Water Under American Ground: West 78th Street Peter Sauer
Peter Sauer lives in New York City, where he cultivates a sense of place in the great American megalopolis. He edited Finding Home: Writing on Nature and Culture from Orion Magazine, and he is a contributing editor of the splendid journal of nature writing Orion: People and Nature. The following essay from Orion explores the nature of place and the place of nature in New York City. Sauer discovers an urban Galápagos of animals rarely noticed by city dwellers, explores the ìpeaceable kingdomî of the American Museum of Natural History, and reflects on the design of Central Park. In his natural history of this part of the city, he investigates the possibility that a brook has been buried. Throughout the essay, Sauer articulates a complex and integrated view of nature that includes urban life and museum displays, culture and wildness, past and present.
For three evenings in June the sun sets directly between the buildings that form the canyon walls of West 78th Street and projects long shadows of people crossing the street all the way up the gently sloped blacktop pavement, from Broadway, across Amsterdam and Columbus Avenue, east to the American Museum of Natural History. During the last two minutes before the sun drops beneath the Palisades above the far shore of the Hudson River, its light beams in horizontally, close to the ground, flickering as it passes between the moving taxis, cars, and trucks north- and south-bound on Broadway, steady in the intervals when traffic signals stop them. I timed my dog walks to coincide with this event, hurried out when the air was clear, zigzagged back and forth across the street and up the block, stopping when the traffic stopped, to see how far the shadow of the family's little dog would stretch and if mine would be cast as far as the museum's west wall, which in this light glows like the headwall of a ceremonial Anasazi canyon.
Like summer's first light blinking through the aperture of moving traffic, there was a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't quality to every aspect of the natural history I learned while living on West 78th Street. Wildness itself seemed modulated, as if rewired through an urban black box to add layers of human artifice to every manifestation of its force, and the neighborhood flora and fauna could be classified by these distortions: The museum biota—mounted specimens, skeletons, glass models, and plaster casts—represented natural history heavily laced with nineteenth-century, pre-anthropological empire building. The splendidly abundant Central Park biota—especially of migratory birds—in its trampled but nevertheless fantastical pastoral landscape, represented nature annually amplified by art and enthusiasm. The gutsy, entrepreneurial, street biota, less noticed and less fashionable, ignored by science—except for that of commercial exterminators and municipal rat and pigeon controllers—seemed mine alone to study and celebrate as the wildest, most contemporary music of all.
House sparrows nested in looted parking meters; kestrels in a hole in a high decorative minaret of brick. The spiders were organizing exterior building walls into mutually exclusive, stratified life zones: from the first to the third, the fourth to the seventh, and the eighth floor and above. One summer, in a London plane tree that a winter storm had shoved precariously over the middle of the street, robins constructed a nest festooned with ribbons of glistening video- and black and yellow police-line tape that dangled over the hot pavement like the tentacles of a tree-dwelling Caribbean jellyfish and fluttered in the slipstream of every passing delivery truck, as if grasping for escaping prey. While I watched, this resilient gypsy biota was constructing its own urban Galápagos.
The first street birds to sing in the spring were house finches, descendants of caged birds imported from western mountain slopes and released in Long Island City by a pet wholesaler after Congress passed a law prohibiting trade in native species. Separated from their natural habitat, and the biological pool from which their ancestors had sprung, the West 78th Street finches belonged to a yet unrecognized species, an inchoate evolutionary work-in-progress, developing, on this block anyway, a predisposition for nesting in and under exterior window air conditioning units. As several species of Old World insects also colonized these appliances, I imagined a twenty-first century Darwin would discover that the window finches had become cockroach carnivores.
Compared to life on the street, the museum's version of nature and humanity was peaceable kingdom. Natural biota and primitive people co-existed as faunal partners in ecosystems disconnected from the present and unhinged from their pasts. Bits and pieces of captured moments were displayed like snapshots in a sprawling album. The dusty mahogany-skinned, larger-than-life Northwest boatpeople have been pushing their heroic ocean-going war canoe eastward through the museum's 77th Street lobby for at least as long as since I was a child. A diorama, in the Teddy Roosevelt Wing as I recall, displays a group of now-endangered East Asian pygmy rhinos, labeled (since the 1930s) with a credit to the cooperative colonial bureaucrats who granted the museum's permission to collect them. Every corner of the world is presented as it might have appeared in the summer of its discovery. The full-sized whale suspended over the Hall of Fishes poises at the silent edge of a gentle dive into the last instant of a pristine, unpolluted sea.
