The Daily

Arts & Culture

Ghost River

January 23, 2012 | by

Not long ago, I read an article about archaeologists in Greenland who discovered that plants growing above an ancient Norse ruin possessed slightly different chemistry from plants growing nearby. I was taken with the idea that the energy of a forgotten structure, invisible and buried deep underground, may percolate upwards to leave subtle impressions on the surface. It was this that came to mind recently when I discovered Minetta Brook, a hidden stream that flows beneath the streets of Greenwich Village.

I had learned of the stream from an 1865 map of Manhattan, drawn by an engineer named Egbert Ludovicus Viele, which showed marshlands, rivers, and streams crisscrossing the island beneath an overlay of the city’s grid. The map, which is still used today by engineers, showed Minetta Brook beginning as two branches, one originating from a spring at Fifth Avenue and Twentieth Street, the other from a marsh near Sixth Avenue and Seventeenth Street. They met near Twelfth Street, then flowed south down Fifth Avenue, through Washington Square Park, before emptying into the Hudson River at Charlton Street. According to the historian John Fiske, the brook, in the seventeenth century, had been a favorite fishing spot for the Lenape and the Dutch: “a clear swift brook abounding in trout.” By the early nineteenth century, it had disappeared from maps, buried beneath the streets, forgotten. Or perhaps not. There were stories floating around about basements of older buildings in the Village with grates in the floor, through which you could see the stream flowing. I wanted to listen to the stream, smell the water, dip my fingers in, maybe even take a small sip. Wouldn’t that be something. And so I decided to retrace the path of Minetta Brook, going door-to-door, asking everyone I met about the stream that flowed beneath their building.

Iggy, the superintendent at 133 Fifth Avenue, knew all about the stream. “Yeah, yeah.” He was a gnomish man with a mildly harassed air. “It used to flood my elevator pits.” I stopped an elderly couple emerging from their apartment building on Minetta Lane (named for the brook). They’d lived on the street for sixty-eight years. “It’s down there somewhere,” said the woman, with a shrug. In Minetta Tavern, I found a map painted on one wall titled, “Early Dutch Map of the Village shewing the site of Minetta Brook, the Farms and Estates adjoining, & the Properties and Landmarks of our Times.” Outside an antique shop on Downing Street, a man with an aureole of white hair told me, “I’ve lived on top of the stream for seventy years.” I asked him about being able to see the stream in old basements. “People say that,” he said, “but I never saw it.”

Nor had anyone else. I asked a middle-aged man with walrus-like whiskers who lived in a basement apartment on Minetta Street about his relationship to the stream. “It’s only a memory now,” he said.

I spoke to James Mellett, who had searched for the stream twenty years before. He was a geologist. He had used ground-penetrating radar. In Washington Square Park, he set up a fiberglass box containing an antenna, which emitted radar waves down through the concrete, sand, and gravel. But there was too much interference. “I wish I could help you,” he told me, “but I never saw it.”

Walking the stream’s path, I recalled an image I had seen once in a book about the rustic art of dowsing. A man with a steel-colored beard down to his solar plexus held the ends of a wishbone-shaped wooden rod. He walked through an empty field. He waited for the rod to tremble in his hand. An ineffable vibration from below, an invisible waterway.

On West Houston, the stream ran beneath a psychic den called Mystic Visions. In the doorway, I found a sallow woman in a long dress, head wrap, and mascara—a gypsy, or playing the part. A somber-eyed toddler appeared at her side. When I asked her about the stream, she studied me silently. Finally, in an unplaceable accent: “I know nothing about your stream.” The banners in her windows read “Future,” “Present,” “Past.”

On Eighteenth Street, it flowed beneath a Barnes and Noble. I spoke to the property manager on the phone, directed him to an Internet image of Viele’s map. When he saw that the stream flowed under his building, his voice came out breathless, “Oh my god. Oh my god.” He granted me permission to search the basement. I paced up and down, looking for a crack in the concrete where the stream bubbled up from below, listening for an echo of running water. Randy, the store manager who had acted as my escort, watched, perplexed. Perhaps it was only my imagination that the air in the basement felt inordinately damp.

The stream was at its widest on Twelfth Street, where the two tributaries converged. I had read that sinkholes sometimes formed in this street. The stream sidled up alongside a nineteenth-century brick townhouse, which jutted into the sidewalk at an odd angle to accommodate the waterway. No one answered when I rang the bell. The plants growing out of the cracks in the basement stairwell appeared particularly lush. A curtain flickered in the front window; I glimpsed the face of an old woman.

