historical Society.

Some more recent books note I’d love to delve into include the recent “Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City” by Catherine McNeuer (2014), Gotham Unbound: An Ecological History of Greater New York,  (Steinberg 2015) and Water for Gotham: A History. (Koeppel, 2000) all of which paint a portrait of historical ecology that complements the inquiry of hidden hydrology.

Other short reads include Thomas J. Campanella’s essay in Terrain.org, “The Lost Creek”, and a great article connecting west to east worth from Nathan Kensinger, “What Can NYC Learn from San Francisco’s Last Wild Creeks?” where he looks at Islais Creek (and of course includes some amazing photos) as a model for how aboveground creeks can be a model.  He summarizes: “Flowing through an increasingly gentrified city,…this historic stream offers up a refreshingly untamed landscape. Though it travels just five miles from its headwaters in Glen Canyon to its mouth in the San Francisco Bay, and is bisected by a three mile underground segment, Islais Creek provides critical support to two radically different natural environments, both of which are currently undergoing extensive renovations. It also illustrates several approaches to urban planning that are unfamiliar to most New York City waterways.”

Islais Creek – photo by Nathan Kensiger, via Curbed NY

SOME MISCELLANY

With any discussion of hidden hydrology, the concept of daylighting always emerges as certain projects seem to lend themselves to this approach.  A presentation by Steve Duncan is worth a read as it covers this topic in depth, and the project with the most traction is Tibbets Brook, in the Bronx.  Located in Van Cortland Park, the daylighting push garnered a fair amount of press (here, here) and also a petition, with a detailed coverage in Untapped Cities from 2016 which shows an image from a report “Daylight Tibbetts Brook” (PDF file – from Siteation).  A figure from the report shown below identifies a potential route of the daylighted creek.

Before and After views of daylighted creek

Another final item worth discussing, albeit removed from hidden hydrology explcitly, is the image of climate change on the city.  We cover this in the context of modern New York via Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140, which imagines a flooded, post-catastrophe New York with, a narrative of New York as a “SuperVenice”, rife with political upheaval, class warfare, and and salvage operations referencing historic maps — setting the stage for a new geography that is equally fantastical and plausible.  As mentioned in the New Yorker:

“Another narrator—a nameless urban historian—tells the story of New York from a bohemian point of view. America’s boring losers all moved to Denver, he says, and so the cool kids took over the coasts. “Squatters. The dispossessed. The water rats. Denizens of the deep, citizens of the shallows.” The abandoned city becomes an experimental zone—a place where social innovation (“submarine technoculture,” “art-not-work,” “amphibiguity”) flourishes alongside “free open universities, free trade schools, and free art schools. Not uncommonly all of these experiences were being pursued in the very same building. Lower Manhattan became a veritable hotbed of theory and practice, like it always used to say it was, but this time for real. . . . Possibly New York had never yet been this interesting.”

The connections between this fictionalization and the changing climate that could lead to more frequent flood events, seems a timely connection between history (past) and what it means now and into our our future.  The story told by Robinson may be a bit lacking in places, but the details and context is compelling.

The vision of a flooded city in “New York 2140,” a science-fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, is surprisingly utopian. via New Yorker

As you can see, there are literally hundreds of links for particular creeks, art, history, explorations, tours, and other discussions around New York City.  My original goal was to also include maps in this post, but as you can see it’s already bursting at the seams, so I will conclude New York with one additional post focused on the cartographic as to not overwhelm.


HEADER:  Bronx River, image by Nathan Kensinger as part of his New York’s Forgotten Rivers series.

As I mentioned, New York City and the larger metropolitan region is an important case study in hidden hydrology, with a range of interesting activities spanning urban ecology, history, open space, art, subterranean exploration, and much more.  As a city with a long and vibrant history it’s not surprising that the story of water would be equally compelling.  The following few posts will expand on some of the key activities that shape the hidden hydrology of the city.

Times Square then and now: the area featured a red-maple swamp frequented by beavers, wood ducks, and elk. – via the New Yorker

Almost a decade or so ago, I read this story in the New Yorker about Henry Hudson, the year 1609, a map, and an effort by a group of people, including ecologist Eric Sanderson, to research and visualize the historical ecology of New York City. I posted this  and posted it to my blog Landscape+Urbanism.  This was one of the catalysts, and I’ve discussed this project in the past as one the key Origin Stories around my personal interest in Hidden Hydrology.

Mannahatta Map – via NYC 99 ORG

The publication of the ideas with the publication of the Mannahatta book (originally out in 2009 and with new printing in 2013) and this broader work by Eric Sanderson (and his very well loved TED Talk) and crew on visualizing and creating rich data landscapes for Manhattan and the larger region is constantly compelling, and the shift to a broader scope under the name The Welikia Project in 2010 was really exciting to see.

The Welikia Project expands the  provides a rich and well documented study of the historical and ecological study of New York City dating back over 400 years and inclusive of a range of interpretation from art, ecology, and design.  The overview of Welikia here provides a much longer and more complete synopsis of the project, but I’ll pick some of the interesting ideas I think are worth of discussion in information larger ideas about hidden hydrology.

The main page offers a range of options that the project provides.  Per the overview page, “The Welikia Project (2010 – 2013) goes beyond Mannahatta to encompass the entire city, discover its original ecology and compare it what we have today…  The Welikia Project embraces the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the waters in-between, while still serving up all we have learned about Mannahatta.  Welikia provides the basis for all the people of New York to appreciate, conserve and re-invigorate the natural heritage of their city not matter which borough they live in.”

Tools include some downloads include curriculum for teachers to use, and some publications and data also available which would be fun to explore more.  A few notable bits of info worth exploration is this page “How to Build a Forgotten Landscape from the Ground Up”, which is a nice overview of the methodology used by the Welikia team, and provides a nice blueprint for organization of data that is transferable to any locale.

The original historical 1782 British Headquarters map was the genesis of any number of overlays that, once digitized into GIS, provided a historic base to layer additional information from other sources, along with inferences by professional ecologists and other members of the team.  These were also able to be georeferenced, which allows for the overlay of historic to modern geography, which becomes the basis for some of the larger interactive mapping we’ll see a bit later.  A map series from the Welikia site demonstrates the layering and aggregation possible.

