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The Lost Creek

by Thomas J. Campanella

When we return to the scene of our childhood, not only the
landscape has changed, but the way we see it.

                                                     — Yi-Fu Tuan

I grew up on a typical Brooklyn city block, with London planetrees, manicured front lawns and chaste brick homes. Our neighbor, Mr. Berkowitz, an old man even in my earliest memories, shared a driveway with us, and the alley between our houses was common ground between this octogenarian and my brother and I. Berkowitz was something of a legend among local children. We didn't know much about the man, except that he had the best back yard in the neighborhood known as the Jungle.

In spite of its modest size, this unkempt patch of earth bred many wild things, and we were its lords. Amidst the milkweed and rosa rugosa prowled feral cats, which the neighborhood dogs occasionally sent scurrying into the bush. Squirrels—game for our paper clip missiles—nested in the Jungle's twiggy bosom, as did an abandoned pet turtle and frogs from summer vacations.

The Jungle also had its secrets. Wiffleballs, balsa-wood airplanes, Frisbees and tools lifted from Dad's shop were among its lost victims. The buzzing greenery had a way of making things disappear, confiscating all within reach of its viney tentacles. We would hide evidence of childhood transgressions in the Jungle—Mom's broken dish, a bottle of beer, a dog-eared copy of Playboy—each banished to the wilderness like the scapegoats of ancient Israel, carrying the sins of men.

Collage.Thoreau observed that the "merest child which has rambled into a copsewood dreams of a wilderness so wild and strange and inexhaustible as nature can never show him." To us, Berkowitz's Jungle was a token of mighty wilderness. In that tiny space was the Amazon and Alaska and the Everglades. There, time ground to a halt; the order of adulthood faltered and the world of kids and nature took a final stand.

Of the Jungle's greatest mystery, however, we learned through a tale told to us one summer night by the light of a citronella candle. Our Virgil was Berkowitz.

Deep within the Jungle's thickets there once snaked a Creek. Long ago, its waters carried the Indian and the explorer and the first Dutch farmers deep into the land now called Brooklyn. Berkowitz never divulged the source or purpose of its waters. But he had indeed seen it, years ago, out there beyond the clotheslines and lot lines, when he and his city were younger. The Creek flowed in both directions, he told us, and on its banks once stood a mill.

We decided that this Creek must be found. We became Livingstone and Stanley, determined to come upon the headwaters of our Nile. Our imaginations took us father than our feet, and we wove an entire landscape from the old man's threads; the Creek came slowly to life in our minds. We imagined it curling darkly through the reeds, and saw herons stalking its dusky flats; an owl swooped across waters silvered by the moon. The shallows boiled with fish, the shores bloomed with phragmites . We could almost hear the muted suck of the tide-soaked sand.

But we never found the phantom waterway, and in time its legend faded. Theories of its whereabouts unraveled and the whole quest was soon tossed aside like a toy. Septembers came and went; new worlds were set for our discovery. Berkowitz died, and his house was sold. The new people tore out the Jungle and replaced it with a bed of concrete, tinted green.

By this time, however, we already found another childhood landscape. Down along Avenue U, several blocks from our house was a vast space tailored perfectly for restless city kids. A scruffy domain of marshes and scrawny trees, this was the undeveloped section of Marine Park, and through it passed a sluggish waterway known as Gerritsen Inlet. Here, between the tides and the junked cars, we played, fought, laughed, and cried—in short, grew up.

The low-slung southern reaches of Brooklyn and Queens were once intimately joined to the sea, known long ago as Savanehachee—"sea-indented savanna." The rolling outwash plain here was formed by meltwater from glacial ice fields to the north. Protected from the Atlantic by the sandy barrier of Rockaway Peninsula, Jamaica Bay slowly took form, and shallow estuaries desiccated the green mantle of its marshland. Once reaching far inland from the sea, these littoral fingers have, over the years, been bulkheaded and dredged. Warehouses and marinas line their banks, an occasional fishing trawler, and rows of homes with backyard docks.

