The idea of using art to express historical stream routes is a powerful and simple method for connecting people with hidden hydrology.  There are many such precedents, but a recent version I thought I’d mentioned comes from environmental artist Stacy Levy, as part of a workshop at Hunter College sponsored by NYC H20.  I noticed this first on the site untapped cities, and it was covered in the New York Times the following day.

Levy took folks on a tour with some bonus artistic endeavors: “On Friday afternoon, using blue chalk paint, Stacy Levy plans to palpate a few sidewalks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to visualize the path of a stream, now out of sight, that has been running since ancient times.”   She used the 1865 Viele map of Manhattan, a much documented source of hidden streams in New York, as inspiration of the flows of the walk.  A snip of one of the portions of the map, and a closeup of the 1865 map (which are probably somewhat close in content but somewhat stylistically different).

1874 Viele Map

As the NY Times mentioned, “Searching for the city’s vanished waterways has become a form of specialized detective work, much of which begins with the Viele Map.”   From untapped cities: “Water is one of our favorite substances, yet we know very little about its ways,” says artist Stacy Levy. She explores hidden patterns of hydrology, drainage and microscopic life forms, from tiny microorganisms to large watersheds, using art to reveal the natural processes. This event will explore Levy’s collaborations with urban nature that meld art, engineering and ecology.”

Excerpt of 1865 Viele Map – showing location of tour

There’s also a bit of history from long-time buried creek explorer (both on the surface and as a drainer down in the pipes) Steve Duncan, who has documented this at his expansive Watercourses blog.  He is quoted in the NY Times: “The stream being traced made its way along the east side of Manhattan, with some of it captured in a pond in the southeast corner of Central Park, and other branches eventually flowing into the East River at 47th Street. Historical texts show that a “kissing bridge” crossed it around 50th Street, and the name of the waterway appears to have been De Voor’s Mill Stream”

A great follow-up about the tour was a post “Mystery of the E. 64th Street Puddle” on the ThisEastSide site, which captures a bit of the day of framed in the form of a mysterious perennial puddle.  As mentioned in the article:

“A woman who was walking by, who works on the block, alerted us to the persistent nature of the puddle,” Matt Malina, founder of NYC H2O, told us. “I also overheard a mother say to her daughter as they walked by, ‘That’s why this is the mosquito block!’”

The mystery was solved, again quoting ThisEastSide“The building of Manhattan paved over many primeval brooks and streams.  But some, like the De Voor Mills Stream under 64th Street, just want to be free. The puddle is a spring that feeds the stream. During heavy rains, it fills nearby basements with water.  (A superintendent at one of the nearby buildings told Malina that he keeps a sump pump in the basement for such occasions.)”

Part of Levy’s tour, where “…she recently took a group of volunteers to the site of the puddles (actually, there are two) and supervised their drawing of swirls representing the turbulent water under the sidewalks.”  Seen below, tour goers and passersby joined in the fun, marking swirly water flow patterns on the old path of the buried stream.  In typical urban fashion, the police were called, “concerned that the group was defacing the sidewalk.  Their worries were dispelled upon learning that the medium was chalk.  As it happened, the weekend rains washed away most of the drawings.”  As author Froma Harrop concludes, “So the E. 64th Street puddle is actually a spring feeding the De Voor Mills Stream.  Henceforth, let’s call the puddle a “spring.”  A lot more elegant, don’t you think?”

The chalk paint is an interesting idea to engage without permanently marking – perhaps just to avoid getting the police called on you.  The recent work in chalk is a more ephemeral version of Levy’s 2004 work Streamlines, which used permanent paint, glass beans, stone and bronze to mark 400 feet of waterway along paths at the North Carolina Zoological Park, Greensboro, NC

From her site:

“The hydrological patterns of the nearby stream were enlarged and painted onto the meandering path with road striping paint. Patterns of vortices were painted where the path curved or went past a manhole cover. Parallel lines of laminar flow depicted the straight portions of the path. These amazing patterns are invisible to the eye, but present in all flowing streams.”

From Levy’s website, it looks like there are plenty more inspirations for us to tap into, including one of her projects I’ve used countless times as a precedent for project, the fantastic Ridge and Valley at the Penn State Arboretum, with a stunning etched bluestone plaza with “a 924 sq. ft. map shaped like the Spring Creek watershed” fed by rainwater.

Will spend some more time here, the well is deep.

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