Underground Waterways: NYC

Man fishing, rod in hand, fish dangling from the tip of his fishing rod.
Fishing. Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021.

Coming up with this blog post was the ultimate dive down a rabbit hole. While searching for information on tunnels below Manhattan, hoping to find some that predated the legendary and possibly mythical cow tunnels, I came across an article about fishing in a basement below Second Avenue in the 1950s. How could I not investigate this matter for you, dear reader? And by you, I mean me. Us. The hopelessly curious.

While some of what I found touches on 18th century Manhattan, much of it references the 19th century to present times.

Manhattan’s Terrain

Let’s begin at the beginning. When the Lenape inhabited the island of Manhattan, it was lush with forests, “streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs.”1 Then the Dutch arrived in 1625 and began systematically rearranging nature to suit their purposes of creating a sustainable town — sustainable to European-style living. They dug canals reminiscent of their beloved Amsterdam. Just like Amsterdam’s canals, eventually they became polluted by residents dumping refuse into them.

The image shows a canal with buildings on either side. There are small rowboats in the water. Two men stand at a dock.
Broad Street, 1640. Source: NYPL

When the British took over in 1664, they had no interest in rehabilitating the canals. They filled them in and built over them, as well as other waterways. This started out as a good idea to expand and make the land more habitable. However, that wasn’t always the outcome.

Collect Pond

The hilly area around the Collect Pond.
Collect Pond by By Archibald Robertson. Source: Met Museum

To the west of the famous Tea Water Pump, where drinking water was delivered by the barrel to residents in Lower Manhattan, lay the Collect Pond. Over the course of the 18th century, the pond became polluted by run-off from nearby industries (tanneries, cattle farms, etc.). It was time to bury the pond as it no longer served its purpose and was taking up valuable real estate. In 1819, developers built an elegant neighborhood called Paradise Square atop the filled in pond. It’s elegance didn’t last.

“The engineers of those days evidently believed that the leveling of the hills, down the sides of which coursed the rivulets … would exterminate the stream. But they were mistaken.”

— 1883, New York Times
Three men stand around an iron fence in the courtyard of the Tombs. It is a stone building with grates on the windows.
The Tombs, 1850-1930. Source: NYPL

The fancy homes began to sink into the land within ten years, and as it did, methane from the rotting wildlife beneath the fill escaped. No longer a place where the wealthy wished to live, the area fell to slums and tenements, becoming the notorious Five Points. In fact, The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, better known as the Tombs, built over the original deepest part of the pond, sank shortly after its opening. The cells were compared to dungeons of the worst conditions due in part by the pond’s haunting remnants.

Minetta Brook

Down a manhole. The walls of the tunnel are brick. There is a river running below.
Minetta Brook, underground. Source: Untapped Cities, photo credit: Allison Meier

Minetta Brook, under today’s Greenwich Village, flowed from the western section of Washington Square Park where its course took it to the Hudson River. Marshland around the brook eventually became tobacco farms.  By the time the Yellow Fever epidemic swept the country in 1797, these farms were converted to cemeteries.

Eventually, the city moved the cemetery’s lots to another location, building a neighborhood called Little Africa, the city’s first free black community, in its place. Like the Collect Pond, the area where the Minetta Brook had freely flowed turned into slums and became an uptown version of Five Points.

Old, plain buildings, fire escapes, etc.
Minetta Street, 1925. Source: NYPL
(Notice how the road turns at the far end. That is the original course of the brook.)

Some believed that there was a connection between fever outbreaks and the communities built over buried waterways. I would argue that this might be a case of causality vs. correlation. Slums, overcrowded by those who couldn’t afford medical care or better sanitation, may have hastened the prevalence of fast-spreading diseases. It didn’t help that they lived on land with rotting material beneath.

Egbert Ludovicus Viele

Colonel Viele in his US Army, Civil War uniform.

Colonel Viele served in the US Army in the Civil War. Before the war, he’d seen how poor sanitation caused illness and was a proponent of the theory that building over buried waterways was the cause. As a civil engineer and surveyor, he set out to map the island’s streams and ponds. It illuminated “what the island looked like before it was filled in.”2

[Egbert Ludovicus Viele. Source: Library of Congress]

The pressures of 19th century growth forced the city planning commission to develop an aggressive plan that would encompass the whole of old Mannahatta. A massive 2,028 block grid stretched 13.4 miles and took nearly 60 years to complete.

Steemit / @voronoi

Viele’s map shows all the known, original waterways as well as the city’s grid system. Since it is impossible to know how these waterways might affect construction today, structural engineers still use the 1865 map before beginning any job in Manhattan.

