Robert Frost’s Hidden Waters

Although my book was published in a time when cities around the world are rediscovering their hidden streams, in truth lost urban streams inspired explorers, historians, architects and poets for time immemorial. Decades before Joni Mitchell composed, and later the Counting Crows sang about a parking lot paved atop paradise, poet Robert Frost composed an urban explorer’s paean to a lost urban stream.

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In 1923, Frost composed A Brook in the City, about a buried urban stream that identifies with the history associated with hidden streams. As civilization continued to develop, it tamed seemingly eternal streams, making them as mortal as us, created and destroyed by the living. Below is Frost’s poem, together with images of Minetta Creek, the long-buried stream of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

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The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square

With the new city street it has to wear

A number in. But what about the brook

That held the house as in an elbow-crook?

I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength

And impulse, having dipped a finger length

And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed

A flower to try its currents where they crossed.

 frost 4.jpg

The meadow grass could be cemented down

From growing under pavements of a town;

The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.

Is water wood to serve a brook the same?

How else dispose of an immortal force

No longer needed? Staunch it at its source

With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown

Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone

 frost 3

In fetid darkness still to live and run —

And all for nothing it had ever done

Except forget to go in fear perhaps.

No one would know except for ancient maps

That such a brook ran water. But I wonder

If from its being kept forever under,

The thoughts may not have risen that so keep

This new-built city from both work and sleep.


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