On Downing Street, the stream flowed beneath a nursing home. Through the window, I watched ancient men whispering back and forth across the lobby.

I entered 33 Washington Square Park West, an NYU dorm which had once been an apartment building. On the ground floor, the potbellied security guard escorted me to a small room crowded with rolled-up rugs and black plastic trash bins on wheels. Against the back wall was a bronze sculpture, a cupid with lips pursed. It was a fountain, which had once bubbled with the water of Minetta Brook. According to a 1923 Times article, the fountain’s installation had occasioned a ceremony. “Sharply at 2:30 P.M., a signal was given, a faucet in the basement was turned and the basin of the fountain began to fill.” A writer called Arthur Guiterman commemorated the brook’s resurfacing with a poem. Via radio, the ceremony was “broadcast throughout the country.” Now the fountain’s basin was bone-dry, and had been for decades, the security guard told me.

I next stepped into 2 Fifth Avenue, an enormous white apartment building. The doorman, an Eastern European man called Peter, showed me a white stone pedestal in the corner of the lobby. On top of the pedestal was a glass tube, four feet tall, that looked like it might have been clear at one point, but was now jaundiced. It was another forgotten fountain, another vestige of the stream. Peter, who had worked in the building for twenty-five years, couldn’t remember the last time he had seen water in it. Next to the entrance was a brass plaque with an engraving.

An erratic brook winds beneath this site. The Indians called it Manette or Devil’s Water. To the Dutch settlers, it was Bestevear’s Killetje or Grandfather’s Little Creek. For the Past Two Centuries familiar to this neighborhood as Minetta Brook.

I couldn’t help but feel that it read like an epitaph. “Visitors come to the fountain,” Peter told me. “On walking tours.” I imagined them gathering, pilgrims paying alms, a tour guide eulogizing.

Walking towards Washington Square Park, I phoned a man I had been referred to named Arthur. He lived at 24 Fifth Avenue, an ornate structure built directly on top of the stream. Arthur had been a tour guide in the Village, knew the neighborhood intimately. He wouldn’t meet me, preferred to speak on the phone. Just in the middle of talking about the stream, he broke off. “You know, on my tours I used to sing,” he said. “At the appropriate moments, I would burst into song.” His voice flattened. “But then I had a stroke. And now I don’t sing at all.”

Continuing towards the park after hanging up with Arthur, I recalled an article I had read about the brook from 1883. It was in the Times, a description of Viele’s presentation to the New York City Sanitary Association regarding the path of Minetta Brook. The article was for the most part a starchy recitation of facts. Towards the end, a character appeared with an almost Homeric quiver.  “An old gentleman present, whose name is forgotten, arose, and in a trembling voice said: ‘I have practiced medicine for fifty years in the vicinity of Minetta Brook, and I can trace the course of the stream by my practice in intermittent fevers.’”

It was dusk in Washington Square Park. I sat on a bench, my search having come to an end. The stream could not be seen or heard, but could everywhere be felt. The sky above the park was leaden. During the Civil War, when soldiers dragged artillery through here, they turned up burial shrouds. The park had been a potter’s field, a graveyard for the city’s destitute and unknown. The anonymous corpses underfoot, the phosphate lime of their bones, seeped into the invisible stream.

Will Hunt is writing a book about subterranean space.

26 COMMENTS

22 Comments

  1. Adalena | January 23, 2012 at 10:32 am

    If you examine the map provided here it looks as though Minetta brook cuts off before 4th Avenue and Union Sq., which threw me off, but then I did a little research and found a NY Times article from 1901 that describes it this way, “Minetta Brook, once a placid stream dividing Manhattan Island from the North to the East River…” which goes against what the map above suggests, but matches up with my own memory.

    When I was a student at the old Stuyvesant high school building in ’91-92 a friend told me that her science teacher brought the class down to a basement in the building, opened a door or grate in the floor, and they collected water samples from an underground stream and analyzed it. Could this be the Minetta Brook, or some *other* underground stream?

    Stuyvesant is no longer located in that building, but other DOE schools are housed there. I doubt school administration would let a stranger off the street tromp down in its basements (which I imagine are spooky and uninviting if I remember the dungeon-like gym with any accuracy)but if there’s an old custodian working there he/she might be able to shed some light on this.

