In my search for images of Harlem Creek I had doubts whether any photos existed of a stream flowing through upper Manhattan on its way to the site of Harlem Meer and then to the East River. Prior to the stream’s disappearance it did not have enough fame to merit an uptown assignment for a photographer. At the turn of the 20th century the stream was wiped from the map as Harlem quickly urbanized.
Fortunately the NYPL Digital Collections has old photos of the city where one can search by address and location to take a look back in time. One such image is the 1893 Brown Brothers shot of 116th Street near Lenox Avenue. We see cows cooling off in a watering hole, but is this oversize puddle really Harlem Creek?
On the Maps
On this 1848 Mayer & Korff map of the grid-defiant Mount Morris, Fifth Avenue is interrupted by the 70-foot rocky outcropping that was preserved as today’s Marcus Garvey Park. On the lower left of this map is Harlem Creek making its turn from southeast to the south at 116th Street. This bend in the course is between Lenox and Fifth avenues. On the west bank are colonial-period farm divisions while on the east bank are property subdivisions conforming to the 1811 Manhattan street grid. The grid-defiant road on the lower left is St. Nicholas Avenue, known then as Harlem Lane.
The 1868 Otto Sackersdorff Blue Book map of farms documents farm boundaries as they were in 1815 in relation to the street grid that will disrupt them. As a reference, I highlighted 125th and 116th Streets here. The green square is Marcus Garvey Park that preserves Mount Morris, while an unbuilt park, Haerlem Square is to its southwest, bisected by the stream. The farms of John and Adolph Bussing occupy the land where Brown Brothers photographed the cows.
Harlem Lane also appears here running parallel to Harlem Creek. German-born farmer Arent Harmense Bussing immigrated to New Netherlands in 1639. He received properties in Harlem from his mother-in-law and they passed down to his descendants through the mid-19th century.
In the 1869 illustration of Harlem Plain looking north from Central Park, we see Central Park North as the park’s border. Across this road Harlem is still a landscape of farms with St. Nicholas Avenue running to the northwest. On the far left of the image is Mount Morris, the rocky outcropping on the otherwise flat plain.
The Exact Location
Going forward in time to the 1891 G. W. Bromley atlas, we see the subdivided properties of the former Bussing farms picking up townhouses and churches. Recall that the title photo for 116th Street features a church. On this map we see Calvary Presbyterian Church standing atop a buried tributary brook mid-block on 116th between Fifth and Lenox Avenues. In 1910 it was replaced with Jewel Theatre but by the end of the 20th century it became a church again. Today it is the Second Providence Baptist Church. Harlem is the “churchiest” neighborhood in Manhattan, with multiple churches on certain blocks. Truly the borough’s black bible belt.
By 1922 Harlem was completely urbanized. On the mid-block parcel where the cows grazed stood Public School 184, a majestic H-shape building designed by CBJ Snyder. Its appearance was identical to P.S. 186 on 145th Street that was later abandoned and finally re-purposed in 2016. Like its uptown twin, the old P.S. 184 was regarded as unsafe and antiquated. It was demolished in 1968 and replaced with a modernist low-rise school on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 118th Street. The site stood vacant and nearly half of the block also opened up after abandoned buildings were removed.
In this Century
In 2008 the south side of 116th Street welcomed new residents with the completion of the Kalahari apartments, a mixed-income development whose exterior features African-inspired patterns in a nod to Harlem’s image as the cultural capital for African-Americans. The building straddles the former course of the creek, but there are no plaques or portraits here to honor the stream. An apartment building across the street, on the former site of P.S.184 is less distinguished architecturally.
Upstream on Harlem Creek
From the same Brown Brothers collection as our title photo, we see Harlem Creek on 117th Street and 118th Street at Lenox Avenue in the 1890s, its water still visible to passersby. Within a decade these scenes would be completely unrecognizable. Did the cows of 1893 really drink from Harlem Creek or simply an oversized puddle resting on the former course of the stream? It is uncertain but we know that puddles of such size tend to form where the water table is high and where former streams resurface, refusing to be forgotten.
At the point where Lenox Avenue ran across Harlem Creek, the phantom stream flooded the subway tunnel under construction here in 1907. The above New York Times articles document the stream’s disruption of the project.
Downstream on Harlem Creek
Between 116th Street and Central Park, the creek ran along Fifth Avenue on blocks developed for tenement apartments. In 1954, three of these blocks had their buildings razed in favor of a ten-tower public housing project: Stephen Foster Houses. The author was a renowned American songwriter whose portfolio included minstrel songs that denigrated African-Americans. But historical figures can be complicated. Foster authored an abolitionist play, but also another song that ridiculed them; one of his blackface ballads was praised by Frederick Douglass for awakening “sympathies for a slave.”
In 1968, nearly a half-century before “wokeness” became a popular movement, the city had this site renamed as Martin Luther King, Jr. Houses. It took place a month after his assassination. It was among the first places in the nation to put the civil rights leader’s name on the map.
The superblock has a playground on Lenox Avenue that also shares the MLK name, along with another park in Brooklyn. It received a substantial renovation in 2018 which has a blue and green rubber surface, but otherwise no signs or hints of Harlem Creek. Between the towers of this campus there is space for a pond that can collect runoff from the streets and rooftops, serving as a miniature bluebelt. But at the same time the city also has plans to pay for NYCHA’s deficits by allowing market-rate towers on the open spaces of such superblocks.
Further downstream on Harlem Creek, I’ve documented the history of Harlem Meer, the course of the creek through East Harlem; and its tributaries, Montayne’s Rivulet and Sabrina’s Pool.
In the News:
Gothamist reports on delays in the effort to daylight Tibbetts Brook in the Bronx.
CBC reports on plans to improve drainage along Mill Creek in Edmonton.
Daily Hive reports on plans to carve out a “blueway” in Vancouver by connecting existing urban streams.