Ponds of Borough Park, Brooklyn

In today’s polarized society, people often put themselves into ideological silos and see little in common with members of other political persuasions, interests, and beliefs. Although the Hamodia newspaper is designed for a certain sector of Orthodox Jews, I can argue that its material can educate anyone who picks it up. Can you imagine an Irish-American historian from Queens reading a Hamodia article?

An example of the cross-over appeal here is Yitzchok Shteierman’s Pioneers of Boro Park column, which documents the neighborhood’s history. This is the type of work that Kevin Walsh does on Forgotten-NY.

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Where do the literary paths of Shteierman, Walsh, and I intersect? At Webster’s Pond, a long-buried waterway deep in the heart of Borough Park, Brooklyn.

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Prospect Park waterway, Brooklyn

There was once a time when Brooklyn was a city that rivaled Manhattan and attempted to have everything that the island borough has, such as its own art museum, botanical garden, and major league baseball team. It also had its own version of Central Park, designed by the same landscape architect duo. While Central Park has numerous unconnected waterways that were adapted from natural streams on site, Brooklyn’s 585-acre Prospect Park has only one waterway, carved entirely from the landscape.

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Initially fed by water from a well, the stream emerged from the ground through the manmade Fallkill Falls. The landscape of the brook was inspired by the Adirondack wilderness with a heavily forested rocky terrain that carried the stream through numerous waterfalls, rapids and lakes. Continue reading

Bushwick Inlet, Brooklyn

On the rapidly gentrifying East River shoreline of Brooklyn, the border between the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg begins at Bushwick Inlet. Formerly used as an oil storage dock,  this indentation in the shoreline is in the process of being transformed into Brooklyn’s newest park. The inlet is a remnant of Bushwick Creek, which reached further inland prior to urbanization.

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After a struggle to acquire properties along its shores, the entirety of Bushwick Inlet is now assigned to the Parks Department as it prepares to transform the vacant space into a park. Continue reading

Last word on Mussel Island

musselmap.jpgWhile visiting a Parks work shop this morning, I found a 1988 Hagstrom map hanging on the wall with Mussel Island, Newtown Creek’s phantom island making its appearance. Also on the map, Hagstrom’s Maspeth office, the now-abandoned stations on the LIRR Montauk Line, the now-defunct Brooklyn Union Gas Company…

Towards the bottom of the map is the now-forgotten Evergreen Branch, a freight rail line running along the Brooklyn-Queens border.

No one ever lived on Mussel Island, it was a small and marshy piece of land at the confluence of Maspeth Creek and Newtown Creek.

Some Hagstrom Maps put the phantom island entirely within Brooklyn waters while other maps have the island shared by the two boroughs.

Divided Phantom Island

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Relying on aerial surveys of Mussel Island from the 1920s, the island is in the middle of the stream, giving both boroughs a claim for it, but older maps show it as outside of Brooklyn. With the island’s disappearance, the borough border line appeared on most maps in the middle of Newtown Creek, where Mussel Island once was. When the island went from real to phantom, Hagstrom had it divided between the boroughs, as in the 1949 map above. Circled is Kosciuszko Bridge, the highest crossing above the stream.

Was Hagstrom Correct?

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Relying on the DoITT CityMap that blends the present shorelines with a 1924 aerial survey, we see Mussel Island almost entirely within the present-day waters, with a tiny portion on what is now Brooklyn land. Back in 1924, the island was closer to Queens, and with 19th century maps as a reference, when it existed this island belonged to Queens.

Founded in 1916, Hagstrom was once the go-to authority for maps of the city and nearby cities. With the advent of GPS and satellite surveys, hand-drawn maps became obsolete. Hagstrom closed its Midtown Manhattan map shop in 2010, and was acquired by the Kappa Publishing Group that same year. Without Hagstrom, there is no Mussel Island.

Furman Island, Queens

When taking the Grand Street Bridge across Newtown Creek, one notices the avenue narrowing to two lanes as it uses a century-old swing drawbridge to cross Newtown Creek. Not known to travelers today is that this creek used to have two islands in it at its confluence with Maspeth Creek.

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Nothing remains of the smaller Mussel Island, while the larger Furman Island has been fused to Queens. The former island is almost entirely industrial in use, with the exception of a small green piece of shoreline at a dead of 58th Road at 47th Street, where Maspeth Avenue once crossed over Newtown Creek. Continue reading

Photo of the Week

This week’s selected photo comes from a 1917 report on the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

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Depicted in the photo is the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, designed by architect Takeo Shiota in 1915. The pond is the most popular attraction at this garden but its architect’s fate was quite undeserved. He died in a wartime internment camp, a victim of racism. Continue reading

Mid-Century GIS

As you may know, much of my research for Hidden Waters of New York City does not involve paddling, swimming, or walking away from my desk. It involves having a grasp of GIS: geographic information systems where one compares maps of the same location to determine what lies beneath the surface. Even when the internet is down and there is no time to take the bus to the New York Public Library, I have an excellent resource down the hall from my desk at the Parks Department headquarters.

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The topographical map above is undated. Taking a closer look at what’s there and what’s not there helps narrow down the approximate time of its publication and take stock of the changes on the city’s landscape since this map appeared. Continue reading

Wallabout Creek, Brooklyn

A half mile to the south of Williamsburg Bridge, the East River makes a turn to the southwest with a wide cove at this knee-shaped bend. Known as Wallabout Bay, it was the site of a notorious floating prison during the Revolutionary War and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. At the northwestern corner of this property, a deep channel cuts inland as the only remnant of Wallabout Creek.

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In the second third of the 19th century, the bay had an artificial island in its middle, Cob Dock, a part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard accessible by the ferry seen in the above postcard. The bay and its feeder stream, Wallabout Creek have a long and storied history. Continue reading

Harway Avenue, Brooklyn

Among the neighborhood historians whose work I relied on for my book is Joseph Ditta, whose Gravesend Gazette blog preserves the memory of a former municipality that was absorbed into Brooklyn in 1894. He’s asked me in the past to highlight examples of hidden streams within its borders. While researching old drawbridges in the city, I came across this old scene.

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It shows a contraption-like crossing for Harway Avenue in Gravesend, found on Page 61 of Engineering Magazine, Volume XXXVII, October 1909. According to the description, it was built a decade earlier, powered by a five-horsepower engine that moved the counterweights atop the crescent rails. They resemble yo-yos. Author T. Kennard Thomson wrote that the avenue crosses Coney Island Creek, but was this really so? Continue reading

Photo of the Week

Among the public beaches of Brooklyn, Plumb Beach is the least known, tucked behind the dunes on the eastbound Belt Parkway between exits 9 and 11. The beach was once an island, separated from mainland Brooklyn by Hog Creek.

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This week’s selected photo was taken by prolific city photographer Percy Loomis Sperr and found in the NYPL Digital Collections. It shows a footbridge connecting the mainland with Plumb Beach but the tide is low enough to render the bridge redundant. It led to an independent-spirited squatter community that was razed in the 1930s to make way for Belt Parkway. Continue reading