On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the natural contour of the island is evident in the valleys at 125th Street, 106th Street, and 96th Street. In the last one of these, Riverside Drive takes a viaduct above 96th Street and an eponymous neighborhood organization remembers the reason why West End Avenue here takes a dip on its way north and then rises again.
Another clue is William Rickaby Miller’s 1869 watercolor on paper titled Strykers Bay. In this painting we see an unnamed brook flowing towards the Hudson River with the Palisades of New Jersey in the background. This obscure stream is today’s West 96th Street.
Here’s my first essay on an urban stream in sub-Saharan Africa. In Luanda, the Angolan capital, there’s Rio Seco, or “dry river,” which is barely visible as it flows behind buildings as an open sewer on its way to the ocean.
In the second half of the last century, Angolans first fought a brutal war of independence and then a civil war between the Marxist government and anti-communist guerillas. These days the country is prospering from oil and diamonds. The obelisk on the right marks the tomb of Agostinho Neto, Angola’s first president. Luanda is sprawling, but its urban streams remain neglected.
In my search for images of Harlem Creek I had doubts whether any photos existed of a stream flowing through upper Manhattan on its way to the site of Harlem Meer and then to the East River. Prior to the stream’s disappearance it did not have enough fame to merit an uptown assignment for a photographer. At the turn of the 20th century the stream was wiped from the map as Harlem quickly urbanized.
Fortunately the NYPL Digital Collections has old photos of the city where one can search by address and location to take a look back in time. One such image is the 1893 Brown Brothers shot of 116th Street near Lenox Avenue. We see cows cooling off in a watering hole, but is this oversize puddle really Harlem Creek?
On the road connecting mainland Queens to the Rockaway peninsula is the island community of Broad Channel. The southern half of this island is a residential neighborhood while the rest is a wildlife refuge administered by the National Parks Service. At the southern tip of this island is a smaller city-operated park that is currently undergoing restoration. Sunset Cove carries its name proudly, facing west with views towards Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The park is under construction at this time, transforming a former marina into a restored saltwater marsh surrounding a cove that provides habitat to an oyster reef.
From its source at Kensico Reservoir south to the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx River flows nearly in a straight line direction alongside the parkway that shares its name. But there is one section of the river where it takes a brief turn east before returning to its linear course.
Here the river runs under six overpasses carrying Bronx River Parkway, Bronx Boulevard, and Gun Hill Road. There has been a bridge here since colonial times, lending its name to the Williamsbridge neighborhood.
As the island of Manhattan is nearly entirely ringed by a series of connected parks, the other four boroughs are also experiencing the opening of their shorelines to the public. Dozens of post-millennial parks lines the water’s edge providing resiliency against storm surges, open space for the public, and restored habitats.
On the Bronx side of the Harlem River sandwiched between the stream, a railway, and a highway is Bridge Park, the newest link in what will be a series of parks running from Kingsbridge to Mott Haven on a formerly industrial shoreline. At this park, one gets dramatic views from underneath three arch bridges linking the Bronx to upper Manhattan.
The northeastern tip of the Bronx is where one finds the city’s biggest city-operated park. With 2,772 acres Pelham Bay Park is three times the size of Central Park. The most visited portion of the park is Orchard Beach, the crescent-shaped beach framed by the hilly nature preserves of Hunter and Twin islands.
Having previously written about the lagoon that separates the beach from the rest of the park, there’s also Turtle Cove, a smaller nature preserve inside the park. It is framed by three of the park’s internal roads and a forest.
Throughout New England there are examples of urban streams that powered the industrial revolution and contributed to the development of cities. But as these streams flowed through their respective downtowns, they caused flood damage and with pollution, there were calls to have them confined to culverts and forced underground. In the state of Connecticut: Hartford has the Park River, Waterbury has its Mad River, and Meriden has Harbor Brook. Closer to New York is Danbury, where Still River has a similar history.
Once the hat making center of the country, the mills of Danbury are mostly silent and the shoreline in the city’s downtown appears as an afterthought, confined to a concrete channel as seen above at White Street.
In a ravine on the edge of Queensborough Community College in Bayside is a natural lake whose history is closely tied to the neighboring campus. Oakland Lake received its water from a natural spring and a feeder stream that originated at 223rd Place and Long Island Expressway, flowing in a ravine that widened into the lake. An outflow stream took excess water from the lake east towards Alley Creek, which emptied into Little Neck Bay.
The frozen appearance of this pond in winter conceals its depth as a glacial kettle pond. The pond serves an aesthetic purpose as a park centerpiece and functional as a storm water outlet.
One of the most important roads in southern Nassau County is Peninsula Boulevard, running in a southeast direction from Hempstead to the Five Towns. These are the upscale south shore suburbs of New York City where creeks can be found flowing behind backyards, beneath streets and in this case, on the median of Peninsula Boulevard.
In the community of Hewlett, the ditch that is the eastern branch of Motts Creek doubles as a route for power lines, demonstrating that as it is with highways, the easiest right-of-way for utilities is along waterways.