    To see the 1901 article just search “Minetta Brook” at the NY Times site. It’s interesting in itself. Apparently there was a pond at the Waldorf Astoria site.

    There’s also this:
    http://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2008/06/18/minetta-brook-beneath-the-village/

  2. J. Illes | January 23, 2012 at 11:50 am

    What a fascinating article. Thank you so much. I know this neighborhood very well and so could really visualize your descriptions. I look forward to reading your book.

  3. Jesus Reyes | January 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    A Brook in the City

    The farmhouse lingers, though averse to square
    With the new city street it has to wear
    A number in. But what about the brook
    That held the house as in an elbow-crook?
    I ask as one who knew the brook, its strength
    And impulse, having dipped a finger length
    And made it leap my knuckle, having tossed
    A flower to try its currents where they crossed.
    The meadow grass could be cemented down
    From growing under pavements of a town;
    The apple trees be sent to hearth-stone flame.
    Is water wood to serve a brook the same?
    How else dispose of an immortal force
    No longer needed? Staunch it at its source
    With cinder loads dumped down? The brook was thrown
    Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone
    In fetid darkness still to live and run —
    And all for nothing it had ever done
    Except forget to go in fear perhaps.
    No one would know except for ancient maps
    That such a brook ran water. But I wonder
    If from its being kept forever under,
    The thoughts may not have risen that so keep
    This new-built city from both work and sleep.
    –Robert Frost

  4. John McCrory | January 23, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    See this claim of water flowing from the tube at 2 5th Ave in 2009 — http://www.scoutingny.com/?p=450 — with the suggestion that the water only flows today shortly after big storms.

    There are photos of the fountain and plaque on that page.

  5. Monte Burke | January 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    This reminded me of Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” Lovely.

  6. Afia | January 23, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Gorgeous piece. Thank you for sharing this and I hope you’ll follow up on the lead that Adalena has given.

  7. Steve | January 23, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Very fine piece, Will. It reminds me of passing a dry stream bed that ran through my town many years ago. There was a historical marker which detailed the history of The Herring Run (it was mentioned in Thoreau’s Cape Cod book). But the stream by then, to say nothing of now, is more like a trickle. And as for the herring, there are none.

  8. selena | January 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm

    and what about where it empties into the hudson?
    did you look there?
    scubadiving?

    wonderful article will hunt

  9. Elena | January 23, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    I use to work at Electric Lady Studios (Jimi Hendrix)at 52 W. 8th St. I was informed that Minetta ran under the building so there are 2 pumps operating to keep the basement from flooding.

  10. Elena | January 23, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Here’s a quote from an article (SonicScoop July 11, 2011) on the recent renovations at Electric Lady, “Meanwhile, the Studio A live room underwent renovations last year – both to address the river running underneath the basement studio (with French drains and modern plumbing) and to beef up and even out the flooring and acoustics throughout the room.”

    Me thinks Will Hunt needs to do a follow up by contacting the new studio manager, Lee Foster!!!

  11. David Greenbaum | January 24, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Wonderful piece – thank you. My family lived at 64 West 12th — the brownstone right next to the New School for Social Research — from the mid-1960s through late 1970s. Looking at the map it appears we were near to the convergence of the two tributaries. My mother writes in response to this article: “yes, I knew the Minetta creek ran under the house. I remember we had a sump pump by the oil burner because sometimes there were floods in the basement. Also one day I was in the back yard and with one step I sank about 1-2 feet into the ground. very strange, as if the creek were under the pachysandra plants.”

    Looking at the comments above, a gently meandering work on subterranean space can help deep memories to bubble up and community history to be “daylighted,” as the watershed restoration folks would say. Keep on digging.

  12. Jodi von Reinhart | January 25, 2012 at 11:35 am

    How wonderful to read this lovely piece, Will–and to recall how beautifully you’ve always written, always from a distinctive angle! I can’t wait to get my hands on your book.

  13. Russell Jacobs | January 30, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Dope article. The story about the doctor at the end is great.

  14. Hans Killebrook | January 30, 2012 at 11:07 am

    This publication should rename itself the Pyongyang Review if it’s going to delete comments that don’t slavishly praise the author’s work. This article in my opinion is twee and precious. This opinion should be heard, and I ask that you be civilized enough not to delete my opinion.

  15. Terese Coe | March 2, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Thank you so much for this. Here is my poem about Minetta Brook!

