I’ve been reluctant to write too much online about Manhattan’s Minetta Creek as it is certainly the least forgotten of the city’s hidden waterways. It flows entirely under the surface these days from source to mouth, but above the surface there are many items that keep its memory alive.
The all-but-invisible Minetta Brook was flowing in the city’s public consciousness nearly as soon as it was buried, appearing in local folklore, books, poems, magazines, and street names. Earlier this week I stumbled on a walking tour of Minetta Street where the guide allowed me to say a few words about its namesake stream.
Where it Flows
On the indispensable 1865 Viele map, Minetta Creek originated at Fifth Avenue and East 21st Street, with another branch flowing from the corner of Sixth Avenue and W. 16th Street. The creek ran through the grounds of Washington Square Park, along Minetta Place and Downing Street to the Hudson River. The wetland to the south of its mouth is Lispenard’s Meadow, where the canal of Canal Street carried the water of Collect Pond into the Hudson. Minetta Creek was covered between 1808 and 1828.
Leaving the guide to speak about its Native, African-American, and literary history, my presentation focused on the Minetta toponyms of today. This includes two streets, three parks, theater, and restaurant.
When the 1811 Commissioners Plan was laid out, Sixth Avenue began its northward march at Minetta Lane. The expansion of the subway system through Greenwich Village in 1930 extended Sixth Avenue towards Tribeca. Along the way, numerous row houses were demolished and the neighborhood was forcibly incorporated into the traffic and transit patterns of Manhattan.
The disruption of the Greenwich Village grid resulted in small parcels on the left side of Sixth Avenue that were deemed too small for development. In the above Municipal Archives photo looking south, the empty lots will be assigned to the Parks Department. The course of the stream would have flowed across Sixth Avenue between Minetta Street and Downing Street.
With support from local civic groups, Minetta Green, Minetta Playground and Minetta Triangle provided a naturalistic element that buffered adjacent apartment buildings from the traffic of Sixth Avenue.
The one-block Minetta Street. is a rare elbow-bend road in Manhattan, along with nearby Gay Street. Its route follows a curve in Minetta Creek. On the left side of this street looking north (upstream) is Minetta Triangle, a .07-acre green space that reclaims the natural scenery that was once here.
A renovation of this tiny park in 1998 brought in bluestone paving with etchings of trout as a reminder of Minetta Creek.
Alongside my usual sources for archival photos, I am grateful to NYC Parks Historic Archives for sharing this November 20, 1935 photo of Minetta Green and Minetta Playground to its left. These two parks opened two days after this photo was taken. On the Sixth Avenue sidewalk are the subway gratings providing ventilation to the West 4th Street station below. This subway line is the successor to the old Sixth Avenue El, which appears in the background. Between 1936 and 1936, the two lines ran in tandem before the old elevated line was demolished.
Minetta Playground has its most recent renovation in 2012, when it received its blue and green climbing equipment. Landscape architect Jon Ernsberger chose the colors and curved forms with Minetta Creek in mind.
Looking west on the two-block Minetta Lane, this street appears to descend a bit towards Minetta Street, indicating where the stream flowed. The valley isn’t so steep anymore, leveled by nearly two centuries of fill. Whenever a street makes a topographical descend then rises, the low point could be the former course of a stream. Prior to the extension of Sixth Avenue into Greenwich Village, there were also Minetta Place and Minetta Court, mapped alleys that branched off the two Minetta streets of today.
Washington Square Park
This storied park has a long history with chapters that include a farm owned by former slaves, a paupers’ cemetery, parade ground, and public park. Minetta Creek flowed south through this park roughly from Fifth Avenue on is northern side to MacDougal Street at the park’s southwest tip. Between 1807 and 1817, the stream is entirely concealed beneath the surface.
Washington Square Park is almost entirely flat today with the exception of a constructed “depression” with rope climbing set suspended above it. The stream is unlikely to be daylighted within the park, so this rolling landscape can serve as a reminder of the stream’s presence in the park. Any alteration in this park no matter how big or small can inflame local passions.
To follow Minetta Creek’s course through this park, the Parks Department’s 2005 plan includes a potential archaeological sensitivity assessment with a broken line indicating the stream’s course. The dotted two-thirds of the park is the former farmland of Anthony Portuguese and Manuel Trumpeter, two former Angolan slaves who were partially released from work and given land in 1643 by the Dutch West India Company. It was along the banks of this creek that the city’s first black neighborhood was founded. Into the early 20th century, the section of Greenwich Village near Minetta Street carried the name Little Africa.
Mounds of Minetta
With its flat terrain, Washington Square Park lacked the excitement of hills where people could sled, bike, or skate. In 1970, the city installed paved mounds atop the former course of Minetta Creek. Washington Square Park Blog tells their story. The photo of the original mounds comes form this blog. When the park was slated for reconstruction in 2008, these mounds were supposed to be removed entirely. A public outcry led to a compromise: an Astroturf-covered landscape ideal for children and free play.
These new mounds are not as high as the originals and the netting strewn up above them keeps skateboarders and bikers away. In the background is the New York University Law School, whose basement sometimes floods on the account of Minetta Creek.
Minetta on the Map
Although Minetta Creek was covered entirely by 1828, it continued to appear on maps as a line separating properties that were once delineated by this stream. The Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GHVSP) identified one such property on West 13th Street close to the former source of this stream.
Looking at the G. W. Bromley property maps from the NYPL Map Division, I have the years 1879, 1891, 1930, and 1955. As the years went by the property line representing Minetta Creek became less relevant and consequently less visible. In 1930, the block along Minetta Street was partially demolished to make way for the subway, taking Minetta Court with it. In 1941, 290 Sixth Avenue would be built, an apartment building taking up most of the block and separating Minetta Green from Minetta Triangle
On the 1955 map, I outlined parks created as a result of the Sixth Avenue extension and the course of Minetta Creek. On these last two maps, a new set of dotted lnies appear- the route of the subway running beneath Sixth Avenue.
Minetta Creek does not appear on the surface but looking at the DoITT NYCity Map, it is comforting that near its former course, there is a “stream” of parks that give Greenwich Village back some of the greenery that it had when the stream was there. It was a small compensation for having Sixth Avenue rammed through the historic heart of this neighborhood.