1782 British Headquarters Map
Elevation differences from 1609 to today
Digital Elevation Model
Ecological communities

The concept of Muir Webs was also a fascinating part of the original Mannahatta book, so you can learn more about this on the page and via this presentation “On Muir Webs and Mannahatta: Ecological Networks in the Service of New York City’s Historical Ecology”

This Muir Web shows all the habitat relationships for all the species on Mannahatta. Visualization by Chris Harrison of Carnegie-Mellon University. ©WCS

Welikia Map Explorer – Lots of interesting background that I’ve literally barely scratched the surface of.  As I mentioned, the beauty of Mannahatta was the visualization of the historic surface, and through mapping with georeferenced location, provided an easy opportunity to create overlay maps of historic and modern.  The key part of this project is the Welikia Map Explorer, which offers a simple interface that can unlock tons of information.  Starting out, you have a full panned out view of the 1609 map visualization for Manhattan.

By selecting an address or zooming, you can isolate locations or just navigate.  It’s got that same video game quality I mentioned in my recent post about the DC Water Atlas, with some exploratory zooming and flying around the landscape looking at the creeks, wetlands and other area, you half expect to click and launch some next part of a non-linear exploration game.   The detail is amazing, and the juxtaposition between the very urban metropolis of New York City with this lush, pre-development landscape is striking both in plan, as well as some of the 3D renderings above.

You can then select any block and it will pop up a box that allows you to access lots of data underneath on a smaller level.

The interface provides layers of site specific data, and breaks down items like Wildlife, potential presence of Lenape (original native inhabitants, and Landscape Metrics. “Welcome to a wild place: this block in 1609! Through the tabs below, discover the wildlife, Native American use, and landscape factors of this block’s original ecology, as reconstructed by the Mannahatta Project. You can also explore the block today and sponsor the Mannahatta Project into the future.”

The Modern Day tab relates back to OASIS maps of the modern condition, making the connection of specific places easy to discern. “Landscapes never disappear, they just change. Click on the image below to see this block today through the New York City Open Accessible Space Information System (OASIS) and learn about open space and other contemporary environmental resources.”

For the beautiful simplicity of the map, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is dense with real data and models that attempt to provide a real viewpoint to what each parcel was like 400+ years in the past.  We discuss baseline conditions much in design, stormwater, ecology and habitat studies, and this level of evidence-based, site scale data is so important to decisonmaking not just in terms of former waterways, but in restoration and management of spaces.  This is summed up on the site:

“An important part of the Mannahatta Project is not leaving ecology in the past, but to appreciate it in our current times, to see how we can live in ways that are compatible with wildlife and wild places and that will sustain people and planet Earth for the next 400 years.”

Visonmaker.NYC – Of the more recent expansions of this is the creation of Visionmaker NYC, which “allows the public to develop and share climate-resilient and sustainable designs for Manhattan based on rapid model estimates of the water cycle, carbon cycle, biodiversity and population. Users can vary the ecosystems, lifestyles, and climate of the city in an effort to find and publish sustainable and resilient visions of the city of the future.”

Worthy of a full post on it’s own, the idea is to emphasize the link between the Mannahatta era of 1609, the current era four centuries later, around 2009, and a future world into the future another 400 years in 2049.  This gives a great opportunity to create a key linkages between historical work, current scenarios, and future conditions.

As they mention: “A vision is a representation of a part of New York City as you envison it. You select an area and can change the ecosystems – buildings, streets, and natural environments – as well as the climate and the lifestyle choices that people living in that area make.” and you can also view other published visions done by users of all ages.  The interface is similar to Welikia, as it allows an overlay of layers with varying transparency for comparison.

More on this as I dive in a bit, but you can also watch a more recent 2013 TEDxLongIslandCity video shows this tool in more detail:

The mapmaking is of course pretty awesome, and they keep posting new visualizations and updates, such as this 1609 topo map, posted via Twitter via @welikiaproject on the “Preurban (year 1609) topography and elevation of

There was also some great local quirky info, such as this map and historic photo showing perhaps the strangest remnant geological remnant in a city I’ve seen.  Via Twitter from December 2016, “29 Dec 2016  “Rocky outcrops in NYC, were mostly concentrated in Manhattan and the Bronx and composed of schist and gneiss.”

You can and should also follow Sanderson via @ewsanderson , continuing his work at the Wildlife Conservation Society and to see him giving talks and tours around the City.  A recent one mentioned that “After seven years of effort, he will share for the first time the digital elevation model of the pre-development topography his team has built, discuss why the climate and geology of the city together make our landscape conducive to streams and springs, give a borough by borough tour of ancient watersheds, and suggest how we can bring living water back to the stony city again.” 

Sounds great, and I wish sometimes to be a bit closer to be able to experience this around these parts.  Continuing to inspire beyond Mannahatta to the broader Welikia Project, Sanderson and all the crew that make it a reality is a great example anywhere in the world of what’s possible in tracing the threads between history and contemporary environmental issues.  If someone today gave me a chunk of money and said do this for Portland or Seattle or both (and honestly folks, we really should) I’d jump on it in a second.

A brief aside to contemplate the concept of hidden hydrology, both as a subject of study and as an agent for change.  While I’ve been inspired by the concept for some time, I’ve only recently tried to formalize this, collecting information and starting this blog in September 2016.  Call it my doctorate in Urban Studies that I never finished, happening over the web, with little to no outside supervision, mostly in my free time from 10pm to the early hours of the morning.

I get mixed reactions when I mention the project, spanning a sort of incredulous ‘Why?’ to an excited “Wow!” with all variations in between. This concept is indicative of the root of my own journey and sometimes my struggle, being simultaneously inspired while trying to figure out what to do with information.  On one hand, is just endlessly fascinating (others would agree), and my information gathering, generalist nature wants to find every detail there is to find. And while having an extensive collection of notes, images, maps and resources on my computer is satisfying in a way,  it does lack a certain sense of purpose.  On the other hand there’s sort of a perceptual disconnect with why any of this matters amidst the plethora of contemporary issues, and my productive landscape architect, designer, urbanist, cartogaphic, activist & ecological nature wants to connect this historical ecology to the greater issues of regenerative strategies of place.

Thus the tagline I originally came up with is a shorthand for both a duality that hints at both potentials, and I think still inspiring:

Exploring lost rivers, buried creeks & disappeared streams. Connecting historic ecology + the modern metropolis.