In contrast, east of the museum—the same direction the canoeists are heading—through the entrance called Naturalists Gate, Central Park teems with living biota in a landscape constructed to make nature a cultural event. Here, the spring bird migrations arrive as bright waves of prehistoric bits of gossamer protoplasm dropping nightly from vernal skies to feed, and rest, and fill up this wood with song, and to be greeted by a spontaneous, running, voice-over, interpretive commentary, involuntarily delivered by hundreds of euphoric birders. One late-May morning in the Ramble section of Central Park, an authoritative voice spoke from the underbrush: ìDid you get a good look at it?î it asked—of whom I was not sure—and without waiting for a reply, explained: ìThe yellow warbler is the only yellow
warbler with yellow feather shafts.î The migration is thoroughly covered by experienced observers; no detail, no rare individual goes unremarked. For several years, the cop on the Central Park beat was a birder, who scootered through the chilly morning wood with a walkie-talkie and binoculars around his neck, stopping in strategic places to peer into the brush, as though assigned to radio his sightings into a registry at headquarters. Once, a squad of hardy, country-booted, camera- and scope-toting birders directed me to a rare Brewster's warbler. It was just beyond the far northeast edge of the Ramble, they informed me, ìalong the West Drive, in the cherry branch that hangs over the sixth guardrial post north of a Sabrett's hot dog vendor.î
Central Park, Olmsted's masterpiece of earth-moving legerdemain, allows one to be immersed in nature, yet never at a far remove from a deli. Passing through the park's distinctive gray stone perimeter wall at Naturalists Gate, for example, one is immediately at treetop level, crossing the high, arched Buttress Bridge, from which the entry road descends into an oak and wisteria Victorian lakeshore forest. The city is out of sight; its sounds, muffled by foliage, give way to water lapping. A second footbridge crosses a lagoon to a rise on the north shore; the Ramble, where, on a good day, the warblers are as rainforest-dense as are the birds in any zoo on earth.
For almost a decade, the three biota, of street, museum, and park, appeared utterly disparate and unrelated. I had no clue how to imagine a coherent ecosystem for them, until I began looking for the West 78th Street Brook and its headwaters.
In the city, natural forces are elusive. Except when Con Ed certifies that lightning striking a substation in far-away northern Westchester has triggered a blackout, disasters are blamed on political, economic, social, or cultural forces. For example, less regularly than the annual migration, but every few years, the boiler room of our building filled with water and we were without hot water and heat for two or three chilly April days. Though these floods coincided with unusually wet springs following snowy winters, I read them as service interruptions; standard West Side conspiracies—the greedy landlord, super, and fuel oil company gouging each other to gouge me. The surprising possibility that the floods were a natural phenomenon was introduced to me by Bob Napoli, the building's most independent superintendent, and the only super I ever trusted to be in cahoots with no one.
During the twenty years I resided in the thick-walled, prewar apartment building, on the south side of the block between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, its operations, including the machinations of the boiler bellowing in all seasons from beneath the lobby floor, were in the charge of a succession of superintendents who, with union blessings, came and left like itinerant workers birddogging their ways across the five boroughs toward retirement seasons in Florida. With a sense of place as peripatetic as their lives, all but one defined the building's location solely by its interchangeable couplings to the city's sewers, conduits and mains, which were also the absolute boundaries of their union certification and job responsibilities. Bob Napoli was the exception. Wherever he went, his leery constitution demanded a geographic context. He loved talking about places where the lay of the land was visible; Bear Mountain Park; his wife's family's place in Puerto Rico, or the ex-urban homestead his grown son had settled, no doubt following paternal instincts. A year after Bob Napoli arrived on 78th Street, he showed me the three-and-a-half-foot-deep bunker-like trench in the floor of the portion of the boiler room that lay beneath the sidewalk. ìThis was constructed,î he declared, as we stood inside it, ìto catch the flood of a brook that used to flow here and allow it to drain away without disabling the furnace. It worked,î he added, voicing admiration for the builder, ìuntil the city's storm drains clogged.î
Tantalized by a possible geological dimension that might add continuity to the neighborhood's disorderly natural history, I set about to find additional evidence to support the Brook Hypothesis, to build a theory so circumstantially elegant that April water erupting from the basement floor would be as compelling evidence for the existence of the brook as observations of starlight being bent by the sun's gravity were of relativity.
