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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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
the piss, tears
dreams and sweat
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.