Sometimes it just takes a while to figure out what an end game can look like, and you have to dive in and see where it takes you.  I’m calling this, in the spirit of hydrological study, the Meanders, as I’ve titled this post, and it’s been fun to see it played out in presentations, dialogue, and writing with not really a set purpose or goal.  I’ve had in my mind, beyond the blog, a book or series of books, perhaps which could be historical, design or urbanism or something spanning all.  Also I have toyed with the idea of online atlas, an exploratory video game, a series of historical images superimposed on modern scenes, art installations, tours, and much more.  I’m still working on the specifics of where it may lead, but realize it’s not one destination, but many.

At a foundational level the study will focus on Seattle and Portland, as a locus of study and between the two, a venue for comparative analysis and places I live and know well (and have easy regular access to).  While both are Pacific Northwest cities that were founded around the same time (1850s), their evolution and histories diverged much due to geography, topography, and hydrology, with Portland built around rivers and Seattle shaped as a city tied to the oceans and lakes.  Beyond this obvious dichotomy, there are a number of differences which will be part of, and perhaps fundamental to, the study.  One of which is notably politics, which tends to shape place as much or more than those ‘natural’ forces, played.  Maps of the two show the unique differences, and the ‘blank’ slate to be filled with oh, so much potential.

PORTLAND

SEATTLE

Thus the core will expand around these cities, and include a continual focus on Explorations, walking, recording, and connected with the experiences of what is gone and what still exists.  The goal is to walk/map/explore every hidden stream in each city, and use this along with mapping and history to provide a documentation of hidden hydrology.  While the focus will be on these two cities, there is so much information to bring from the wider base of knowledge that allows the analysis to be well informed.  Seeing the immense depth and breadth of information that exists and all the forms it can take (which hopefully you’ve seen in these posts), there are ample bends and side channels for us to navigate – but the focus on these two places allows for focus energy for generation specific to place.  This hopefully alleviates the danger of just continually searching and compiling information without acting.

In that vein, as precedents, in the past year, I’ve posted summaries of many cities focusing on hidden hydrology, including posts that study the inner workings of cities like Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia, San Francisco Bay Area, Rome, Vancouver, Toronto, as well as both Portland and Seattle. to varying degrees. These are the the dozen or so “core cities”, which, along with New York City and London you’ll see in a bit, which have the most fully expansive studies ongoing for hidden hydrology.  Each have activities and viewpoints that are specific to place, but all are tied together with connections between water, then and now.

Image of Rome – via Katherine Rinne, Aquae Urbis Romae

I’ve also touched on other areas around the globe, including Boston, Lexington, Munich, MontrealMexico City and Venice, and will continue to offer smaller snapshots of other communities, as there are literally hundreds of fascinating stories to tell.  These studies show a wide range of activities these projects take on, including art, tours, literature, advocacy, history, ecology and more, as well as the broad geographic reach of the concept of exploration, in its many forms, of hidden hydrology.

There will be many more posts to come come from all of this, but I wanted to add the two cities that have by far the most expansive and inspiring hidden hydrology efforts I’ve discovered to date: New York City and London.

New York City is one of the inspirations I’ve mentioned, with the Mannahatta project a lofty goal of mine to apply to my own home places, and the work done by others to document the hidden hydrology of the New York region is phenomenal.  I’m looking forward to sharing more of this.

Mannahatta Visualization

And London, perhaps more than any other city, has been so well documented in terms of hidden hydrology, with countless books, maps, ruminations, explorations and more, each with a unique viewpoint and much rich history to draw from.   Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to take multiple posts to sum this up with New York, as there’s a lot to cover.

A Balloon View of London, as seen from the north – via the British Library

Additionally, beyond continuing to document places as precedents, there are a bunch of fascinating topics which enrich these spatial stories, and also inform my own activities.  I’m constantly inspired by artists using hidden hydrology as a medium, so will continue to include more examples, both site specific, and including techniques around soundscapes.

Light Meander – River based sculpture in Nashville by Laura Haddad & Tom Drugan

The literary connections of historical waterways is worthy of discussion also, as another of the key inspirations come from both David James Duncan and Anne Whiston Spirn.  The connections to language and place names that span cultures, and a thorough acknowledgment of colonization and appropriation is an important aspect of any historical endeavor. Mapping as a subject is vital to this study, including historical ecology and methodologies for mapping that uses new technologies to connect old and new and display these connections in inspiring ways.

Rectangular world map from Fatimid treatise, Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes, copy of manuscript originally written in the first half of the 11th century

The ecological and the hydrological are at the root of rivers, creeks, streams and watershed, providing a context for understanding the past and the present in terms of something this is ever changing, blending soils, geology, climate, ecology and understanding of aquatic systems to infer the historic and investigate opportunities for historical baselines as a metric for regeneration.  This requires understanding the potential to restore, but also moving beyond ideas of daylighting as the only option we have, with a more nuanced and historically informed continuum which integrates, culture & art, ecology & habitat using design and science– restoring the key functions of urban streams in a form that evokes, mimics, and celebrates, but doesn’t rely on pure restoration for the original creeks.

Stories of place and process, maps and images, people and words, all aggregate, some sifting through and precipitating in eddies, others taken downstream by the force of the flow.  Then again, all this could change.  A meander overtopping its banks and connecting with another flow, carving out a new channel, or disconnecting and spinning idly in a lonely oxbow, driving via gravity in tension against rock, all the while creating life at its margins.  Not a bad metaphor for a creative process.

The flow may have some direction now, but the nature is still, always, to meander.

Week three of the Waterlines class featured Seattle writer and geologist David B. Williams.  Perhaps best known as the author of the recent ‘Too High and Too Steep’, a chronicle the large-scale manipulations (topographic and hydrologic, to name a few), Williams shared a more focused talk on his upcoming book Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal, which coincides with the Centennial of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks this year.  Following the course theme, and touching on some previous topics, the story encompasses the trials and tribulations to get the locks built, and the large-scale impacts that such endeavors have on the ecological and hydrological systems of Seattle.

