Water On The Brain

Water On The Brain

I’m pretty much a numbskull, but in the time that I’ve been alive a few bits of wisdom have managed to leach through my cranium and into my brain. For example, I know to always carry a pump and a spare tube when I’m out on my bike. I know never to get into an empty subway car. (For you non-New Yorkers, when a subway car is empty, there’s always a reason.) And I know that when things seem dire you should always zoom out on the chart.

With regard to that last bit, what I mean by that is history can offer us a reassuring perspective and serve as an antidote to media-induced anxiety. For example, when there’s a storm or a flood or some other calamity and everyone starts running around yelling about the end of the world, I consider how the place where I live has been in a state of constant transformation, and that, historically speaking, remaining high and dry here in this place of rivers and bays and wetlands and estuaries is a very recent and totally man-made state of affairs. Consuming a steady diet of dire prognostications and climate porn may give us the illusion we’re well-informed, but it’s important to remember how ignorant many of us are the the actual nature of our surroundings and what lies beneath the concrete.

The other day, I was in a local museum with my son, and a docent (I’m assuming that’s what he was, though now that I think about it he might have been a ghost) started telling us about the natural geography of the area. I can spend inordinate amounts of time poring over old maps and photos so I already had a pretty good sense that I’m surrounded by all sorts of streams and creeks and wetlands that have been either filled in or driven underground, but he knew vastly more about that stuff than me. For example, consider this little road in Van Cortlandt Park, just a bidon’s toss from my home:

While I’d always figured it was probably pretty old, I mostly just thought of it as that token bit of “gravel” I like to hit at the end of my rides, like that ceremonial pavé right before the Roubaix velodrome. In fact, as museum guy and/or ghost explained, the road dates all the way back to the 17th century from when the park was a plantation, and they (slaves, probably) used to roll barrels down it and load them onto boats. The water upon which those boats would have floated has long since been diverted beneath the city streets, and you’d never even know it was there–until we get a fuckload of rain, of course, and everything floods:

Sure, as an old photo and map Fred I knew the water was there, but I didn’t appreciate the role it played in daily life, and that you could basically float cargo right from my back door and down to lower Manhattan or wherever it was they sent their goods in those days. In this neighborhood of apartment buildings and elevated subway tracks and big box stores and all the rest of it there are no visible clues that this was once sort of a Sweethaven Village, only with lousier weather:

Then, as it happens, the day after my museum visit there was a story about this very waterway in the Times:

I’d also known about the proposed daylighting, though of course the article frames it in the context of our impending doom:

Obviously the climate is changing. Up until about 18,000 years ago New York City was covered in a sheet of ice thicker than the Empire State Building is tall. We know this because we’ve since found tablets inscribed by prehistoric cyclists upon which they complain about not being able to use the bike lanes:

Just kidding!

But I mention the glaciers since we only put these waterways underground around 100 years ago, which is a pretty insignificant amount of time–though certainly in the past century the city has changed profoundly, and much moreso than the climate has during that time. When the city first ran that stream underground there were fewer than half a million people in the Bronx. Ten years later there were over 700,000 people, and ten years after that the population was 1.2 million. Seriously, look at this growth!

Moreover, since driving those waterways underground we’ve also paved the fuck out of the city, and the area went from this:

To this:

Of course the city needs to make improvements to the built environment to address flooding in the same way you need to make changes to your plumbing if your toilet keeps backing up. But is the problem really that we’re facing an existential threat to humanity due to climate change and it’s manifesting itself in urban flooding? Or is it that 8 million people are all sharing a bathroom that hasn’t been fundamentally updated since the early 20th century?

Baronial as it may be, if it were still in use today it would be in pretty rough shape.

All of this is to say it seems fairly straightforward that if you divert a bunch of water underground and then pave everything in sight you’re going to get flooding, in the same way that if you leave your leather saddle in the basement it’s going to get moldy:

Though by the current logic this saddle is a victim of climate change.

Again, I’m not saying we shouldn’t make our city more capable of withstanding flooding, or even that the climate’s not changing, because obviously it is, always has been, and always will be. I’m just resentful of the emotional toll you exact on people when you present everything as yet another horseman of the Apocalypse. I mean sure, I get why they do it–daylighting brooks and building bike lanes and all the rest of it takes on an additional dimension of urgency if the fate of humanity hangs in the balance–but building the future on a foundation of fear seems no less short-sighted than building large swaths of the city on top of sandbars and floodplains.

All that aside, few things are more tantalizing to me than the forgotten landscape beneath my wheels. Over the years Marble Hill has been severed from Manhattan and sliced and diced and dismembered and grafted onto the Bronx. You’d never know it today:

But this was once the northern tip of the island of Manhattan:

The creek has been filled in and the bridge buried, but that church reveals where they once were:

And not too far is Tibbetts Brook, the subject of the Times article. Here’s what it looked like in the early 20th century:

It still flows beneath the street that bears its name, but you’d never know it while getting your car washed or using the ATM at TD Bank:

Today every story must have an undercurrent of dread, but the irrepressible water just beneath the surface of our flimsy infrastructure should evoke the very opposite of dread, since it’s the planet operating as designed. Even when it’s subsuming our expressways, it’s merely doing what it’s supposed to do, and once we’re done flagellating ourselves we’ll find a better way to live with it. We always do.

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