Sergey Kadinsky's Hidden Waters of New York City

Reviewed by Julian Cole Phillips

Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs  by Sergey Kadinsky  W.W. Norton / Countryman, 352 pp.

Hidden Waters of New York City:
A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams
in the Five Boroughs

by Sergey Kadinsky
W.W. Norton / Countryman, 352 pp.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

It avails not, time nor place -- distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d....

Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1856)

To Walt Whitman, the network of waterways that cross-hatched what is now New York City were a transcendental link between epochs. “These and all else were the same to me as they are to you,” he wrote. “What is it then, between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us.”

In the eight-score years since the good gray poet penned these lines, the map of New York’s waterways has changed dramatically. Successive waves of urbanization—and its putatively progressive counterpart, urban renewal—have buried many of the inland waterways where the city’s denizens once drank, worked, sailed, and swam. Sergey Kadinsky’s new book, Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs seeks to uncover these waterways, returning them to the consciousness of those who live around them.

***

For millennia, humans have erected cities on the banks of rivers that guaranteed a steady supply of clean water. New York, in contrast, sprang up at a site where access to drinking water was severely limited. The region’s major river, the Hudson, is a tidal estuary that is vitiated with seawater; only the city’s smaller rivers and streams once provided potable water.

New York City’s government largely failed to tap even its limited sources of fresh water. An eighteenth century plan to protect and tap the Collect Pond -- a body of water in Lower Manhattan that provided clean drinking water -- was delayed until the once-pure basin was polluted by the encroaching city.[1] Various proposals to pipe Bronx River water to Manhattan were delayed by corruption until New York’s water needs had swelled beyond the river’s capacity.[2] Only after the 1842 completion of the Croton Aqueduct, which conveyed potable water forty miles through Westchester County to the present site of the New York Public Library, was the city adequately supplied with water. New access to this most vital of resources permitted the explosive population growth in the second half of the nineteenth century that rendered New York one of the world’s largest cities, second only to London.

The early failure to tap New York’s few sources of potable water ushered in centuries of urban planning that identified inland waterways as obstructions to growth, rather than essential features of the landscape. A handful of watercourses -- the Gowanus and Newtown Creeks foremost among them -- were adapted for industrial use. Many, however, were unceremoniously paved over under the influence of nineteenth and twentieth century ideologies that condemned natural water features as useless at best, and toxic at worst. By Kadinsky’s count, more than two dozen streams and ponds that once occupied the five boroughs have mostly or entirely vanished.

Some of these water features -- like Beaver Pond, in Central Queens[3] -- were condemned under the miasma theory, a popular nineteenth century notion that disease was conveyed by noxious vapors that often arose from marshlands.[4] Other waterways were destroyed, paradoxically, by the creation of parks. Under the picturesque aesthetic in landscape architecture practiced by Fredrick Law Olmstead and others, natural scenery was removed in favor of carefully manicured ersatz wilderness. In Olmstead’s Prospect Park, for example, natural swamplands were replaced by an artificial stream (which, because of its unnatural origins, continues to require constant maintenance to remain flowing).[5]

Most of the vanished waterways that Kadinsky traces were destroyed by the unrelenting expansion and remaking of New York’s urban fabric. In the 1820s, the growth of Greenwich Village buried the Minetta Brook, which once meandered through the neighborhood.[6] (To the chagrin of property owners, groundwater coursing along the path of the vanished stream continues to flood local basements. NYU’s now-defunct Coles Athletic Facility even attempted to tap this flow to provide a supplemental water source for the university pool during times of drought.)

Perhaps the most significant human shaper of New York’s waterways was Robert Moses, who wielded unprecedented power over the city’s built environment during the second and third quarters of the twentieth century. Moses did not shy away from projects that dramatically reshaped the city’s urban core; the Cross-Bronx Expressway is perhaps the most famous example.[7] But Moses concentrated many of his parks, highways, and housing developments on the marshy periphery of the city. From Flushing Meadows Park, which buried much of the Flushing River, to Co-op City, which installed more than 40,000 people atop a former marshland on the banks of the Hutchison River, Moses eliminated much of what remained of the pristine natural environment of the five boroughs.

***

Kadinsky identifies Hidden Waters as a “history and guide” that endeavors to “follow the routes of the waterways—along the way documenting events, personalities, and structures associated with each stream.”[8] The book also constitutes an appeal to local authorities to more fully incorporate natural water features into the city’s parks. By “daylighting” buried waterways and establishing new public spaces along formerly industrial shorelines, Kadinsky proposes, New York could receive both environmental and recreational benefits: increasing the amount of public space in an increasingly crowded city, while providing natural outlets for rainwater runoff.