David is an engaging storyteller, so he laid out the evolution of this significant part of Seattle’s history, touching on the geology (with the north south orientation how important the waterways were to getting around, especially, east-west movement), and the use for years by native people, who used the portage between Lake Washington to Lake Union, and then a quick connection to gain access to the ocean, and vice-versa, for the past 10,000 to 12,000 years, with stories of Kitsap Suquamish coming to Lake Washington because it was one of the largest freshwater lakes in the region.  The idea of a ship canal of some sort is as old as Seattle itself, first pitched by Thomas Mercer in 1854 and finally coming to fruition as a way to move coal, timber, and people, after many attempts 63 years later.  In fact there were multiple routes proposed and attempted with big Seattle names like the aforementioned Mercer, along with Burke, Denny, and Gilman, cutting through Smith Cove, routes across what is currently downtown, and one of the most absurd in Seattle’s history – the Semple Canal.  This map shows a number of these routes, and also the one natural, yet not very viable connection vai the Black River, which was mentioned in the previous post on Seattle archaeology as outlet from Lake Washington and would eventually fall victim to the draining of Lake Washington.

By Dennis Bratland – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

As mentioned, Semple’s Canal was perhaps the craziest scheme, wanting to slice through one of Seattle’s seven hills, Beacon Hill, which stands almost 350 feet tall.  Williams documents it on his blog in this post, with a couple of graphics showing the route and section cut (noting a maximum cut of a mere 284′-6″), highlighting the absurd notion of cutting a canal through a hill, although a good portion of the material removed from the canal before it was shut down was used to fill the Duwamish estuary into what is now industrial lands, and frankly, based on some of the other history, it would not have surprised me if this would have happened.

The eventual route of the Canal was landed on eventually towards the end of the 19th century, connecting to the Puget Sound through the existing Shilshole Bay and the eventual location of the locks, connecting through Salmon Bay, which was a fluctuating saltwater tide zone, connecting through the Fremont Cut to Lake Union, and the Montlake Cut connecting Portage Bay on the west with Union Bay and larger Lake Washington on the east.

The conditions prior to implementation show Salmon Bay connected to salt water, and involved slicing through Ross Creek and wetland zones between Salmon Bay and Lake Union, where a creek was feeding the Bay.  To the east the portage had become a narrow log flume at the narrowest point connecting Union Bay and Portage bay, completing the connection from lake to sea.

As mentioned, the eastern Montlake Cut was used as a log flume with a narrow channel (developed by Denny and others) connecting through Portage Bay, and a similar effort was made to connect through Ross Creek via what is now the the Fremont Cut.  A photo showing the area looking from Union Bay towards the west from Paul Dorpat’s blog showing the isthmus with Portage Bay in the distance prior to ship canal.  This area was sliced through with a log flume (seen on the 1894 map above) in the 1880s and at times through the early 1900s to move timber from inner areas to Seattle and beyond, setting the stage for the eventual connection.

A second image showing the narrow connection of the log sluice from 1886 that is seen on the 1894 map, one of the thin connections which eventually were expanded for free flow of goods and people across Seattle.  A dam at the upper end held Lake Washington above the level of Lake Union, and logs were dropped into this chute to float on the next leg of the journey.

While the connections seem logical, the elevations of each water body were different, with the level of Lake Union around +20, the level of Lake Washington at +29, and Salmon Bay elevation lower as it entered the Puget Sound, often not having standing water at times.  The process of building the locks set all of these elevations at the same as Lake Union, which raised Salmon Bay and made it a continuous fresh water bay, which is why it works as a place to over-winter fishing fleets as it is today (see Deadliest Catch) to keep boats out of salt water.  It also lowered Lake Washington, which as mentioned disconnected the lake from it’s natural outfall at the Black River to the south, replumbing the south area of Seattle while creating a whole lot of new lakefront land.  The completion of construction of the locks and the eventually breaching of the Montlake coffer dam (below) and the other coffer dams at the Fremont Cut, (after having to shore them up a few times), filled Salmon Bay with fresh water, and caused Lake Washington to drain down the 9 feet slowly over a few months

The locks, which opened to fanfare and massive 4th of July celebration in 1917, are fun to visit today to watch ships come in, go to the fish ladder, and see the activities.  According to Williams, these are the only government locks in the US that are crossable to the public (didn’t know that) and the main traffic, although peppered with an occasional working vessel to Portage bay, consists mostly of pleasure craft.  Also, while they did originally build a fish ladder, it didn’t work well (and was improved years later, which make a fun viewing opportunity).  Williams mentioned that fish tended to just get into the locks and ride up to travel upstream.  It’s an interesting resilience story that fish that were cut off from the Cedar River where they spawned when the Black River was disconnected, and instead of heading up the Duwamish/Black/Cedar to the south, would still be able to figure out how to get upstream via alternative routes via Shilshole miles north from their original spawning route. Talk about a well established navigation system.

The impacts for Seattle, much like the other massive changes, ended up having huge economic implications in positive ways, with the ability to tap into industrial lands for coal, timber, and shipbuilding, and some minor military use, along with what are mostly now marinas for pleasure craft today.  The fact that maritime industries are only second to aerospace in the Seattle economy is surprising, which owes much to the ship canal.  Seems a common story for Seattle, make massive change and reap the benefits (to some), even if it cuts off a river that happens to be the home place for local Native people.  To comprehend the 60+ year journey from idea to fruition, and the hundred years of operation since, another story of changing land and waters influencing our urban lives every day. Excited to see some of the events and read David’s upcoming book for more.  On that note…

Addenda: Making the Cut

A great resource on the upcoming centennial festivities is the website Making the Cut: The Locks, The Lakes and a Century of Change, which provides info on events, much of the history mentioned above, and a good section on historic maps which shows a good cross section of hidden hydrology in relationship to the hydrological manipulations to connect the lakes to the ocean.  A series of before and after maps documents the changes in the locks, Lake Union and Lake Washington, and other areas.  The series below highlights the evolution from the tidal marsh of Salmon Bay prior to the locks being installed in 1916 to the freshwater waterway today.

