In the past two decades, the city’s newest parks and pedestrian plazas have taken on the role of outdoor museums with landscaping and artwork that tell the history of the sites. When it is no longer possible to daylight a hidden stream, markings on the pavement serve as reminders of the past.
On Broad Street in Manhattan’s Financial District, light blue paving recalls the Heere Gracht, a canal that ran down the middle of this street from 1646 to 1676.
The attractive paving also hides the reason why Broad Street was transformed into a pedestrian plaza. Prior to the September 11th attacks on New York, motorists could drive the length of Broad Street as well as Wall Street and park outside the most important stock exchange in the world.
In the aftermath of the attack, most of Wall Street and Broad Street were closed to vehicles and military-style roadblocks with checkpoints popped up to give the neighborhood a dystopian security-state appearance. Seeing an opportunity from this situation to make Broad Street more pedestrian-friendly, the city replaced asphalt with paving blocks and checkpoints that stopped vehicles but without disrupting the streetscape.
The Canals of Downtown
Prior to colonial settlement, Broad Street was a brook that drained from the Shaape Waytie, or Sheep Pasture. Along the way, a smaller tributary called the Beaver Path linked with the inlet. This was the southernmost interior waterway in Manhattan.
Just as the capital of the Netherlands had a network of canals running through its commercial center, New Amsterdam would as well. In 1646, the colonial government transformed the inlet into the Heere Gracht, Beaver Path became Begijn Gracht and the inlet’s northernmost block was named the Prinzen Gracht, after canals with the same names in Amsterdam.
The canals were wide enough for small boats and soon after New Amsterdam’s handover to the English in 1664, it became an outdoor dump. The colony’s new masters did not care for canals and ordered the Heere Gracht filled in 1676.
Hints of Heere Gracht
Besides Broad Street, whose width hearkens to the canal, this road intersects with Bridge Street. Its name hints to a bridge across the canal where the streets intersect.
On the right side of the Broad-Bridge intersection is 85 Broad Street, former headquarters of Goldman Sachs that stands atop a rich archaeological site. Its construction between 1979 and 1983 was controversial not only because of the site but also because it took away two blocks of historic Stone Street, the city’s first paved road. As a concession to the public, the interior lobby follows the route of Stone Street and the surrounding sidewalk includes glass-covered excavations and medallions with maps of New Amsterdam.
The most detailed representation of Heere Gracht can be seen on the 1660 Castello Plan drafted by Jacques Cortelyou and redrawn in 1916 by John Wolcott Adams and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. Notice the wall on Wall Street, at the time it was the city’s northern limit. It really takes you back.
Books on Streams
As today is Wednesday, I would like to share some stream-related reading materials. When constructing bike paths, the shorelines of hidden streams offer a ready right-of-way that requires little property acquisition and once completed, enables travelers to view the streams up close. Examples of such paths include the Jamaica Bay Greenway and the Bronx River Greenway, not to mention the more famous East River Esplanade and Hudson River Park. Below are some of the more detailed bike guides to the city.
In the news: National Geographic looks into various examples of modern urban parks, including those with streams where the public can swim.