The River Below Fifth Avenue

One of the things that absolutely fascinates me about Manhattan is the idea that streams and rivers that once flowed above ground continue to this day deep beneath our feet. In some instances, man-made canals were built to divert their path; in others, persistent rivers fought through landfill to continue on their way.

One such stream is Minetta Brook, which you can see on the Viele map, a full mark-up of the city’s streams, springs, and marshland made in 1874 and still used by engineers today.

Native Americans called it “Manette,” or Devil’s Water. Dutch settlers named it “Bestevaer’s Killetje,” or Grandfather’s Little Creek. Like many streets named after long-gone rivers and ponds (Water St and Spring St were so named because of their proximity to water), Minetta Street in the Village allegedly bends to follow the original path of Minetta Brook.

Minetta

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because of a really, really fantastic oddity at 2 Fifth Ave, just north of Washington Square Park.

Minetta - 01

When this building was constructed in the 1930s, this odd-looking clear-glass “fountain” was installed, which allegedly goes right down to the old brook. Apparently, when the brook is flowing heavy, water bubbles up inside.

Minetta - 02

Sadly, when I went, it was pretty dry, with dirt traces caked up along the sides. But a comment on this Minetta-related post as recent as November ’08 reports that it was filled with water. It’s raining tonight – I might stop in again tomorrow morning to see if there’s any change.

This plaque is mounted beside it:

Minetta - 03

Some say that it doesn’t actually go down to the brook; that Minetta dried up in the 1800s, and that the tube was put in as a symbolic representation of the old stream, that it was just a big publicity stunt to garner interest in the new building, that the water that comes up is due to building plumbing – but no one knows for sure. What clinches it for me is the look of the thing – I mean, if you’re going to fake it, why not do it with a bit more style than a dingy plastic tube shoved into what looks like an ash tray bin hidden behind the front desk? The dirt caking the sides looks pretty authentic as well – but you be the judge.

I’m sure this is something that every NYU kid knows about, but it’s a huge surprise for me. I’ve walked by 2 5th Avenue hundreds of times in my years living in New York and had no idea that such a cool oddity was right in the open for anyone to see.

In trying to find information on Minetta Brook, I came across an amazing site that I’m going to have to pour over when I get some time: Water Courses, a blog dedicated to lost rivers and streams in NYC. Definitely check it out to find out what you’d be swimming in if not for the pavement beneath your feet.

UPDATE!

I went back today and was amazed to find water coming right up the pipe. You can sort of see it in this picture clinging to the sides:

tube1

The water wasn’t just splashing, it was surging up in torrents. Really cool to see, and it corresponds with the rains we had last night. Definitely check it out the next time a storm passes through.

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27 comments

  1. I work in the NYU law school and have heard that in one of the buildings – Vanderbilt Hall I think – you can see the brook through a grate in part of the basement. I haven’t seen it but this past summer there was talk of the brook coming up into I think the elevator shafts and one woman called up to try to get building access so she could bring a tour group in to see it. The tour was based entirely around the brook, following it’s path and such, but I don’t know what that group’s name was. Might be interesting to look into though.

  2. My apartment backs on Minetta Street. The shape of the apartment, like the street, follows the curving path of the brook. When we have heavy rains, the basement floods, sometimes dramatically, and we think this is the brook rising.

  3. I remember reading in a biography of Jimi Hendrix that while he was constructing his Electric Lady studios in a basement in 1970, the work had to be put off for weeks when construction crews his Minetta Brook and flooded the foundations of the building that houses Electric Lady.

    Some people say that being built right on top of Minetta Brook gives Electric Lady Studio A a weird, unique resonance.

  4. Scout, I am the Nov 08 commenter that you referenced above when you linked to the other Minetta-related post. I can send you my picture if you like!

  5. This is just amazing! Thanks for the find.

  6. When I worked at Fairchild Publishing on East 11th Street in the 80s, the Purchasing Manager took me on a tour of the sub-basement where a stream flowed across the dirt and concrete floor. It could become a torrent at times of heavy rain. Very spooky place!