Salmon Bay – Today
Salmon Bay – prior to 1916 | Blue = Water |  Green = freshwater wetlands | Pink: saltwater wetlands | Brown: intertidal areas (or tidal flats)

 

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Excited to see this announcement of a series classes focused around the Waterlines Project (see my post about it here as well).  The four week  ‘Waterlines Class Series‘ meets Wednesdays at the Burke Museum and costs $120 ($100 for Burke members), and aims to cover lots of territory on Seattle’s interesting landscape history.  From the site:

Wednesday, April 19, 2017
The Origins of Seattle’s Landscape
Dr. Stan Chernicoff
Discover the dynamic geological forces that shaped and continue to shape the lands of the Salish Sea. During his 30-year tenure at the University of Washington, geologist Dr. Stan Chernicoff established a unique rapport with his students and a mastery of subject matter. In 2000, he received the University of Washington Distinguished Teacher Award for lively curiosity, commitment to research and passion for teaching.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Before the Cut
Dennis Lewarch, Suquamish Tribal Historic Preservation Officer
Using archaeological, ethnographic and historical data, Dennis Lewarch disccuses the effects of shoreline transformations on indigenous populations. A professional archaeologist, Lewarch has worked in western Washington for over 30 years and brings useful insights that intertwine environmental change, archaeological data and tribal land use in the region.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal
David B. Williams
Find out what drove Seattle’s civic leaders to pursue the dream of a Lake Washington Ship Canal for more than 60 years and what role that canal has played in the region’s development over the past century. The author of Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s TopographyThe Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City, David B. Williams also organizes the Burke’s annual Environmental Writer’s Workshop. His upcoming book, Waterway, will be out June 2017.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017
Reclaiming the Duwamish
Eric Wagner and Tom Reese
Eric Wagner and Tom Reese, author and photographer of Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish, discuss the history of Seattle’s relationship with its one and only river. Wagner’s writing has appeared in Scientific American, Smithsonian, Audubon and other publications. Reese is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist recognized for his feature work and explanatory reporting during his career at The Seattle Times.

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.

Climate Impacts

An article by Michael Kimmelman from February 17th, “Mexico City, Parched and Sinking, Faces a Water Crisis” is part of the ongoing ‘Changing Climate, Changing Cities’ series and includes a rich interactive experience, along with a compelling long form read (well worth it).

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.”

Xochimilco

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.”

Invisible Rivers

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 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 OEDNot 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 landscape and mapping blogs 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.

SUMMARY

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.

 

 

 

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As outlined in my previous post, the San Francisco Bay Area is loaded with many hidden hydrology focused activities and groups working throughout the region.  This follow-up post will address the amazing depth of resources available for historical maps and other resources for mapping and exploring lost rivers and buried creeks in the bay area.

The first place to look would be the amazing Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks, which has an amazing array of creek maps covering the entire region, published by the Oakland Museum of California, many of which were also funded by the California State Water Resources Control Board and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. You can select maps or use a sort of useful Graphic Creek and Watershed Finder to select areas via map.

The site itself isn’t just a portal to information, but includes a lot of maps, historical and contemporary as well as supporting info like Creek’Zine with stories of local history, or a glossary of creek and watershed terms.   Each map page offers links to the many creeks either through text or clickable smaller basin maps, like San Francisco.

This scaling linking allows for easy drilling down to subwatersheds, for instance to Islais Creek Watershed in San Francisco. you find more info and specific clickable elements,

Clicking on the map triangles yields more info – ostensibly what is found on the full printed map, but it’s nice to have really easy access to this online, in some depth.  An example is found in the link to Glen Canyon:

The key shows the depth of information available, including the basins, man-made and natural drainage infrastructure, waterbodies, fill and other structures.The sidebar has keyed Historical Features, circa 1850 including ‘Creeks, buried or drained’, ‘Ephemeral creeks’ and areas that were filled.

Each map page also links to a number of historic or descriptive maps that outline water systems, topography or juxtapose the new and the old.  For Islais Creek, above, a 1896 USGS Topographic map shows some source materials and evolution of the area prior to filling the historical features.

The main excerpt maps are zoomed in versions of the larger printed maps, which are pretty dramatic (in their digital form).  This one showing Oakland and Berkeley areas in the East Bay.   “The printed version of this map presents both the historical and modern hydroscapes of the western drainages of Northern Alameda County.”

I can stare at these for hours even though I don’t live there, that’s how fascinating they are.  Click on the map to download a PDF, (3.0 MB)

An excerpt shows the detail (in this case around Lake Merritt) which is pretty representative of the maps.

I’m still amazed at the coverage of these maps, and although some are getting old, the overlay info should still be pretty accurate even in the boom of development and redevelopment happening in the area.  There are maps for purchase and download, along with some GIS and KMZ files for further mapmaking opportunities.  As San Francisco proper is (mysteriously?) the only version of the PDF map not downloadable, I purchased a few of the printed maps so will see how they look when they arrive in early January.

As an added bonus, I really liked this animated map showing San Francisco in 1869 and 2007. (will launch in new tab for a bigger version).  This shows a simple evolution of the entire city, rotating through 150 years of change.  A dramatic difference, I’d say.

An additional find was the Guide to East Bay Creeks, a brief series of essays by Sarah Pollock, Shelby Hall & Christopher Richard.  Now only available online, which includes narratives for the specific hydrological and ecology – sort of a regionally specific creeks 101.  From the intro:

“Throughout the East Bay city dwellers are recognizing that even in urban areas we have wildlands valuable to humans and other animals. These people are learning ecological relationships through direct experience, and they are hoping that ultimately there may be an attitude shift, a cultural recognition that even city dwellers are an integral part of a living system.”

The previously mentioned San Francisco Estuary Institute, which was responsible for some of the maps available above at the Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks, and is a wealth of information on their site, both in terms of research reports but also GIS information. In their Data Center, you can search for tools, services, visualizations and other resources applicable to resilience and historical ecology among other topics.  Their work extends throughout the region, but has many overlaps in the Bay Area, including the GIS data for the Alameda Creek Historical Ecology study mentioned in the previous post, and rich data sets such as The San Francisco Bay Shore Inventory: Mapping for Sea Level Rise dataset provides a comprehensive and consistent picture of today’s Bay shore (up to MHHW + 10ft) for all nine Bay Area counties.  These data are available in ESRI ArcGIS file geodatabase and Google Earth KMZ format.”

Building on the last study, the SFEI folks also had a link to an awesome Historical Ecology resource, the online viewer for U.S. Coast Survey Maps of SF Bay, which provides maps of shoreline “Under the direction of some of the leading American scientists of the 19th-century, the USCS created exceptionally accurate and detailed maps of the country’s coastline. In the San Francisco Bay Area, these surveys (commonly referred to as “T-sheets”) are the most important data sources for understanding the physical and ecological characteristics of the Bay’s shoreline prior to Euro-American modification.”

