Minetta Brook

An old watercourse has been forced underground, but its presence can still be seen in basements and in the route rainwater takes

By Mary Dennis

Imagine Manhattan before it was Manhattan. Where spandex clad rollerbladers zoom along the Westside Greenway, cranes waded quietly through marshy stands of glasswort. Instead of skyscrapers, thick forests of maple and ash dominated the landscape. And where roads crisscross the city, there were rivers. The forests have been cut, and the marshes filled, but traces of Manhattan’s natural waterways still run beneath the city. One of the largest is Minetta Brook.

minetta overlap

Overlay of Egbert Viele’s water map, showing the path of Minetta Brook, on a contemporary map of the West Village. (Courtesy Steve Duncan)

As described by historian John Fiske, “Two rivulets…came together between Fifth and Sixth avenues a little below Twelfth Street. Their junction formed Minetta Brook, which, after curving eastward enough to touch Clinton Place, flowed across Washington Square and down into the North River.”

Minetta saw the birth of Greenwich Village in the early 1700s, which was connected to the city by a road that traversed the brook with a causeway. The brook began to disappear from view in 1821, when the city ordered a wooden culvert built to drain a marsh fed by the creek. The water was driven underground, and the marsh was transformed into Washington Square Park.

It may not be the rushing, trout filled brook it once was, but Minetta exists to this day. “To some extent it’s kind of a fiction that a stream is just one line,” says Steve Duncan, an urban geographer who designed a GIS model of Minetta’s original course. “Really it’s rainfall and underground aquifers flowing through the entire watershed.” Duncan’s model shows how Minetta’s original watershed lines up closely with the city’s modern sewer system. “They weren’t trying to follow the watershed of the streams so much as that they were just trying to follow gravity—we have a gravity-driven sewer system in New York, so it makes sense that even though we flattened the topography, the contours for the sewer system would still follow essentially the same shape and slope,” explains Duncan.

canal st sewer

Sewer near Canal Street follows old watershed routes, like those of Minetta Brook. (Photo courtesy Steve Duncan)

It is this watershed, the water that flowed to Minetta, rather than water that came from it, that leads to flooding along Minetta’s channel to this day. As surely as New York would build in Minetta’s path, Minetta would flood those building sites. “Generally speaking, the closer construction has been to the original route of the Minetta, the more likely people are to run into water when they start digging down,” says Duncan.

In 1900, Minetta turned a railroad construction site to quicksand. In 1901, it flooded the foundation of a dry goods store. Local residents were, and sometimes still are, forced to pump water once destined for Minetta from their basements. A train station, a market, a hospital, even Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady studio—reports of flooding in construction sites near Minetta’s old channel date from the disappearance of the stream through to the present day.

Even to those just passing by, evidence of Minetta Brook is still visible along its original channel—the curve of Minetta Street speaks to the brook’s original banks, and the New York University law library still has a constant flow of about 5 gallons a minute of Minetta-bound water that rises up into its basement, and is diverted to a sewer by a pump.

The course of Minetta Brook, and the rest of Manhattan’s original waterways, deserve more recognition that the occasional story about a flooded foundation. “We kind of forget that these processes are still ongoing, there is still water flowing through the urban environment,” says Duncan. “The processes that formed that stream are still going on in the city today. To become more aware of that is to become more aware of what we need to do to make our city sustainable.” During summer months, Duncan gives walking tours of Minetta: with the lift of a manhole cover, it’s still possible to catch a glimpse of Manhattan’s watershed moving to the ocean, just as it always has.


Comments are closed.