Scene — From the March 2016 issue

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

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Late in the afternoon, Diegel and I squeezed through a narrow gap in a chain-link fence along Third Avenue, sidestepped across the ledge of a bridge over the canal’s Fourth Street turning basin, and scrambled down an embankment to the dank space beneath the roadway. “This is the historical outflow of Vechte’s Brook,” Diegel said with great solemnity. “This is the last leg of the stream’s marathon, from near Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park through the whole obstacle course of French drains, basement pumps, and the historic landfill.”

I squelched through boot-sucking muck, releasing a whiff of rotten eggs with every step, and took a closer look at the rust-colored flow burbling between concrete slabs. It was impressive not so much for its appearance as its provenance. Many is the time that I’ve watched ankle-deep water race down my block, just uphill from here, and wondered where the rain used to go before this bowl was paved. Now I know: the water flowed into a natural channel that slalomed between hills, growing steadily until it married the Gowanus at roughly this point.

The volume of Vechte’s is low today (it flows year-round), but it could quadruple if a half-century’s worth of rubble, invasive scrub brush, and household trash were excavated from the upland lot. Two hundred years ago, this spot lay near the center of a twenty-four-acre lake that bristled with bivalves and was ringed with salt meadows. Known as Denton’s Mill Pond, it was the defining feature of the Gowanus basin, rising and falling tidally between what would become Second and Fourth Avenues.

The Environmental Protection Agency named the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site in 2010. As part of its cleanup plan, the agency committed to excavating twenty-five feet of these corrupted uplands. But Diegel dreams of exposing Vechte’s Brook nearly to Fourth Avenue. “This is where the water wants to go,” Diegel said, speaking of the thwarted flows that inundate basements and force their way up drains. “Daylighting” streams — removing them from pipes, restoring their riffles and curves, and replanting their banks — raises property values, mitigates local flooding, filters storm water, cools and cleans the air, and provides havens for plants and animals.

Diegel’s vision of a stream winding through this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood may seem quixotic, but projects far more audacious — the High Line comes to mind — have come to pass. “It’s imperative for government to be less dogmatic, to be more entrepreneurial and experimental when it comes to managing storm water,” Adrian Benepe told me. “Government should listen to landscape architects, to scientists, entrepreneurs, and hydrologists who understand how water moves through the soil.”

Landlords with buildings atop the former Denton’s Mill Pond don’t need Diegel or colonial maps to remind them of the area’s soggy history. After the contractors who were excavating the Whole Foods building site at the corner of Third Avenue and 3rd Street hit water five feet down, the company abandoned its plan to build most of the store below grade. Across from the grocery store, at the bottom of a basement stairwell in the Old American Can Factory — an enormous circa 1885 building — Denton’s Mill Pond rises and falls in accordance with rain and the tides. Martin Bisi, a record producer and longtime Can Factory tenant, said that after Hurricane Irene dumped seven inches of rain on the city, “I watched as the water rose six feet in the stairwell, to within inches of my studio door.” During heavy rains, Bisi often hears a spooky rush of water — a branch of Vechte’s, he believes — flowing beneath his feet.

Forty years ago, the Gowanus was a far wilder place. “It was obvious that these were former wetlands,” Bisi recalled. “You could see where nature and human activity rubbed up against each other. But now that there’s this illusion of order here, and it seems humans have it all under wraps, the thought that nature is still timelessly coexisting right under our human plane of city streets is really alluring.”

Diegel folded his ghost map one last time and then extracted from his satchel a copy of a map drawn in 1865 by Egbert Ludovicus Viele, a hydrologist who served as engineer in chief of Central Park and submitted the original plans for Prospect Park. The document shows the streams and marshes of New York City atop its street grid. Many years after completing his map, which is still used today, Viele accused city engineers of making a fatal mistake: they had neglected to provide “a system of drains to carry off this living water that is constantly bubbling out of the rocks on which the city is built, and which will find an outlet somehow.”

Viele didn’t include the Gowanus in his map, but surely he’d understand Diegel’s yearning to free, or at least acknowledge, the watershed’s aboriginal springs and creeks — the hidden arteries that, if you know where to look, still pulse with life today.

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’s most recent book is Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle over America’s Drinking Water (Bloomsbury).

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