The interface could use an update, but with a bit of digging the T-Sheets are available for download and are rotated and georeferenced, and includes raster and vector files. The image above I rotated and cropped – and you see that, aside from utility, these are some of the most beautiful maps.  Another zoomed excerpt.

I’ve dug into the T-Sheets for the Seattle area, and they are some great maps with pretty extensive coverage.  A few links provide a good tutorial, including a T-Sheet Users Guide authored by Robin Grossinger,  From their summary: “This guide discusses the historical maps of San Francisco Bay produced by the United States Coast Survey (USCS) and their application to present-day environmental efforts in the region.”

There are also Seep City maps, the project mentioned in the previous post, including print maps, atlases, and a forthcoming book available for purchase from Joel Pomerantz.  Another regional resource worth checking out is the Watching Our Watersheds – interactive mapping from the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which provides a good example of online interactive water tools using Google Earth.  Check it out and download the data at the link.

I’d be remiss without touching on some of the cool historical map sources, including a few gleaned from the Guide to San Francisco Bay Area Creeks page, including this interactive map from the 1860s

San Francisco c. 1860 – click to open in new tab
Topographic map from the 1890s with original creeks in blue, marshes in green, and modern land fill in pink

More to come as I’ve barely scratched the surface on SF Bay area and have not fully looked at historical sources other than those mentioned elsewhere.  This may be due to the amount of info available rivals most cities.  Kudos to the people at working in this region for providing inspiration and great precedents for work to apply elsewhere.

And if you haven’t yet, read the first of this series – Lost Creeks of the Bay Area – Part I to learn about the groups working in hidden hydrology, art, and urban exploration.

There are a number of cities with a vibrant mix of activities around hidden hydrology, some of which have been covered previously (see Resources). The stories of San Francisco’s hidden hydrology have existed for years, starting perhaps with an account by William Crittenden Sharpsteen of Vanished Waters from 1941, and continuing today with ways to offer hints to the current configuration of odd topographic features like ‘The Wiggle’. There are also references to discovering and possibly daylighting urban streams in San Francisco, even positing what other cities can learn from their relationship with it’s urban creeks.

Burnham’s Islais Creek Park – via SPUR

One of my favorite organizations, SPUR, has an article from 2006 in their archives ‘Of Buried Creeks and Thwarted Plans‘ worth reading, which explores Burnham’s unrealized 1905 Plan for San Francisco which would have created open space in favor of freeways.  “Perhaps one of the most remarkable features of the unrealized Burnham Plan would have made Islais Creek the central natural feature of a long linear park stretching from the upper reaches of Glen Canyon all the way to the bay; today the water runs in culverts buried under the bleak interstate freeway, one of the few that overcame citizens’ opposition in the 1950s and ’60s.”  Across the Bay the situation is similar, with references to hidden waters of Temescal Creek and it’s potential daylighting, as well as similar efforts in Berkeley to daylight urban creeks.

The San Francisco Bay Area has a number of interesting projects and resources worthy of investigation and emulation, spanning from mapping, artistic interventions, and historical ecology, warranting a couple of posts to capture in total.  Here’s a few of them.

Seep City is a project of the local Joel Pomerantz “a writer and natural history educator recognized for his work in waterway research, local journalism, public art and community service”, who also focuses on local urban explorations through the group THINKWALKS.  The Seep City was funded by a Kickstarter from early 2015, and is squarely related to the hidden hydrology, as explained on the site“When San Francisco was first becoming a city, it had many more waterways than now. Those were wet years. When dry years came the gullies became annoyances. People filled in the creeks and low areas with sand, debris and gravel. Marshes and sloughs were filled, too. The edges of the city were expanded into the Bay, making sailable water into salable lots. Today’s rain goes right into sewers, for the most part. Few absorbent soils are still exposed. Remarkably, surface creeks do still flow, here and there. And when you dig, you still find groundwater. If you search you’ll see springs, mostly small, seeping and trickling out onto our landscape.”

The project is explained in a bit more detail in “Mapping San Francisco’s Surprising Abundance of Springs and Streams” in Wired Magazine from 2015.  In addition, an older essay in FoundSF entitled ‘San Francisco’s Clean Little Secret’. (originally published in the anthology The Political Edge and published Fall 2004 by City Lights Foundation)  At the end of the article, there’s a short disclaimer:

“There is now (2010) very strong evidence surfacing that some of the historical assumptions that calculations and details in this article were based on need to be reinterpreted due to further scholarship. Specifically, although many maps show one, it appears that there was never an enduring freshwater lake in the Mission District. It turns out that “manantial” means spring-fed, rather than merely any freshwater. The waterways in the Mission area were all stream-fed, and Anza’s journals make it clear that “laguna de manantial” was a reference to Washerwoman’s Lagoon (earlier called Laguna Pequeña) in what is now the Marina and Cow Hollow areas. Anza passed this on his way to search for a site for the mission and thus included it in the same description. However it was not in the same geographic area.” 

The original essay, linked here, shows some more dialogue on this errata.  To me, it’s an interesting journey around the continuing evolution of hidden hydrology, that it is often a continual process of refinement and discovery.  Some interesting dialogue as well is included on the origins of Phelp’s Lake. and as explained by Pomerantz, “Of course, my discovery creates other layers of mystery.”

The below map depicts the original coastline, marshes and creeks of San Francisco, in the mid 1800s. Lake shapes varied over time, which explains the difference between this and the detailed Mission map in the article.

Ghost Arroyos is a project that got a fair amount of press (Curbed SF, CityLab) emerged from the Market Street Prototyping Festival and the brainchild of Emily Schlickman and Kristina Loring.  From the site: “Hayes Creek, a large underground waterway, is still flowing beneath the streets of San Francisco today. We asked passers-by to look behind them – the water spraying from the United Nations Plaza fountain is from Hayes Creek. Beneath their feet, the BART transit authority runs de-watering pumps to keep the tracks from flooding. Even some buildings around the Civic Center still use Hayes water today. To trace the flow of Hayes, they followed the chalked blue lines as they continued down 7th street. In less than a block, they came to where Hayes Creek historically surfaced into a marsh. There they found a watery sonic surprise.”  A map below shows the location of Hayes Creek.

