Friday, April 1, 2011

Stream of Consciousness

A local newspaper, the Riverdale Press, recently ran a piece about a meandering stream that runs through parts of my neighborhood. Having been covered over by landfill in the fledgling years of the twentieth century, the waterway is now—with the exception of a few visible remnants in nearby Van Cortlandt Park—completely underground and wholly unseen. Most of the area’s current residents, I suspect, are blissfully ignorant of the fact that many private homes and apartment buildings in the area are built atop Tibbetts Brook and its surrounding wetlands.

Several decades ago, a man named William Tieck published a neat history of adjoining Bronx neighborhoods' Kingsbridge and Riverdale. Rare photographs in his book included images of the formerly free-flowing Tibbetts Brook in locations that have long been covered by concrete and asphalt. For those of us who call home this densely populated nook of New York City, it’s hard to imagine a row boat tethered to a small wooden dock on what is now a busy cross-street—but some of the old pictures actually paint a Norman Rockwell postcard past of what is now a teeming urban enclave.

While a return to this Rockwellian vista is not possible (nor desired), the newspaper account nonetheless reported on possible future efforts in “daylighting” the brook—bringing it back to the surface where feasible. Interestingly, and on its own, the indefatigable stream seems to be doing just that in snippets of Van Cortlandt that were not very long ago bone dry but are now swampy marshland. Really, what the city fathers and mothers have in mind at this point in time is merely a theoretical restoration of the brook that runs from the City of Yonkers, just to the north, and empties into the nearby Harlem River Ship Canal, which, by the way, empties into the Hudson River, likewise a stone's throw away.

Growing up on the street that received its name from the stream that runs beneath it, I have something of an intimate acquaintance with its subterranean waters. Along with a few other men, my grandfather planted a sprawling “victory garden” on an empty lot on the very same street in the late 1950s. Naturally, there was no modern water source to attach hoses or sprinklers to, but there was Tibbetts Brook not too far from the surface.

Italians from the old country knew how to do an awful lot of things back, which are downright foreign to most of us in the twenty-first century. My grandfather knew how to dig a well. Utilizing a fifty-gallon barrel with its bottom cut out, he dug down several feet through layers of dirt and landfill (ashes of some sort) and struck water, which quickly wound its way up the barrel’s sides. The well worked like a charm for more than a decade in tapping into what proved an inexhaustible water supply. Year after year, and summer after summer, the gardeners on Tibbett Avenue lowered buckets attached to a rope into the drink, watering dozens of tomato plants, pepper plants, eggplants, string beans, and all kinds of flowers. In springtime, after the winter's snow melt, I recall the water reaching the well’s top but never quite spilling over.

Sadly, the garden was bulldozed in 1971 when I was nine years old. But very fortunately, I had the opportunity to witness the well at work. And if memory serves, the waters of Tibbetts Brook typically appeared crystal clear, almost good enough to drink. However, I'm happy to report that all concerned considered the source and resisted the temptation. When the pilings were being pounded into the very same space for a future six-story building, water pumps labored day and night in spilling out Tibbetts Brook into the street. We knew it was there then, and know it’s still there now, just champing at the bit to reveal itself once again—someday and somewhere.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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