Among the hidden waterways of New York City, Flushing Creek is my favorite as I continue to find more historical photos, maps, and stories along its course. Among the photos from a century ago is one of Wahnetah Boat Club, which stood on the west bank of Flushing Creek next to Flushing Bridge.
On the 1906 image above from Jason Antos’ book on Flushing, the scene would be unrecognizable today. Taken from the Northern Boulevard Bridge, we see a rowboat heading towards the Whitestone Branch trestle, with the Lawrence family’s Willow Bank estate in the background. The family’s roots here date to 1643, but they knew their ancestry going back to the Crusades and the Roman period!
On the western landing of the Mill Basin Bridge on Belt Parkway, one may notice a sizable wetland bound by the highway, Mill Basin, and Flatbush Avenue. It is home to four rare bird species: the Saltmarsh, Song, Swamp, and Savannah sparrows, resulting in its name, the Four Sparrow Marsh.
With Kings Plaza shopping center to its north and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge to its south, Four Sparrow Marsh has been a contented ground between advocates of commerce and natural preservation.
When one finds a lake atop a mountain, it can either be a crater lake or in an urban setting, a reservoir designed to have water flow down the slopes to the people. Between 1858 and 1959 the Ridgewood Reservoir received water from smaller reservoirs on Long Island’s south shore, which was then distributed across the city of Brooklyn. Following Brooklyn’s annexation by New York City, the reservoir was demoted to backup storage until its abandonment in 1990.
From that point, nature took over and the reservoir eventually received the status of a freshwater wetland, a rarity within New York City. Left to its own devices, the stagnant pool of water turned into a wetland and habitat for 137 birds, as recorded by the National Audubon Society. Around its perimeter plants colonized the site, hiding the brickwork beneath thick vegetation. In 1990, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection decommissioned the reservoir and it was assigned to Parks in 2004.
The leading example of a restored urban waterway is the Cheonggyecheon in Seoul, a multi-million dollar linear park that has inspired other cities worldwide to follow this example. Among other Korean cities, the southern city of Busan has its own examples of urban streams restored and others that are covered by streets and buildings.
Like New York, Busan is a true metropolis covering smaller former municipalities that it absorbed over the decades. The stream flowing through the city center is the Dongcheon, which runs partially underground with the rest flowing neglected beneath highways. But there are a small signs of a stream revival underway hinting at a greener future.