A full map of Manhattan. A grid is laid over the majority of the island which includes all the waterways known in 1865.
Sanitary & Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York Prepared for the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens Association. Under the direction of Egbert L. Viele, Topographical Engineer, 1865. Source: Public Domain
Key to the map. Green with darker green tufts is marshland. Orange indicates manmade. A paler green with hashmarks is meadow. A dark line drawn down a street indicates the presence of sewers. Blue is waterway.
Key to Viele’s map.
A segment of Manhattan by Pearl Street that shows off all of the facets of the key.
Detail of Viele’s map showing waterways under streets, meadows, landfill, and sewers.

Fishing in the Basement

Finally, we go fishing. In the 1950s, New York experienced another regrowth. New, heavier buildings with deeper foundations replaced smaller buildings. This caused underground waterways to reroute again.

An old city hardware store with a sign out front.
Hardware Store, 1941. Source: NYPL

Then, in 1955, two hurricanes swept through New York within ten days of each other: Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Diane. As you might guess, these caused unprecedented flooding and destruction.

Between the rerouted waterways and the flooding from the hurricanes came a story that took place on Second Avenue and 53rd Street under Gasnick Supply Company, a hardware store. Mr. Gasnick described his experience in an article in the New York Times on August 22, 1971.

Let’s allow Mr. Gasnick to tell his story:

"...We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and up-on its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.

"With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed up-wards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness. 

"One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing. 

"Feeling a tug, I hauled up in excitement and there was a carp skipping before me, an almost three pounder. I was brave enough to have it pan-broiled and buttered in our upstairs kitchen and shared it with my brother..."

Today, both Gasnick Supply Company and the building are gone. There have been no other reports of fishing in basements in New York City, though in 2007, Giles the author of Urbablurb, a short-lived New York blog, claimed he saw a 19th century clapboard house in Brooklyn with a sealed up well in the basement floor.

Fish Tale or Not?

Maybe. Possibly? I’d like to think Gasnick caught his fish.

Japanese style illustration of a carp.
Carp. Source: RawPixel

Could Carp live their whole lives in New York City’s underground waterways? Not likely. What would they eat? Their diet consists mainly of algae and plant matter, which would have a hard time growing without sunlight. Carp migrating from a backyard pond after the flooding from the hurricanes is a more likely theory.

A conservation ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society argued that it was “unclear whether water still flowed in many of the underground streambeds, because most of the water that once drained into them now flows into storm drains instead.”3 And yet, after heavy rainfall, these underground streams still cause basement flooding, sinking foundations, and backyard sinkholes.

The Last Tribute

Two Fifth Avenue is a high-rise apartment building completed in 1952. I checked. It’s still there. The building is located across from the Washington Square Triumphal Arch, and until 2011, the high-rise’s lobby displayed a glass pipe revealing silted water bubbling up from the buried Minetta Brook. As a triubte to the underground waterways, it was the last of its kind. Sadly, after a renovation, it was never replaced.

Footnotes:

  1. Watercourses
  2. When There Was Water, Water Everywhere
  3. An Ancient Stream Under a Manhattan Building Leads to a Dispute

Sources:

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Jews in Colonial New York — Part 1

Most of my blogs center on 18th century New York because that is the period and location in which the books I’m writing take place. This post will take us to back to just before 1654, when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. By going back that far, it will give us context for the Jewish experience in the 18th century. More than land changed hands from the Lenape to the Dutch to the British. Religious tolerance and rights also shifted.

Dutch people gather in a town square.
New York of 1660. Source: NYPL

The first Dutch settlement in New Netherland was claimed in 1614 under the direction of the Dutch West India Company. Ten years later, the directors of the Company founded New Amsterdam and sent merchants and stockholders to settle there. By 1654, the first Jewish merchants arrived, and some of them may have even been directors themselves.1

Sephardic Jews Under Dutch Rule

Menasseh ben Israel by Rembrandt, 1636 (etching). Source: National Portrait Gallery (UK)

In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal expelled Jews during the Inquisition. Many went to Holland, where they enjoyed religious toleration and full political rights. These Jews were known as Sephardic (Hebrew for Spanish) because they came from the Iberian Peninsula. However, they had to abide by certain restrictions placed on them. The Dutch forbid them to write or speak disparagingly of the Christian religion, convert Christians to Judaism, nor were they allowed to intermarry among Christians.

Jews were also forbidden to engage in retail trade. In many European countries, retail was the domain of the Christian burghers. However, this exclusion did not extend to imports and exports. As such, Jews played an influential role in the Company with their merchant businesses. Many left Holland with the Company and settled in Brazil until the Portuguese took control in 1654, expelling the Dutch.