From the original project proposal: “Every city has invisible histories embedded within its landscape. Up until the 19th century, ephemeral streams ran through nearly every valley in San Francisco, channeling rainwater to peripheral tidal estuaries. This project, “Ghost Arroyos” seeks to reveal these forgotten waterways of the city through a simple, but powerful intervention. Situated between 7th and 9th street, the project will mark the historical footprint of the arroyos onto the urban surface through paint or lighting. Visitors to the festival will be invited to trace the path of the waterways while listening to a curated recording of hydrological soundscapes and oral histories.”  The visual of a painted streetscape was a evocative invitation to the potential to cue people into this lost creek.

The implementation of the project is early, so looking forward to seeing this evolve.   A few photos showing a small scale installation of paint on an intersection.  A key part of the project is the audio aspects which are available in situ, through boxes mounted adjacent to the ‘painted’ streets.   There’s even a step-by-step breakdown of how to make the speakers via Instructables.

The audio is found here on their site:

San Francisco Estuary Institute has long been a key resource in the region, providing “…scientific support and tools for decision-making and communication through collaborative efforts. We provide independent science to assess and improve the health of the waters, wetlands, wildlife and landscapes of San Francisco Bay, the California Delta and beyond. SFEI’s 50 scientists and experts provide data, technology and tools that empower government, civic and business leaders to create cost-effective solutions for complex environmental issues–from cleaner water and sustainable communities to climate change. We have three primary programs: Clean Water, Resilient Landscapes, and Environmental Informatics.”

My main interest related to the connection between hidden hydrology and historical ecology, which can be defined as synthesizing “…diverse historical records to learn how habitats were distributed and ecological functions were maintained within the native California landscape. Understanding how streams, wetlands, and woodlands were organized along physical gradients helps scientists and managers develop new strategies for more integrated and functional landscape management.” It goes further to explain that “Researchers are increasingly recognizing that restoration and conservation strategies have often been misguided (and unsuccessful) because of a lack of understanding of historical conditions (e.g. Hamilton 1997, Kondolf et al. 2001, Foster and Motzkin 2003, Merritts and Walter 2008). This is particularly true in California, where our cultural memory is short and we have tended to impose concepts appropriate to more humid regions to our Mediterranean and semiarid landscapes (which will become only more so).”

An indicative study comes from the Alameda Creek Historical Ecology Study from 2013, which assesses: “watershed conditions prior to significant Euro-American modification, as a basis for understanding subsequent changes in watershed structure and function, and potential options for future environmental management.”  While the mapping involves a cast of many, Robin Grossinger, director of the Resilient Landscapes Project is well known for historic ecology in the bay area, and has written extensively on this, including many articles in SF Bay area.

Aside from reports, there are examples of online resources and studies, such as The Historical Ecology of Miller Creek, which was “…designed to inform residents of the watershed and other interested people about past and present ecological landscapes within the watershed, and how this information might be used to plan for the future. The time frame begins with indigenous land use practices and considers the effects of Euro-American settlement beginning about 200 years ago, continues through the present, and briefly examines the future needs of the watershed. This description is meant to broaden the view of what Miller Creek Watershed could become through science-based planning and careful management. Human induced changes in land use have affected the natural functions and habitats of the Miller Creek watershed. The emerging story foresees ongoing change that would benefit from a comprehensive understanding of the watershed’s history while planning to define and secure essential watershed services for the future.”

OTHER PROJECTS

There are also a number of other urban explorations and art installations worthy of mentioning in brief.  These precedents offer some interesting examples of engaging larger communities with hidden rivers and creeks, through bike tours of sewers and regular walking tours of hidden waters.

Some specific examples are summarized below:

One I spotted a few years ago were an interesting series of “tours” that are part geographic and part performance art.  Led by artist Chris Sollars, as part of the project Water Shed, which was conducted during Southern Exposure’s Off Shore from 2014, participants walked Islais Creek, Mission Creek, and Yosemite Creek in San Francisco.  A summary: ““Tracing the hidden path of Islais Creek, Chris Sollars leads a walk from source to Bay while carrying a rope that references the length of one city block. Beginning in Glen Park Canyon, the group will journey through downtown Glen Park, the Alemany Farm, Alemany Flea Market, a Google bus parking lot and the Southeast Treatment Plant. Stopping at various points along the way, the walk ends in Islais Creek Park to enjoy food and drink gathered along the route. There, participants will be ferried onto and off of Water Shed, a floating shed-like structure.”

There are videos of the walks as well linked from Sollars’ Vimeo site – check one for Yosemite Creek out here.

Yosemite Creek Walk Promo from Chris Sollars on Vimeo.

Across the Bay in Oakland, a project called ‘Creeks Beneath your Feet’ connects residents with hidden hydrology.  “Former creeks, now buried in culverts, are memorialized by a series of bronze relief sculptures embedded into sidewalks at locations above these culverts. The pieces portray stepping stones surrounded by native fauna that inhabit the creeks such as Rainbow Trout, Pacific Chorus Frogs, California Newts and dragonflies. Each site features five bronze “stepping stones” inviting the visitor to step across as if crossing a creek.”  An article in the East Bay Times provides more info and images, and a map of the locations is found here.

 

An art installation from Kevin O’Connor from 2012 called “Intimate Strangers: A Ritual for the Buried Creeks of San Francisco” uses hidden creeks as artistic inspiration:  “Adding yet another layer to the mystery, massive surges of groundwater, much of it potable, travel continuously just beneath us from related “subartesian” sources that even historically never came fully to the surface. We easily overlook these “creeks” since they have never come into view to receive formal names.  My proposal is to place 10 blues pools in a line along the creek bed that runs through Garfield Square. Each pool will be filled with water that I have collected from the buried creeks of San Francisco. The backyard wading pools remind us that there are buried creeks that hold water in many backyard homes in the Mission area.”

 

Finally, it’s a minor addition, but one map from Rebecca Solnit’s excellent ‘Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas’ shows the fragment of hidden hydrology in San Francisco.  From a review in High Country News: “Third Street Phantom Coast,” for example, is a map of the peninsula’s eastern fringe that depicts a now-forgotten city of ancient shell middens, long-buried streams and concretized serpentine outcrops. It shows how, over the last 150 years, the city’s waterfront expanded as successive layers of landfill were dumped on the tidelands of the Bay. Vanished landmarks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries  —  the “Tubbs Cordage Company” and the “Site of rancho bear and bull fights,” among others  —  haunt the rendering.”