The lower course of the brook was easy to imagine. Seventh-eighth Street lies in a shallow valley between the low hills of 77th and 79th Streets. The same tilt toward the river that elongates solstice shadows in June carries January's modern glacial ooze of meltwater, slush, and street detritus down from Columbus Avenue to Broadway. There it pools over backed-up storm drains, turns sluggishly northward to 79th Street and Broadway, and turns again, to cascade down a steep slope toward the 79th Street Boat Basin at the edge of the Hudson in Riverside Park. Without the two sharp corners, this was, I decided, the brook's approximate course.
Tracing the brook upstream, east of Columbus Avenue, to its headwaters, presented more difficulty. From the American Museum of Natural History, across Central Park West and into Central Park, the original land surface has been transformed by at least three major city-building constructions. The museum sits in the middle of an enigmatic plain that, at first glance, resembles the low bed of a former pond. The depression is an illusion, however, created by an excavated truck ramp on the building's west side and by a slight ridge that rises to its east, which, though it appears to be a natural divide, is almost certainly made of fill left over after the tunnel that carries the ìAî train was cut beneath Central Park West. East of Central Park West, opposite the museum, the land surface drops abruptly on the inside of Central Park's perimeter wall to about twenty feet below street level. If the top of the watershed had been a pond where the museum now stands, the surface of land offered no evidence of it nor of the original direction of the drainage.
Before the Upper West Side of Manhattan became a city neighborhood it was old farmland, which fallowed, awaiting development, had become a squatters' shantytown. The eviction of the squatters and the construction of the streets happened at about the same time that Frederick Law Olmsted built Central Park and the first museum building was erected on its adjacent parcel of park land.
In a photograph displayed at the museum, taken at a time when squatters' huts still stand in the neighborhood and work on the park is well underway, the first museum building sits alone in a dry and dusty landscape. To its west a grid of city streets has been raised as causeways, high enough above the old farmland's surface that digging basements for the buildings that will fill the empty blocks requires no more than a few feet of excavation. No water is visible along 78th Street, though the photograph does show a shadow of a valley there, in which, it appears, the elevation of a stream in flood stage would be above that of the present boiler room floor.
East of the tiny museum in the photograph, Central Park stretches as a barren horizonless moonscape, across which hundreds of men and wagons are redistributing cubic acres of earth into a new terrain—hills, valleys, and a lake, being imagined and reified by human tectonics. The crater that will be Central Park Lake is under construction, and the land surrounding it is being regraded to drain into it. I had my clue.
By the time he began designing Central Park, the city had already tapped upstate mountains for drinking water, and Olmsted was free to use Manhattan water as pigment for his landscape. The key to understanding the natural history of the neighborhood I was experiencing was not where the local water had flowed, but how it had been valued and used. Replaced by mountain water, local water, with which squatters presumably washed their feet, had become commercially superfluous, collectable nature, to be used as decoration, or homeless nature, to be ignored and piped away.
After that revelation, proving the brook existed or tracing its course seemed less important to me, and though I was no longer searching for it at the time, the closest I believe I ever got to its headwaters came a few years later in a springtime mire at the edge of what used to be the bed of Butterfly Pond, beneath Buttress Bridge, just inside the Naturalists Gate. As I see it, Olmsted constructed Butterfly Pond to serve two purposes. As park plumbing, it captured water, which had previously run west under the museum, and redirected it eastward into Central Park Lake. As design and drama, the pond's wings were spread wide below both sides of the bridge so that light reflected from them would capture visitors' eyes and delay their discoveries of the lake ahead until they had descended deep enough into the landscape to be fully surrounded by its illusion.
Butterfly Pond was one of several Olmsted water bodies drained or filled early this century when shallow standing water became associated with miasma and disease. The pond's southern wing subsequently metamorphosed into an asphalt playground (mostly childless, except when our children visited it). But each spring, the dormant northern wing flickers to life with muddy seeps, from which I collected samples for my elementary science classes to ogle at the wriggling squirming organisms they contained and to be amazed at the strange forms life could take.
For my part, I was collecting a sample of time—water from the holy Holocene; from before the museum, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the ìAî train turned the local watershed around; before city water came from the Catskills; before the war canoe was lifted from the Pacific and sent east over the great divide.