The City That Never Seeps: The Underground History of Manhattan's Lost Minetta Brook

Egbert Viele, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Egbert Viele, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not so far below the streets of Manhattan lie the remnants of a lost river. Once one of the island's major waterways, Minetta Brook—also known as Minetta Creek or Minetta Stream—used to wind through farmland and colonial estates in Lower Manhattan. And though it was paved over during the 19th century, signs of the brook can still be found in New York today.

Before it was forced underground, Minetta Brook was fed by two tributaries that merged together in what is now Greenwich Village. One tributary began as a spring in the area around 21st Street and Fifth Avenue, and the other at a marsh near 16th Street and Sixth Avenue. After meeting near the future 11th Street, the brook flowed through present-day Washington Square Park and eventually dumped out into the Hudson River along the city's west side.

The history of Minetta Brook is far older than New York City itself. For centuries, the brook was known for its abundance of trout and was a popular fishing spot for Native Americans. In the 17th century, the Dutch settled in the area to farm, along with a group of "half free" African-Americans—slaves of the Dutch West India Company who were ostensibly freed and given plots of land under the condition that they pay an annual fee to the company. It became one of New York's first African-American communities, and as the neighborhood became more populous, the footpath that ran alongside Minetta Brook was referred to as the "Negroes' Causeway."

A 17th century map of Lower Manhattan
New Amsterdam in 1660, when Wall Street formed the northern border of the city. The Minetta Brook ran north of the city limits at that time.
New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, as Manhattan became more and more urbanized, the brook became an inconvenience to city planners and developers, and in the 1820s, it was moved underground. This was accomplished in part by leveling the hills directly east of the stream, as Sergey Kadinsky explains in his book Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks, and Streams in the Five Boroughs. Engineers buried the waterway in landfill sourced from the hills, then built over it.

"The engineers of those days evidently believed that the leveling of the hills, down the sides of which coursed the rivulets and the overflow from the springs which fed the Minetta, would exterminate the stream," The New York Times wrote in 1883. Of course, that water had to go somewhere. At some point in the 19th century, sewers and drains were built to divert the underground water, though the exact timeline of New York's early sewer construction is a little hazy. (Before the city came up with a systematic plan to build out its sewers in 1849, drainage infrastructure was a haphazard affair. In some cases, private landowners built their own sewers to drain their property.)

Any modern-day map of Manhattan will show that the effort to drive Minetta Brook underground was fairly successful, as all visible evidence of it seems to be gone. But if you know where to look, there are still traces of the brook in the city today.

Water pooling at the bottom of a manhole
Water at the bottom of a Manhattan manhole, which some urban explorers suggest is the remnants of the Minetta Brook.
H.L.I.T., Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to some urban explorers, you can still see water from Minetta Brook in some places in Greenwich Village. One apartment building in the neighborhood, built in the 1930s, has a fountain that supposedly taps into the stream, according to the blog Scouting New York. A clear glass tube in the building's lobby runs down to the waterway, and reportedly, when the underground brook swells, you can see water bubbling up inside it. (The first time Scouting New York's Nick Carr visited the apartment building, he observed the tube looking bone dry, but on his second trip, following a rainfall, he reported seeing water "surging up in torrents.")

According to The New York Times, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the brook through a grate in a New York University Law School basement. Others claim you can still see what remains of the channel directly under the streets. During his walking tours of New York City's lost streams, for instance, urban explorer Steve Duncan peers down manholes to show water that has accumulated far below—water that appears cleaner than your average sewer sludge, as CBS New York reported after attending one of Duncan's tours. Could it be water from the brook?

A 19th century insurance map of New York City's Greenwich Village
A map of Greenwich Village around Minetta Street and Minetta Lane, 1884-1895
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Not everyone agrees on that point. Kadinsky (who, remember, literally wrote the book on the city's forgotten waters) doesn't believe the underground stream is still flowing along its natural route. Instead, he says, the water is fed into sewers that follow the modern street grid. "Nevertheless, the soil is much softer where creeks once flowed," as he said in a 2016 interview with the creators of the New York history podcast The Bowery Boys, which would explain the flooding and groundwater that many people point to as modern evidence of the brook.

