Friday, December 23, 2016
The Irregular Guide to New York City Entry #13: The Almost Invisible Stream
(Above: Minetta Street in 1928)
The next time you’re in Greenwich Village, stop at the intersection of Minetta Street and Minetta Lane*. Are you there? Great. Now take a look around. Believe it or not, you’re standing on top of a roaring stream.
(Above: The Minettas today.)
Over a century ago, before Manhattan was flattened and covered in asphalt, the island was a pretty soggy place. Much of downtown was marshland, and dozens of creeks and small rivers trickled all over town.
As the city grew, ponds and swamps were drained, and New York’s streams were buried beneath its streets. But these “subterranean waterways” never dried up. They’re still there, flowing beneath our feet. (A good sign that you’re near one is the presence of a weeping willow tree.) There’s only one problem: very few people today know where they are. And if you start building on top of a forgotten spring, you’re going to end up with nothing more than a damp pile of bricks.
(Above: The Viele Map, my favorite map of all time. Zoomable version here.)
Fortunately, there’s a map that can tell you where to find all of Manhattan’s invisible waterways. Over five feet long and remarkably detailed, the Viele map shows all the rivers, streams, and ponds that no one has seen in over one hundred years.
But there’s still one place where you can see Minetta Creek. Inside the lobby of an apartment building at 2 Fifth Avenue, there’s a clear plastic pipe that rises out of the floor. If you visit after a rainstorm, you may notice water bubbling up into the tube. Minetta Creek flows under the building, and sometimes when the weather is wet, it decides to make an appearance.
* Another interesting note about Minetta Street and Minetta Lane: at the end of the nineteenth century, this might have been the most dangerous intersection in New York. The author Stephen Crane called the Minettas “two of the most enthusiastically murderous thoroughfares in the city.” The Minettas had a dreadful reputation and were said to be home to killers and bandits with names like Bloodthirsty and Apple Mag.