Hidden Waters follows in the footsteps of guides that use alternative geographies to chart novel itineraries through New York City. Guidebooks like Miller and Seitz’s The Other Islands of New York City, Cantwell and Wall’s Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Past, and Bergman’s The Spiritual Traveller, New York City: A Guide to Sacred Spaces and Peaceful Places draw readers’ focus away from the standard tourist sites. Instead, these guidebooks draw attention to sites that -- despite their apparent remoteness from the city’s commercial core -- constitute crucial links in newly-charted constellations of urban life. In a similar manner, Hidden Waters uses the presence of waterways in sleepy corners of Staten Island and Queens to knit these neighborhoods into New York’s water system -- and, by extension, into the city itself.

As a guidebook, Hidden Waters would have been stronger if it included more extensive practical information and specific itineraries around each water feature. Although a handful of entries note that particular watercourses are navigable, the book does not include directions to publically accessible launching sites, or outline relevant laws and safety hazards—essential information for those who would consider launching kayaks into polluted urban streams. Readers should hope for an expanded second edition, with added practical content to assist the most adventurous urban explorers.

As a history of New York’s natural water system, Hidden Waters does not break substantial new ground. Based primarily on secondary literature and recent popular publications, the book is somewhat thin on the historical anecdotes that make other accounts of New York’s waterways (such as Joseph Alexiou’s recent study of the Gowanus Canal) richly engaging.[9] And, because Hidden Waters is structured as a guidebook, Kadinsky is unable to present broad historical arguments encompassing the centuries of New York’s engagement with its local waters. As a result, readers may find it difficult to comprehend the sweeping influence of water on the city’s development, and the effects of urban expansion on the water system writ large. Interested readers should supplement Kadinsky’s work with Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York.

***

After decades of alternately ignoring and eliminating natural water features, New York City may be moving, albeit haltingly, towards a more collaborative relationship with its waters.

Beginning in the 1990s, New York’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) embarked on an ambitious program to preserve natural water features along the south shore of Staten Island as a “bluebelt” to absorb rainwater runoff. (In most of the city, rainwater is channeled into sewage tunnels, an ineffective process that overburdens the sewer system, resulting in the occasional release of untreated sewage into the environment.) The creation of this “bluebelt” has heralded renewed recognition of the potential human uses of New York’s water features.

In 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversaw the drafting of PlaNYC, a set of policy recommendations intended to prepare New York for the long-term challenges of population growth and climate change. PlaNYC called for an additional 4,000 acres in Queens and Staten Island to be used as bluebelts.[10] It set the ambitious goal of preparing 90% of New York’s watercourses for recreational use.[11] Perhaps most significant, the report endorsed the restoration of ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan. This final recommendation was implemented four years later with the establishment of the East River Ferry; Mayor De Blasio recently committed the city to opening additional ferry links to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.[12]

In a development that would surely have pleased Walt Whitman, passenger ferries have begun to ply the waters between Manhattan and Brooklyn’s Wallabout Creek -- a stone’s throw from the row house on Ryerson Street where the poet penned his ode to the Fulton Ferry. To the indubitable posthumous chagrin of Robert Moses, New York City has decided to preserve and make use of some of its extant wetlands.

Hidden Waters marks an important step towards increasing public awareness of New York City’s diverse urban waters, paving the way for increased recreational use and improved management practices. New York has yet to fully exploit the dual potential of its waters to enhance the city’s resiliency in the face of climate change, and to offer expanded recreational opportunities for a growing population. But, in a hopeful sign, Whitman’s 1856 lines placing waterways at the core of the city’s identity have begun to ring true again:

Thrive, cities! bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers;
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual....

Julian Cole Phillips is a freelance writer and recent graduate of New York University 's M.A. program in Near Eastern Studies. He is a guide and researcher for NYC H2O.


[1] Gerard T. Koeppel, Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000): 36-49, 60.

[2] Koeppel, Gotham, 66, 125, and 144.

[3] Sergey Kadinsky, Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs (New York: The Countryman Press, 2016): 163.

[4] David S. Barnes, “Scents and Sensibilities: Disgust and the Meaning of Odors in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris, Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 28.1 (Spring 2002): 21-49 (here 23).

[5] Kadinsky, Hidden, 227.

[6] Kadinsky, Hidden, 14-20.

[7] Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York­ (New York: Vantage Books, 1974): 850-894.

[8] Kadinsky, Hidden Waters, xiii.

[9] Joseph Alexiou, Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal (New York and London: New York University Press, 2015).

[10] “PlaNYC: Sustainable Stormwater Management Plan 2008,” 63 and 86; Kadinsky, Hidden, 162 and 164.

[11] PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York,” 53.

[12] “PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York,” 87; Patrick McGeehan, “De Blasio’s $325 Million Ferry Push: Rides to 5 Boroughs, at Subway Price,” New York Times (15 June 2016).