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Transitions is an ongoing project dedicated to relate untold tales of Americana through longform journalism.

Because meaningful non-fiction should be bold and bring epic stories to the world.

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Minetta Brook: New York's Secret Underground Stream

Minetta Brook: New York's Secret Underground Stream

The Viele map of New York City goes back to 1874. Its scale is 1000 feet to 1 inch. It is made of two sections, both horizontally arranged, the first for the southern part of Manhattan and the second for the northern part. It is mostly blue-green pigment on yellowed paper. The title of the map is lithographed in the upper left corner and features stately fonts enclosing the print of a native American sitting with a Dutch settler. The two men are separated by a bald eagle and the city’s coat of arms. The title reads as SANITARY & TOPOGRAPHICAL MAP of the City and Island of NEW YORK Prepared for the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the CITIZENS ASSOCIATION. The name of the civil engineer responsible for the map, Egbert L. Viele, appears right below it.

The map is still used today by architects and developers to locate the island’s underground waterways. Now forested by buildings, Manhattan is obviously a wildly different place than it was 140 years ago — paved streets and glass towers have replaced the marshes and the meadows that used to compose its landscape. A whole new world has risen over the pastures and the swamps.

And as beautiful things tend to be, the true story of the city remains unseen.

Way underground, under the subway stations and the gas and water pipes, below the steam conduits and the sewers, deeper than the electrical lines, flow the buried remnants of forgotten rivers.

Manhattan’s layers of history can still easily be seen today. Hidden in plain sight, they unfold at nearly every street corner. Entrances to mythical cattle tunnels inside old brick warehouses in the Meatpacking district. Ruins of lost buildings surviving in the basements of new structures. Old painted signs crushed by the clean and neat shadow of modernity.

Minetta Street meets Sixth Avenue and Bleeker Street in the Village, a couple of blocks down Washington Square Park. Like most streets in the area, it is rather narrow and doesn’t follow the grid plan of uppermost neighborhoods.

Leaves seem greener in the Minetta Triangle. Flowers more abundant. An observant passerby will notice the lush trees and the dense shrubbery. This is because the street is built over the curve of an ancient stream originally depicted in the Viele map. The stream was thought to take its source where 20th Street and Broadway intersect. From there it ran through Wahsington Square and ended up in the Hudson around King Street. Everything in a ten block radius was built on a marsh — making it easy to understand why architects and construction crews can often be seen rushing into the Public Library to consult the precious map when something goes wrong during the erection of a new building.

Sinking foundations, overflowing basements and submerged elevator pits, sprawling potholes, humidity and mold, everything here is a reminder of what stands underground.

People say they hear the river. They say the river is now dry. They say you can still feel it rumbling after a storm. They say it is possible to catch a glimpse of it if you sneak into New York University’s Vanderbilt Building. They say the river is long gone and only the legend subsists.

Minetta creek is remembered by a plaque on a 5th Avenue building in which it was formerly possible to see the water gush into a tube-shaped fountain after a rain shower. The fountain is now gone but the plaque remains.

The Indians called it Manette or Devil’s Water.

On Minetta Lane, a few steps North of the eponymous street, older residents of prewar buildings recount stories of the brook as if it had forever been part of their lives. Sure they’ve heard of it. Their cellar used to flood every other day during summer rainfalls. The fuses always blowed due to shorts. Their backs often hurt. Of course they know about it. It’s always been there, under their feet, under their houses, hidden and covered by the years.

And even if it doesn’t exist anymore, a trace of it will always linger, somewhere underground, because that’s where New York’s history has always been and will always be.

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