A fleet of Dutch merchant ships, sails billowing, flying the Dutch red, white, and blue flag.
Dutch West India Company. Source: Public Domain

Does that date sound familiar? It should. The first Jews on record to arrive in New Amsterdam were refugees from Brazil.

Lastly, under Dutch rule, Jews could only legally pray in private. It would be many years before the founding of the first synagogue in the New World. In fact, it wasn’t until 1671 when the first Sephardic synagogue in Holland was allowed to be built.

While there were individuals who wished the Company would enact intolerance rules toward the Jews, Peter Stuyvesant, the Director General of the colony of New Netherland, instructed otherwise:

“… After many consultations we have decided and resolved upon a certain petition made by said Portuguese Jews, that they shall have permission to sail to and trade in New Netherland and to live and remain there, provided the poor among them shall not become a burden to the Company, or to the community, but be supported by their own nation. You will govern yourself accordingly.”

Peter Stuyvesant, April 26, 1655.

New Amsterdam

Jews settling in New Amsterdam remained under Dutch protection and enjoyed the same rights and privileges as those in Holland. Considering the treatment of Jews in other parts of Europe, it could have been worse — a frequent refrain in Jewish history. Jews in Holland and her colonies were a separate class, but with the same political rights.

The left page shows handwriting: Isaac Mattahias Gomez. The right page is engraved with Biblia Espanola.
A Sephardic bible, translated into Spanish, printed in 1661.
Source: Gomez Mill House.

Shortly after settling, Jews gained the right to purchase land for themselves. Then they were permitted to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery, a first step in laying down roots.

Then the English took New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming it for the Duke of York.

The articles of capitulation provided that:

All people shall still continue free denizens and enjoy their lands, houses, goods, ships wheresoever they are within this country, and dispose of them as they please.

The Treaty of Breda in 1667 confirmed that the legal status of the Jewish residents would continue under the new British rule.

Was it so simple? Yes, and no.

English Colonial Rule

A painting of the surrender.British ships in the background.
The fall of New Amsterdam. A woman pleads with Peter Stuyvesant. Source: Wikimedia

Under English colonial law, conquered territories did not have to follow English law; they could create their own set of laws for the new British subjects. Some argued, however, that New York was an “acquisition by discovery,” and therefore subject to the laws of England. After all, the Duke of York acquired New Amsterdam — not conquered it — because the Dutch chose not to fight when the British showed up. Therefore, the land passed into English hands.

What did this mean for the Jews? It’s complicated.

Next, we’ll explore the nuances of British control up through the American Revolution in Jews in Colonial New York – Part 2.

Ships approach the fortress at the tip of New York City. A Union Jack flies above the fort.
A view of Fort George with the city of New York. Source: John Carwitham, 1731.

Footnotes:

  1. Civil Status of the Jews in Colonial New York

Sources:

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Bowry Lane

If you had asked me which street in Manhattan is the oldest, I would have answered, “The Broad Way.” And I would have been wrong. Before Chinatown and Five Points, before the street became known as “The Bowery,” it was Bowry Lane, a prior footpath shaped by the Lenape.

Native American dwellings on Manhattan Island, before the Dutch settlement.
Source: John Gilmary Shea, 1886.

The Lenape used the path to travel to and from trading and gathering places, and Collect Pond, the only source of freshwater in Manhattan. (The East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries—or brackish, not fresh.) The Lenape term for the path was Wickquasgeck, which either means “Path to the trading place” or “Birch-bark country.”

Dutch Bouwerij

As the Dutch stripped land for the colonists to become self-sufficient in their new environment, they named the path for the farms, or bouwerijs, on it.

In 1625, the Dutch West India Company sent Crijn Fredericksz, an engineer, to Manhattan to survey the land for a fort, roads, farms, and property lines. In doing so, the Broad Way—broad enough for carriages passing in both directions—extended from the southernmost tip of the island where the Dutch built their fort, straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerij.”

Map of New Amsterdam. Fort at the tip of Manhattan, the Broad Way extending straight up to the “Road to the Bouwerijs” along the East River, 1644.

Enslaved Africans

In 1626, the first enslaved Africans arrived in New Amsterdam. Within two decades, many were granted freedom and parcels of land along Bowry Lane.

Now older and manumitted, free Africans were, for the most part, no longer considered “useful” to colonists. But the colonists still found a way to use them: by living on the farthest land from the fort, the free Africans served as the first line of defense against attacks by Native Americans and the British coming from the north.

Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets
Ancient View of the Present Junction of Pearl & Chatham Streets, 1861. Source: NYPL

Manhattan Changes Hands

When the British took over in 1664, Bowry Lane was already the major road out of Manhattan. It connected to the Boston Post Road, which still exists today, and was literally a posting road that led from New York to Boston.

Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury. A plan of the city of New-York & its environs to Greenwich, on the North or Hudsons River, and to Crown Point, on the East or Sound River, shewing the several streets, publick buildings, docks, fort & battery, with the true form & course of the commanding grounds, with and without the town. Survey'd in the winter,i.e. 1766. [London; Sold by A. Dury, 1775]
Montrésor, John, Peter Andrews, and Andrew Dury, 1766. Source: Library of Congress

In the early part of the 18th century, Bowry Lane was paved, and sidewalks installed. A map from 1766 labels the entire length of road as “the Bowry Lane.” However, after the American Revolution, the northern section was renamed for William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, for his pro-American stance during the war.

The Oldest Home in Manhattan

While New York City became more populated with people and buildings, Bowry Lane remained farms and large estates. To accommodate a greater need for meat, the city established the first public slaughterhouse on the land around Collect Pond, which sits very close to Bowry Lane. Prior to this, slaughterhouses weren’t allowed in the city due to their noise, smells, and effluent matter. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end to Collect Pond as a source of non-polluted freshwater.

The house is brick, painted dark red. There are Chinese characters below the third floor windows.
Edward Mooney House at 18 Bowery.
Source: Wikimedia

The slaughterhouses were important to Edward Mooney, who was not only important in the “meat business,” but also represented the city’s butchers in the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. Wanting to leave near his place of business, he purchased a parcel of land from the Delancey estate at the auction from the Commissioners of Forfeiture in 1785.

During and after the war, Americans confiscated land from loyalists to pay for the war effort. The inhabitants were allowed to take their clothes, some furniture, and provisions for three months. As such, James Delancey, who remained loyal to the British Crown, forfeited his estate. On this land, Mooney built a house at 18 Bowery, and it still stands today.

The architectural style of the house is Early Federal, reflecting strongly its Georgian antecedents in construction, proportions and design details. It is three stories in height, with s finished-garret beneath a gambrel roof, Two features of special note which verif,y the documented age of the building are the hand-hewn timbers framing the roof and the broad width of the front windows in proportion to their height. On the exterior, original splayed stone lintels with double keystone blocks are above most of the windows. At the gable end of the house, Which can be viewed from Pell Street, the garret floor is lighted by a central round-headed window. the upper sash of which contains original wooden tracery. It is flanked by a pair of quadrant windows. The gambrel roof on this side is Within a parapet wall connecting:two large chimneys. The interior of the house also discloses many original architectural details including, in the earliest section, window frames and trim, and in the extension, a stairway with an oval-shaped handrail.
From the Landmarks Preservation Commission, August 23, 1966

The Bowery

The 19th century brought tremendous change to Manhattan and the Bowery, in particular with the influx of immigrants. Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the Bowery would continue to thrive and fail many times over.

Image of the Bowery with people walking on the street, horse-drawn carts, and trolleys below an elevated train track in front of the Bowery Savings Bank.
The Bowery 1897-1898. Source: Wikimedia

Sources:

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Purim in the Dutch Colonies

Purim was last week. (I’m not great at planning posts, obviously.) For my non-Jewish readers, it’s a holiday to celebrate the Jews surviving yet another genocidal attempt (this time, 5th century BCE Persia) by a right-wing, fascist sociopath (this time, Haman). No matter the country, we have a track record of being ‘othered’ for not fully fitting in, hated/killed for not fully fitting in, and surviving all that bullshit. We’re the adamantium of peoples. 

A rabbi holding a prayer book and a torah. The text says, "They tried to kill us. We served. Let's eat.

It’s why every holiday we bow our heads and say:

Modern American Purim

Chocolate and vanilla cheesecake hamantashen, triangular cookies
Source: Hallie Alexander, 2021

I love Purim because of it is one day of dressing up in costume, the hamantashen (cookies), and getting drunk until you can’t tell the difference between Mordecai (good guy) and Haman (bad guy) — I’ve never actually done this one, but my childhood Orthodox rabbi would wear a Papa Smurf costume and drink slivovitz through the megillah reading (another mitzvah). Yeah, those were my formative years.

So, why is dressing up on Purim a big deal? Esther hid her true identity as a Jew and revealed this to her husband, the king who was completely in lust with her, in time to stop Haman’s genocide. (If you think Esther deliberately seduced her husband — who picked her out of a lineup of women [ugh, gross] — to save the Jews, and that all of this sets feminism back over 2400 years, and why would I celebrate it?