 

 

Part II of this exploration of the Bay Area focuses on many of the maps and mapping resources.

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The typical news story from Los Angeles that often emerges concerning rivers tends to focus on the LA River and it’s future and fate.  Countless stories of the latest master plans or rehabilitation efforts, Army Corps efforts, or just plain ire at the fact that Frank Gehry was involved have been flying around for years. One of my favorite takes is documented in the fantastic 2008 publication ‘The Infrastructural City‘, which breaks down LA into a number of systems including a good amount of focus on the River.  And while no one would dispute the importance of the river to the city (and to countless movie chase scenes) there is a broad and complex hydrology and at work in the City of Los Angeles.

The folks at LA Creak Freak offer a slightly different and broader take, and while they do offer plenty of discussion on the LA River, they explore some of the other tangents of hidden hydrology.  As mentioned in their About summary the site is both “… a way to share information about LA’s historical ecology – the rivers and streams that were once here – and to update people on relevant watery news and events with a mostly local focus…” and “…that we believe our rivers and creeks are vital to our communities and our planet. Though degraded and forgotten, they’re worth saving.”  This information and activism role is similar in nature to much of my inspirations, so it was interesting to dig into their site.  The main players are landscape architect Jessica Hall and Joe Linton, an artist, author and activist with a long involvement in the community.  The site links to maps, stories, resources, and some transcribed interviews as well.    It’s somewhat free-form, with a few helpful summaries like ‘getting started‘ and ‘recommendations‘ but like many sites, is chock full of place specific info that you just have to spend time digging in to.

Some of the links led to a map from the Rumsey collection of the topography of Los Angeles from 1880 by William Hammond Hall shows another “Beautiful hand drawn map of the Los Angles-San Bernardino Basin. Pen-and-ink and pencil. Relief shown by hachures. It appears to be a base map on a scale of two miles to an inch, probably preliminary (several of Hall’s notations on the edges indicate corrections needed to the topography) and earlier than the 1888 Report titled “Irrigation in California” that had 15 maps that may have been derived from this map. It may also have served as the base for “Drainage area map to accompany report on irrigation and water supply in California” by Wm. Ham. Hall, State Engineer. (188-?). Hall was a famous engineer who was the first state engineer and was responsible for many of the early state water projects (see California Water Atlas). This map does not have any names drawn in except for a few towns, rivers, or railroads lightly penciled in. All the land divisions and city plats are indicated, with mountains, rivers, railroads, roads, arroyos and shorelines shown.”

A link to a map of the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco offers some commentary on the mapping: “I am fascinated by the messiness of the historical landscape before it was flattened and filled, with water confined to neatly linear paths. There are so many notations mapmakers used to depict the ways water manifested in the historical landscape. William Hammond Hall’s maps go beyond mere notation, into the realm of artistic representation. In contrast, USGS maps of contemporary Los Angeles use a limited and inflexible set of icons to depict water: blue lines for waterways (thin or thick, solid or dashed), and blue amoebas for lakes. Does the simplicity of these icons reflect what we’ve done to our surface water; or has what we’ve done to our surface water reflect our simplistic cultural idea about how a water body is supposed to look like and behave?” 

While the USGS maps of modern day (or at least 1975 from above) may have evolved be more more generic, but the old ones had some beauty, as shown here in a map from 1896 snapped from the great USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer.

I love the scale of the monumentally awesome Historical Creek & Wetlands Map of the lower Lost Angeles River and environs map below shows a range of buried creeks, sandy washes, historic wetlands, as well as existing creeks, concrete channels and drains (key to left) from around 1902.  Not sure who was the author of this map although the copyright shows 2003 from North East Trees.  The original orientation of the LA River and tributaries is interesting to see, along with the other hydrologic elements and topography.  There are a number of other excerpt maps from areas around LA as well.

 

Obviously the LA River is the major drainage, but there are plenty of tributaries and other side drainage weaving through the urban realm.  A Google map created by the LA Creek Freak folks provides a bit more context beyond the main LA River channel, showing historic drainages woven through the City such as Ballona Creek much of which is buried and/or channelized.

A great example of online resource in that same basin is the Ballona Historical Ecology web site, an interactive exploration created by multiple sources including the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, and the Santa Monica Bay Foundation, along with CSU Northridge, CSU Chico, and USC. For more information you can also download a report for the project here.

Another link to a map show at the LA Central Library called L.A. Unfolded (awesome idea), which led to some more historical maps shows this gem from the Online Archive of California for a Map of the City of Los Angeles from 1884.

A side trip to Jane Tsong’s Myriad Unnamed Streams is a worthy diversion, with stories and maps focusing on Northeast Los Angeles.  Various snippets of water history like “Where the Creeks Ran Underground” offer some place specific notes, maps and history for a small segment of LA around Eagle Rock Creek.  This series of key maps shows the area with streams only.

And with the overlay with modern sewer system, “Street map showing storm drains/1888 water courses as mapped by State Engineer William Hammond Hall, overlaid onto modern topographical data. Street, stormdrain and topographical data: Bureau of Engineering.”

Also worth checking out is a Curbed LA story “25 Photos of the Los Angeles River Before It Was Paved in 1938″ shows a different, softer side to the river, such as it meandering near Boyle Heights in the 1880s:

And from 1931, “The then-new Fourth Street Bridge” showing a natural river bed and although channelized, softer edges to the river.

This one, from 1938, indicates the plans for channelization: “Shown is an artist’s sketch which graphically portrays the system of dams, underground storage basins, etc., that were set up by the Los Angeles County engineers to prevent floods and to conserve hitherto wasted rain water for domestic purposes.”

The end came after floods in spring of 1938, as described in a book The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth: (Blake Gumprecht, 2001): “The first Los Angeles River projects paid for by the federal government and built under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were completed a few months after the flood. Work was finished in October 1938 on three projects to lower the river’s bed twenty feet, widen its channel and pave its banks for a little over four miles upstream from Elysian Park. Three months later, construction was completed on the first segment of what would eventually be a continuous trapezoidal concrete channel to carry the river from Elysian Park to Long Beach.”

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