Among the hidden waterways on Staten Island, Willow Brook is so obscure that a Google Street View isn’t good enough to tell the difference between an overgrown vacant lot and an overgrown vacant lot with the sound of a brook flowing beneath the vegetation. The only way to find Willow Brook is to see it in person.
I had my encounter with a segment of Willow Brook while traveling down Bradley Avenue on the way to Greenbelt Nature Center, where I was conducting an inspection.
How to find it
Traveling on Bradley Avenue, one notices that it descends on its way north at Willowbrook Road and then rises towards Victory Boulevard. Imagining that water follows gravity to the lowest points on the landscape, I imagined that there must have been a creek flowing on the bottom of the valley. It was there that I say on the left side of Bradley Avenue, a fence with a deep ravine behind and the sound of water rushing in the ravine.
The ravine is accessible only through the private backyards on its sides which I did not even think about entering. But if I did, I’d look to see how large is the sewer from which this brook emerges.
Wellbrook and the Brook
Curious about how far upstream this brook is visible, I turned right on Queen Street, which runs atop the stream and a block away found Willow Brook hiding in plain sight, appearing as a thickly vegetated empty lot between houses.
Looking east or upstream, Willow Brook appears as an anomaly among the uniform single family homes. Willow Brook originated on the western slope of Todt Hill, near the present-day corner of Todt Hill Road and Manor Road and flowing west towards Willow Brook Road.It followed this road towards what is today Willowbrook Park, where it picked up Corson’s Creek. Turning south, Willow Brook widened and entered the wetlands of Fresh Kills.
A Private Creek
Relying on the property maps of OasisNYC for my GIS research, I mapped out the surface segments of Willow Brook today, which flow entirely on private properties and could be covered to shoehorn more homes and driveways into the neighborhood.
It reminded me of my first political experience, an internship in the State Assembly in 2006 for Ken Zebrowski Sr. His district covered a portion of Rockland County, where it was common to see streams flowing through backyards. At the time, there were competing bills in committee on this subject. Specifically, whether streams flowing through private properties would be subject to preservation measures, preventing property owners from damming, covering, or diverting their flow. My task was to compare Zebrowski’s bill to similar bills in committee and determine which bills stood the best chance of making it to the Assembly floor.
As It Was
Relying on my other favorite GIS source, the DoITT NYCity Map, I looked at its 1924 aerial survey to map Willow Brook flowing freely across the land. The highlighted road on the far right is Manor Road; in the center intersecting are Bradley Avenue and Willowbrook Road. On the bottom is Brielle Avenue. All of these roads are still there today.
What Could Have Been
Nearly eight decades before the city began to designate streams on Staten Island’s south shore as Bluebelts, the Topographical Bureau at the Board of Public Improvements published in 1901 a “tentative and preliminary” plan for the recently annexed island borough. Way ahead of its time, the plan had Willow Brook preserved within a linear park that served as a green corridor between Todt Hill and Willowbrook Park.
Unfortunately this did not happen and Willow Brook as a name is often associated in the public consciousness with the notorious asylum that shared the stream’s name. It closed in 1987 after decades of violations relating to its care of patients.
In the News:
Curbed features Nathan Kensinger’s photo essay of Gabler’s Creek and Udall’s Cove in northeast Queens.
KENS News reports on the upcoming restoration of San Pedro Creek in San Antonio, Texas.
Salt Lake Tribune reports on the dam removal on Mill Creek in Salt Lake City.
This Sunday, September 18 at Freshkills Park in Staten Island, is the last Discovery Day of the season in which the unfinished sections of the park are open to the public For details: