Revealing Manhattan's Buried Waterways 

When I was in elementary school, I had a few days off one winter: there was a problem with P.S. 185’s boiler. It was sinking.

The Brooklyn school had been built on top of a stream that made its foundation insecure. It turns out that New York City is full of such secreted streams, rilling below the surface, long ago concealed by development. From its primordial origins through its Lenape days — even into the early stages of modernity — the Big Apple featured a tangle of waterways that’s hard to imagine today.

The same is true of municipalities across the world, and now many are starting to reclaim their hidden waters. The Times reported two weeks ago that a stream that runs through the center of Seoul, once “entombed by pavement and forgotten beneath a lacework of elevated expressways,” has been exhumed; it now serves as a spot for picnicking.

Seoul is not alone.

Yonkers is working to excavate a third of a mile of long-ago buried river; Singapore and San Antonio are also working to free concealed water, and in Los Angeles citizens and officials are looking to resurrect the much maltreated Los Angeles River.

Beyond aesthetics, re-revealed bodies of water have practical environmental effects; wildlife diversity has exploded along the Seoul waterway, the Cheonggyecheon. Streams also handle excessive rainwater more efficiently than sewers.

It’s hard to imagine any of densely developed New York’s lost waters being liberated, but efforts are underway in the last patch of lightly to undeveloped city — southern Staten Island — to preserve some of its wetland areas, to store and filter storm water. It’s called The Staten Island Bluebelt; you can play with an interactive map here.

click to enlarge The Collect Pond in New York

But the Times article got some of us here at the L Mag's office thinking: wouldn’t it be fun to speculate about possible waterways in Manhattan that could be “daylighted”? For that, we turn to the Viele Map, otherwise known by the much more unwieldly name, “Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York Prepared for the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens Association.”

Created in 1865 by Egbert L. Viele, a minor figure in NYC history, the map is an invaluable illustration of Manhattan’s original waterways, with the street grid superimposed on top. It would be nearly impossible to create a similar map today, as the location of those waterways would likely have been lost to history.

The map usually serves as an engineer’s bible, informing builders whether their foundations will be affected by an underground waterway. “Builders who fail to consult the map before embarking on a project often pay a price,” the Times reported a few years ago. “A man wearing hip waders [recently] charged into the map room at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, announced, ‘I've got water on my site’ and requested the library's copy of the Viele Map.”

Examining the Viele Map is a fun way to kill some time, reveling in nostalgia for a place you’ve never known. Take a look and, in the comments section below, let us know what bit of buried NYC water you’d like to see unearthed.

We’ll go first: we’d love to see male-genitals-shaped Collect Pond freed from its bedrock prison. Once occupying much of the land between Chambers and Canal streets, and Lafayette and Mulberry (roughly), it was once the focal point of the fabled filth of the Five Points neighborhood, and was responsible for corrupting the structural integrity of the infamous Tombs prison. Today, City Hall and courthouses surround its former location, with the one-acre “Collect Pond Park” on Leonard Street occupying some of the land where the pond once festered. Wouldn’t it be nicer to see a large, cleaned-up body of water there instead of concrete?

We asked Eric Sanderson, one of the people at the Wildlife Conservation Society behind The Mannahatta Project — whose website is another fun way to kill time and fantasize about the New York that once was — which bit of water he’d like “daylighted."

“I would love to see Minetta Water restored again,” he wrote in an email. “It once ran down Fifth Avenue, through Washington Square Park, under Minetta Lane (there was once a bridge there) and along Minetta Street. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could restore the watershed of Minetta Water enough that brook trout once came again to the stream? Can you imagine if what you did as a tourist on a trip to New York was to see fish spawning again in New York City?”

click to enlarge Where Minetta Creek Once Flowed


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