Of these, Gerritsen Inlet has a particularly long history. It was known to the native Canarsee Indians as Weywitsprittner; to the early Dutch as the Stromme Kill. Fed by upland streams, its brackish waters supported a wide variety of life. Oysters, sturgeon, striped bass and crabs were harvested by the Canarsee Indians, and the surrounding land yielded deer and fowl. Weywitsprittner provided well for its original inhabitants; archeological deposits—of shells, bones and other artifacts—suggest occupation as far back as a thousand years.

With the coming of the Dutch, the Stromme Kill facilitated exploration and settlement. Several years after Hendrik Hudson's famed voyage in 1609, Adriaen Block made a series of probes into the region's waterways. Block returned to Holland in 1614, but he left his crew in charge of another ship, the Restless, one of the first colonial vessels built in the New World. As documented by Frederick Van Wyck in Keskachauge, their orders were to search out "new countries, havens, bays and rivers." The crew settled down that winter to engage in trade, and their base was likely on the Stromme Kill, close to the nearby Canarsee village of Keskaechqueren.

The Stromme Kill and adjacent waters soon became known for its wampum, cylindrical purple and white beads drilled from shells. Wampum was prized by the Indians and used by the Europeans as currency in exchange for beaver pelts. The abundant supply of wampum in the area led to the selection of Keskaechqueren as the earliest permanent European settlement on Long Island. By 1624 this community was known as Nieuw Amersfoort, named after a city in Holland. The region was slowly populated by Dutch bouwers, who raised livestock and cultivated maize, squash, beans, and tobacco. By the time the English renamed the area New York, New Amersfort—now Flatlands—had evolved into a gentle pastoral landscape.

In 1679 Jasper Dankers and Peter Sluyter of Holland toured the countryside of southwestern Long Island, and recorded their observations in A Journal of a Voyage to New York. Crossing a "low flat land . . . overflown at every tide," the men were reminded of their native Netherlands. They took note of estuaries "navigable and very serviceable for fisheries," and at last came upon the Stromme Kill. There, Dankers and Sluyter noted with pleasure a worthy improvement: a tidal mill, built on the western shore, "driven by . . . water which they dam up."

Gerritsen Creek, tidal mill.
Gerritsen Creek, tidal mill in the late nineteenth century.
Photo by P. Ross, courtesy A History of Long Island, 1903.

"They" were the hardy Gerritsen clan, among the first European settlers in the region. According to Teunis Bergen's Register of the Early Settlers of Kings County (1881), the Gerritsens had for many years "owned a farm and the tide-mill . . . on the Strome Kil." The Gerritsens built their industrial plant in the early seventeenth century, and it operated continuously until the 1890's. Zimiles, in Early American Mills, suggests it was one of the first tide-powered mills in North America. A dam was constructed across a narrow neck of the Kill. A set of floodgates allowed the incoming water to enter, but slammed shut as the tide reversed. The pent-up waters, controlled by a sluice gate, were directed past the mill wheel, driving the wooden gears, shafts and millstones. Legends grew up around Gerritsen's mill, one of which suggests that George Washington used it to grind flour for his troops. After their defeat at the Battle of Long Island, the mill was disabled so that the British would find it inoperable.

Turn of the century photographs depict an ungainly but noble structure towering over the mud flats. Though the mill's historical value was recognized by many, little was done in later years to assure its survival. Mayor Jimmy "Beau James" Walker was dragged down from Manhattan to see firsthand the relic, but denounced it a chicken coop. The mill's long tenure in the salt marsh ended on a September night in 1935, when the edifice was reduced to ashes by an arsonist.

The landscape in which the mill stood for three centuries proved more durable. It withstood at least one Brobdingnagian scheme for an industrial ship terminal in Jamaica Bay, the scale of which, reported Robert Moses in The Future of Jamaica Bay, would have been greater "than the combined ports of Liverpool, Rotterdam and Hamburg."

