A book and a blog

What inspired me to write a book about the hidden waterways within New York City? Read on… (more…)

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Squan Creek, Brooklyn

In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay, one grid-defiant road runs askew to the grid, connecting Gravesend Neck Road to the bay. Its route follows an obscure stream that used to cause flooding in the area.

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As seen in this 1933 photo from the NYPL Digital Collections, a heavy downpour brought Squan Creek back to the surface. Above is the intersection of East 11th Street and Avenue Y where the creek’s course flowed until the early 20th century as urbanization covered the stream.

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Tottenville Shore Park, Staten Island

The southernmost point in New York City and state is the neighborhood of Tottenville on Staten Island. At the tip is the 286-acre Conference House Park, which needs no introduction. A couple of blocks north of it is another park that lines the shore of Arthur Kill, a wild landscape of a seashell-covered beach, ravine, and thick tree cover.

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At only nine acres, Tottenville Shore Park is a nature preserve that also serves as a miniature bluebelt that collects runoff from nearby streets and channels it into the ocean, reducing the burden on the sewer system.

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Afon Lliedi, Llanelli

On the coast of southern Wales is a small post-industrial town with a history steeped in medieval folklore, industrial revolution, and the revival of Welsh culture. In the center of Llanelli, the Lliedi River flows beneath buildings and streets.

The photo above was taken by Hywel Williams in 2006. The spot where the river dips beneath the town was historically known as Falcon Bridge, but no marker explains for this centuries-old name or when the stream was consigned to permanent darkness.

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Fresh Pond, Queens

One of the mysteries for western Queens residents is Fresh Pond Road. On its 1.5-mile run between Maspeth and Ridgewood there are no hints of its namesake waterway but we know that prior to development this was a knob-and-kettle terrain of multiple ponds shaped by the most recent ice age. That the road still has its name rather than assigned number also signifies its history.

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When in doubt about the exact location of a former waterway, I usually find the nearest park as they often are designated on sites where water once flowed and building is more difficult. For Fresh Pond, the only park on this road is Reiff Playground, and the tiny Lang Triangle across the street. Could these provide clues to the location of the namesake pond?

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Nairobi River, Nairobi

The name of the Kenyan capital city comes from the Maasai word for “place of cool waters,” in reference to the city’s namesake creek. Nairobi is located on a gently sloping plain that is high enough not to have malaria-causing mosquitoes, and roughly midway between the seaport city of Mombasa and the vast Lake Victoria on the other side of Kenya. At the turn of the 20th century, British colonial authorities set up a railroad deport at the “place of cool waters,” which in 1905 became the capital of British East Africa.

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But as the city has grown, its infrastructure failed to keep up, resulting in massive sewage releases into the Nairobi River, along with chemicals and trash that have choked its flow, killed wildlife and posing a health hazard to people living and working along its course. The crowded scene above is at Pumwani Road, to the east of Nairobi’s Central Business District.

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Newtown Barge Park, Brooklyn

In my search for new post-millennial waterfront parks in New York, Newtown Barge Park offers a dramatic example of a landscape transformed. It lies on a formerly industrial site where the Newtown Creek flows into the East River, the watery tripoint where the borders of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens meet.

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At the park’s main entrance, we see the stark contrast between a parking lot and the recently planted lawn that faces Manhattan’s Waterside Plaza.

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Strycker’s Bay, Manhattan

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.

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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.

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Rio Seco, Luanda

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.

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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.

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Harlem Creek at 116th Street, Manhattan

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.

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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?

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Sunset Cove, Queens

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.

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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.

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