  7. The Minetta Brook also runs directly under the stage at the Minetta Lane Theater. The laundry room was located under the stage when I took a wardrobe job there a few years back, and it was the creepiest place in the world. The room was accessible by opening a trap door in the stage and climbing down a seven foot ladder. I couldn’t open the trap door from below, and people were always closing it behind me because they feared someone falling through the hole. The floor under the stage was dirt, liberally interspersed with large puddles. In addition, the clothes drier had a habit of blowing fuses, thereby killing the lights, and as I was usually the last one working, I’d have to find my way by touch to the “emergency exit”, which was a small gap in the two by fours that supported the front of the stage, just big enough to crawl through if you were feeling bendy. One night, it rained and a fuse blew and I found myself in pitch darkness with my arms wet to my elbows in a sink full of soapy water, and my ankles equally wet in six inches of mud.

  8. Here’s one for you to investigate: I was working on a film a few years ago in the East Village. We shot a scene in front of the yellow church on the SE c/o Avenue B and East 8th Street. At the time, the priest told me the church was on course to being condemned for structural reasons. He was right – that church has been boarded up for a while now. He told me about a creek that runs beneath the church that is visible through holes in the sub-basement floor. I was interested but never got around to checking it out for myself. Missed opportunity.

  9. Even though I grew up about a 20 minute walk from Wash Sq Pk, when I started at NYU I took a paid tour of the Village. I was fascinated to see that tube in the lobby (the doorman said he saw water in it frequently). Other strong memories were the Hanging Tree in the NW corner of the park (creepy) and hearing about the Judson dance performance in the 1960s where a dancer finished a performance by dancing right out an open window to their death (yikes!). What a tour! I had no idea! Great post as always. Thanks.

  10. i live around the corner on MacDougal. Some days you can still smell the water from the brook, and it smells…

  11. its like a ghost brook.

  12. yeah! I lived on washington place and sixth avenue and in my basement we have a grate that goes over minetta stream. I don’t know anymore but when I was younger you could see water flowing under it.

  13. I wonder why it is “Devil’s Water”? I guess Ken MC’s above comment sheds light on it. Stinky water.

    As for Alphabet City, it is built on salt marshes, which is why most of the community is in the Flood A Zone. Several Weeping Willows, which love water, live in community gardens across the area.

  14. A friend and I went to see this yesterday and it was gone! We asked the doorman if it was gone for good. He said they were just cleaning the tube, but then he told us that it was completely fake and the whole thing was driven by a pump! What a disappointment! He said it had been further into the lobby years ago (before his time) and maybe that was real? Whether the pump pushes up actual Minetta water is unknown. :(

  15. Other day I saw in a National Geographic film that most of cities are on fault lines and along these lines there are under ground rivers.They talked about under ground river in desert of Iran.Easy availability of water was the reason cities are there.Well NY is not such a case but underground brook story is incredible.Lot of things are hiding from humanity for the fear of extinction.We do enjoy a abominable reputation as species by now.Water probably found its own ways to avoid an end.

  16. My grandmother used to have a suite of drawings in the lobby of 2 Fifth Avenue. Wonder if they’re still there.

  17. I found this very interesting. In the early eighties I was producing a record at Electric Lady Studios, which was started by Jimi Hendrix, on 8th Street between 6th and 5th Aves.and which is still there. One day the engineer asked me if I wanted to see the river in the basement. To my amazement we went downstairs and he opened a trap door and sure enough, there was the river, rushing by. Maybe it gave Jimi the idea for his song Waterfall.

  18. They have a few of these in London. Just found one where you can see the a tributary stream of one of the hidden rivers.
    http://www.graysantiques.com/tyburn_river.php

  19. Just wanted to add a status update as of December 29, 2012:

    As Carrie mentioned about a year ago, sadly the tube/fountain thingie in the photo has been removed — it’s still gone and only the pedestal and the placque remain. The placque can be seen from outside the building (it’s behind a shrubbery right up against the glass) but we didn’t spot it at first and went inside to talk to the doorman. He was very kindly & explained they’d removed the fountain/tube thing during some renovations and didn’t anticipate it was going to be put back.

  20. I found this…

    http://untappedcities.com/2012/07/24/minetta-brook-a-lost-river-under-the-streets-of-manhattan/

    Not too exciting, but now that there is no chance of sleep for the night since i stumbled on your site, i might as well keep on going! :) Thank you!

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  24. Interesting! This must be the “devil’s water” that Dave Grohl refers to in the new Foo Fighters song “I Am a River,” which was recorded in and inspired by NYC. Really cool.

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