    Minetta

    by Terese Coe

    At dawn Minetta Lane is drifting under snowflakes.
    A small white mare goes hoofing home, her
    footfall crunch and slip on muted
    cobblestone, that lingers like Minetta
    Brook, that laughing turned the Lane
    not long ago, splashed down to
    Downing Street, dived out of
    sight.

    And still she catches like a sun-bleached
    watermill.

    The mare that stabled here, the jumpropes,
    jacks and gyroscopes are
    gone down too, and newsboys
    do not hawk. But should you hear
    a Boho brook, she’s
    whispering from her bed at dawn:

    I have seen all. Remember all.
    Ran clear as hoofbeat’s click on river stone.
    Cut ruts where wheels were stuck and ankles
    turned, and chortled back when
    shortcuts mixed with mud.
    Long before, grew cranberries and cress, so
    curse the day they drove me underground.
    The trees that live here live through me.
    The flowers’ sunlight touches me.
    I rush through roots and
    live in leaves. I sing the
    wildness growing, sing cicada
    clicking, swell where rain is falling.
    I sing the building leaning.
    I am the water.
    I am Minetta.

  16. Janet Kenny | March 5, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Delicate, evocative poem Terese. Thanks for letting me read it. I feel nostalgic for a place I have never seen.

  17. Leonora | March 7, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    A beautiful, evocative article.

  18. Bob Kosovsky | July 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    I’ve contributed to the Wikipedia article on Minetta Creek (most historical sources call it a creek). I’ve had a particular interest in it because my family once purchased the house at 43 West 12th Street (in 1965). That house (including 41 W. 12) was built later than the adjacent buildings because it is built on top of Minetta Creek. The curious thing is that you can see vestigal evidence of that: 49 West 12th has a peculiar curve to its eastern wall. Back in 1965, we were told by a building inspector that the curve is due to the building following Minetta Creek’s path. Also peculiar: The façade of 43 West 12th is not an indication of the interior width – it’s much wider. This is because the path of the river was wider mid-block (hence 49 West 12th is thinner beyond its façade).

    Perhaps you should wait until St. Vincent’s is demolished – a 1977 Times article mentions that the building contractor found the stream and said the water was flowing rapidly.

  19. franny | October 28, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    I live at the corner of Minetta Street and Sixth Avenue. I hear from my super that our basement floods when there is long-lasting or sudden, heavy rain. I’ve never witnessed the flooding, but can attest that my kitchen sink gurgles relentlessly during such times. I always smile, as I’m certain it’s some remnant of Minetta Brook, raising its long-buried voice for a moment as it otherwise travels quietly home to the Hudson River.

  20. Terese Coe | November 24, 2012 at 8:57 pm

    Mr. Kosovsky is right–it’s Minetta Creek according to most people. As for the way its course has affected construction, the reason Minetta Lane angles is no doubt because the Creek angles at the same point, as you can see on the map. It’s noteworthy too that NYU had a lot of trouble with the Creek while building Kimmel, so it seems the water has spread out considerably in some places, no doubt due to all the stone and concrete that have fallen into it during construction over it for more than a hundred years. There is a sewer grate on the corner of Minetta Lane and Minetta Street, and I was surprised to see it hadn’t flooded during Superstorm Sandy–even when the floods were at their highest everywhere else! The channel must be deep, at least from there to the Hudson.

  21. Carl Russo | November 2, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Mission Creek similarly runs beneath San Francisco, CA. The only place you can see it is in the basement of the old armory on Mission Street. To get into the basement, you must first schedule a porn tour with its current occupant, Kink, the hardcore/S.M. purveyors.

  22. Kik Williams | May 27, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Really interesting article and letters following. Fun to read your work Will. Kik

4 Pingbacks

  1. […] maps continue to trickle through my mind despite the lengthy absence. Read this fascinating article for some subterranean […]

  2. […] of the building has an oblique angle. When the building was constructed in the early to mid 1800s, Minetta Brook (or Creek) still ran along the surface, and the building ran along the brook. As this map shows, two streams […]

  3. […] of the building has an oblique angle. When the building was constructed in the early to mid 1800s, Minetta Brook (or Creek) still ran along the surface, and the building ran along the brook. As this map shows, two streams […]

  4. […] 21. There is a ‘ghost river’ that runs under Manhattan. Buildings were built with grates in basement, under which the river ran. – Source […]

Leave a Comment