Bringing down the patriarchy with the tools available to the powerless.

18th Century Purim in the Dutch Atlantic

A group of people approaching the columns of a palace.
Queen Esther Approach­ing the Palace of Aha­suerus, 1658, Claude Lor­rain. Source: The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Let’s move up 2000-ish years to the 18th century to how the colonized world celebrated Purim. A little background info first: The Spanish Inquisition (and subsequent Portuguese Inquisition) drove the Jews of Spain and Portugal to countries who embraced religious freedom. The Netherlands was one of these countries. When the Dutch began colonizing, they offered prominent positions in these lands to those who contributed positively to the empire. They sent many Jews to build up the merchant trade in the Atlantic World. In doing so, they became slave-owners like their Christian counterparts.

Dutch style building in yellow with white trim.
Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao. Source: Wikimedia

This brings us to Suriname and Curacao in the late 18th and early 19th century. Remember when I said we celebrate Purim for one day? Suriname and Curacao had their own rules… or lack thereof. There, Jews, along with the Christian and Afro-Caribbean communities, both free and enslaved, celebrated Purim together for a week of debauchery, Carnival style.* Christian theologians of the time called it bacchanalia Judaeorum, or Jewish carnival. (Ben-Ur)

4 Rules to Celebrate Purim

How did Jews get away with what would seem like an un-Godly celebration? Well, the Book of Esther, or Megillah, never mentions God, which makes the holiday a little more secular than religious, from a Jewish perspective. Further, there are only four rules to celebrate, the rest is conjecture:

  1. Listen to the reading of the Megillah
  2. Sending treats to friends
  3. Have a feast
  4. Give to the poor
A portion of a Megillah with illustrations surrounding the text in the center.
Book of Esther (Megillah), 18th century. Source: Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam/Wikimedia

Regarding costumes, there are numerous arguments about why we do it. One theory looks to the Conversos — the Jews who hid their true identity by outwardly converting to Christianity under the Inquisition, but inwardly remained Jews. (Not all Dutch Jews falsely converted. They just left the Iberian peninsula.)

Blurred Lines

By wearing masks and costumes, the line between Jews and non-Jews, the enslaved and the slavers blurred. Not only were costumes worn, they were often inversions of the social structure. Men dressed like women, women dressed like men, slaves pretended to be free, and Christians who weren’t so thrilled about Jews**, joined in the fun.

Who wouldn’t want to celebrate a week of inebriation, inversion, and not working?

In Suriname and Curacao, African dance had been outlawed, but during Purim celebrations, their dancing was permissible. So was their drumming. Also added to the mix of celebration were Creole and Catholic elements.

As ear­ly as 1711, Suriname’s colo­nial leg­is­la­tors com­plained of the great num­bers of slaves in Joden­sa­vane [“Jews’ Savan­nah”] who gath­ered on Jew­ish hol­i­days to ​“drum, dance, and play,” activ­i­ties that caused ​“many dis­or­ders.”

Cel­e­brat­ing Purim in a Slave Society
Slaves dance and play instruments on Dutch colonized Suriname.
Benoit, Pierre Jacques. Voyage a Surinam. 1839. Source: historyarchive.org

In ear­ly mod­ern West Africa, mas­quer­ades and com­mu­nal dances con­sti­tut­ed cru­cial life-cycle rit­u­als, includ­ing ini­ti­a­tions. Tak­ing part in masked Purim cel­e­bra­tions may have been a means by which slaves could incul­cate ances­tral val­ues to their imme­di­ate com­mu­ni­ty and trans­mit those to their descen­dants.

Cel­e­brat­ing Purim in a Slave Society

Of course, we can’t know for certain why Africans and their descendents chose to participate in Purim. As there is no written record, the above quotation is speculation.

Unfortunately, after the holiday, all the laws and rules of “normal” society returned, and Africans were enslaved once again.

Notes:

* There is the theory that in order for Jews about this time to fit into their new-to-them countries — like Italy where they lived in ghettos, forcibly separated from Christians — they adapted the free-wheeling fun of Carnival (a Christian celebration before the asceticism of Lent) to fit the Purim narrative. That’s why some Purim customs seem like a stretch in connecting to Esther’s story… and why hamantashen are shaped like “Haman’s hat.” So far as I can find, tricorn hats were popular in 18th century Western culture and not a Persian accessory, like ever.

** Even though they had “legal privileges unparalleled among Jews elsewhere in the Atlantic world.” (Ben-Ur)

Sources:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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