Other schemes were more reasoned but no less ambitious. The Gerritsen estuary's potential as park land was recognized by city planners and landscape architects. Daniel Burnham recommended that it be set aside to accommodate the southward march of the metropolis, as a littoral complement to Prospect Park. In the early 1930s Charles D. Lay, a prominent New York landscape architect, proposed a grand civic space for Gerritsen inlet. In a piece entitled "Free Rein, Clean Slate," the New York Times favorable compared Lay's "formidable, fascinating task" to the building of Central Park. Olmsted, the article suggested, had "plastic materials all at hand," whereas Lay had to work with a wasteland of "strand . . . marsh, bayou and lagoon." What would he come up with? "We need not expect," asserted the Times, "even a hint of the grandiose clipped melodrama of Tivoli's Villa d'Este, the picturesque Baroque of Frascati, Como or Isola Bella. Here will bloom no fabulous Babylonian hanging garden. Versailles? That is, indeed, a thought . . ."

And Versailles it was, a 1,500 acre plebeian pleasure ground tucked into Brooklyn's southern shore. Rendered in oil on a massive canvass, the park would have been among the largest in America if built. The January 1933 issue of Architectural Record listed its many features: yacht basin, 500 foot wide canal, half-mile wide "big pond," menagerie, bowling greens, music grove, an open-air theater, and a stadium for 125,000 spectators, served by a new subway line.

Though Robert Moses scrapped this extravagant proposal, he also had recreation in mind. Robert Caro, in The Powerbroker, suggests that Moses saw in the estuaries of Jamaica Bay the "greatest of all urban waterfront parks," as well as the potential crowning achievement of his long career in park building. "Here in Jamaica Bay," he wrote in The Future of Jamaica Bay, "lies the opportunity for a place . . . where the strain of our city life can be relieved, where the nerves of tired workers may be soothed."

The prospect of a such a vast new amenity spurred a flurry of real estate speculation in the surrounding area, although only a small fragment of Moses' dream-park was ever constructed. Well into the twentieth century the tidal inlet remained little changed. Other grand proposals came and went, some of which were even more ambitious than Lay's. Elliot Willensky, in his hometown reverie When Brooklyn was the World, tells of one politician who suggested the Gerritsen marshes be the site of a world's fair commemorating Washington's 200th birthday.

But the greatest transformation of the ancient Weywitsprittner came, oddly, with the 1934 prohibition of offshore dumping by the city. The alternative recipient was the "wasteland" of New York's tidal estuaries, and Gerritsen's Inlet received a lion's share. Eventually the entire east side of the waterway was covered by eight feet of fill. On top of the trash, millions of cubic yards of fine white sand were pumped as a slurry from Rockaway Inlet. The filling operations violently changed the ecology of the salt marsh, resulting in the extensive phragmites stands which now cover the area.

Protests against filling had occurred as early as 1926, but the land-making was roundly applauded by local boosters and real estate developers. A main thoroughfare in the neighborhood of Marine Park—Fillmore Avenue—immortalized this attitude. By the 1950s the Brooklyn News was proudly declaring victory; the "desolate marshlands" had been transformed. "Where millions of fiddler crabs, thousands of muskrats and other marshland life once swarmed," it reported, "a combination of garbage, refuse, and dredged sand has built up useful recreational land."

Despite these assaults, the beauty of this resilient littoral was not lost. An incursion of nature into the cast grid of the city, Gerritsen is a relic landscape, a counterpoint to the artificiality of its surroundings. The rolling hummocks wear a soft, wind-tossed mane of reeds, and here and there thickets of aspen, sumac and bayberry punctuate the scene. Ring-necked pheasants, descendants from flocks released for a hunting estate in the nineteenth century, dart between clumps of phragmites. Far off to the northwest the peaks of Manhattan are surreal, the tilted bedrock of an alien world. The steady hum of motors on the Belt Parkway recedes. The deep tide of time casts its spell.

As children we played in this ancient landscape, amidst the ghosts of Canarsee oyster-gatherers, the Gerritsens and the slaves who worked their land. We learned the contours of the inlet as if it were some text of youth. Like the lost Jungle, it was here that the strictures of the street-bound world grew slack. Here was a neglected scrap of city-building stuff, beyond the tyranny of the city's streets.

The fringes of settlements host acts forbidden at the center. Gerritsen's inlet became a dumping ground of stolen cars and abandoned boats and the discarded dross of life. Teenage boys raced unmuffled dirtbikes across the wet sand. On the east side of the water was a great stack of concrete pilings, a recumbent Stonehenge on which we would play. With firecrackers and pebbles we made primitive shotguns from holes left by rusted-out reinforcement bars. Fuse lit, our tawdry regiment would stand by and await the crack of makeshift artillery, the plop of its stony load in the sea.

At Gerritsen we fished for snappers, the baby bluefish which moved into the inlet in late summer, and netted schools of killifish and grass shrimp, blueclaw crabs and barnacle-covered spider crabs. As the tide receded, we would skip across the scattered rows of rocks, moving out as far as we could before our footholds were lost beneath the sea-lettuce and brine.

Landfill operations were undertaken all along Brooklyn's southern shore to accommodate new development. Indeed, most of the neighborhood of Marine Park was built on filled land. The old Stromme Kill, like many of the creeks of pre-colonial Brooklyn, had been drastically shortened in the early years of the twentieth century.
I became curious about the original course of the Gerritsen estuary. Old maps showed a blue finger reaching far into the city, but without known points of reference the precise lay of the old inlet was unclear. Other maps, drafted in expectation of development, cast a spectral veil of streets over the rural landscape. Many of these streets were never built, but I began to realize that the Stromme Kill once flowed much closer to my backyard than I had imagined.

Gerritsen Creek from Avenue U.
Gerritsen Creek, view south from Avenue U, 1992
Photo by T. Campanella

On the north side of Avenue U a small park was built in the late 1930s. It is a classic Moses park—ball fields, basketball courts, a red-brick field house—designed by his design czar, Gilmore D. Clarke, the landscape architect of the famous Westchester parkways. It became evident that this park had been constructed directly on filled marshland. Old photographs showed Avenue U—long assumed by us as children to be the immutable edge of the city—as little more than a causeway stretched across the tidal flats. Below the football players and dog-walkers of Marine Park is a culvert that, in theory, still carries the freshet which once thinned the salt water of the Stromme Kill. The old stream thus once lay as far north as Fillmore Avenue. But, as I was soon to find out, it had penetrated even further. And though its waters were long dry, the ancient estuary had left a phantom of itself in the stones of my neighborhood.

Just north of Fillmore Avenue are several blocks of two-story "garden apartments." The buildings are unexceptional, save that they differ considerably from the typical brick or clapboard row houses in the area. On the next block north, this building type continues, although now jogged over a bit to the west and only one block wide. An obscure New York Times article from the 1940s confirmed my suspicions. These buildings were developed years after the surrounding houses, on land that was not as easily or cheaply built upon. This land was the route of the old estuary. When property values rose high enough, it too was filled in and built upon, but by a different developer and in response to new market forces. That developer chose to construct on this newly-available land not the single-family homes typical of the surrounding blocks, but apartments. Where these apartments were built, there once lay the creek. Here then was a masonry ghost of the Stromme Kill, a specter of the ancient inlet in brick and mortar. The creek lived on in the very monuments of the city which replaced it.

I now had a pretty good idea of the Gerritsen estuary's former self. Following old maps, I continued north and came upon another revelation of the old waterway—a street famous to us as children for its steeply-sloping driveways (good for racing Matchbox cars). For a block or two on either side of this street, the driveways also cant downward, gradually becoming less noticeable as one moved further away. Here in the incidental topography of a neighborhood was an echo of the long-dry Stromme Kill. Further inland and therefore shallower and less wide, enough fill had been dragged in when these homes were built to raise the street level of the creek bed to that of surrounding blocks. To economize, the backyards were left close to their original elevation. I was now only a stone's throw from my house, behind the lot lines and the clotheslines of our backyard.

I had wandered in search of one creek and found another, a Creek long ago abandoned as lost: Gerritsen Inlet and the Lost Creek of childhood were one and the same. I thought of Berkowitz, for here, twenty-five years later, I had at last come upon his mythic littoral, with its tide mill and waters which flowed both ways. The old man would have been amused.


Thomas J. Campanella is an urbanist, writer, and historian of the built environment. He holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was a Fulbright Fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Campanella is a contributing writer for Wired magazine, and a lecturer in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. His first book, Cities From the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America, is forthcoming from Princeton Architectural Press.
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