Even if the brook itself is gone, there is evidence of its history woven into the urban fabric of the city. Two New York street names reference it. In Greenwich Village, a short street called Minetta Lane intersects the block-long, curved Minetta Street. (If you've seen 1973's Serpico, Minetta Street might look familiar—it's the crooked block where Al Pacino's character lives in the movie.) While curved streets are unusual in Manhattan's grid system, in this case, the bend of the street follows the natural bend of the brook.

A carved image of trout on a paving stone surrounding a planter in a park
Shaunacy Ferro, Mental Floss

There are subtle reminders of the brook elsewhere, too. Minetta Green Park and Minetta Triangle Park, two tiny parks in the area, both feature a small tribute to the brook: During 1998 renovations, images of trout were carved into the bluestone paths that snake through each space.

The decorative carvings serve as just more evidence that although the Minetta Brook itself might be long gone, "the neighborhood's love of history and storytelling ensured that it would never be forgotten," as Kadinsky put it to The Bowery Boys.

The Lavender Scare: When the U.S. Government Persecuted Employees for Being Gay

President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
President Dwight Eisenhower circa 1959
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many people have heard of the Red Scare, an episode of persecution of suspected communists in the 1940s and 1950s, but they’re less familiar with a scare of a different hue. Over the same period, and into the 1990s, officials investigated and fired government employees for being gay or lesbian—a phenomenon that has become known as the “Lavender Scare.”

Thousands of people were pushed out of government jobs, whether they worked at the State Department or other agencies, as federal contractors, or in the military, because of their perceived sexuality—and, in some cases, because of guilt by association. Most remain anonymous, part of a chapter in LGBTQ history that is frequently ignored.

"The Pervert File"

The Lavender Scare was the product of a perfect storm of circumstances. During the Great Depression and World War II, many gays and lesbians left their rural communities in search of opportunities elsewhere, including in Washington, D.C. Government jobs provided excellent pay and benefits, and in a city, people could build community. But trouble lay ahead.

The first rumblings began in 1947, when the U.S. Park Police instituted a “Sex Perversion Elimination Program” explicitly targeting gay men in Washington, D.C. public parks for harassment. Patrols focused on Lafayette and Franklin Parks, where any men deemed suspicious could be picked up regardless of their intentions. Men were arrested and intimidated, pushed to pay fines to resolve their arrests and go home—but not before their information, including fingerprints and photographs, was collected for inclusion in a “pervert file.” By February 1950, 700 men had been apprehended, 200 of whom were arrested. According to historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, the typical detainee was a 25-year-old government clerk.

The parks program appeared against the backdrop of “sexual psychopath” laws. Passed across the country starting in the 1930s, these laws criminalized LGBTQ people and promoted forcible treatment [PDF] for their sexual expression, which was viewed as a mental disorder. Nebraska Republican Arthur Miller, who authored D.C.’s now-repealed “sexual psychopath” law in 1948, became one of the most vitriolic individuals in attacking gay federal employees: “There are places in Washington where they gather for the purpose of sex orgies, where they worship at the cesspool and flesh pots of iniquity,” Miller said in a blisteringly homophobic floor speech in early 1950.

Miller wasn't the only one speaking out about the perceived menace. In his now-infamous speeches on the Senate floor in February 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy explicitly linked communism and homosexuality, arguing that LGBTQ people were particularly susceptible to communist recruitment because of their "peculiar mental twists."

McCarthy's speeches—and a revelation by deputy undersecretary of state John Peurifoy that the State Department had recently fired 91 employees for being gay—led to a public outcry. Within a month of McCarthy taking to the Senate floor, a Congressional investigation led by senators Kenneth Wherry and J. Lister Hill laid the groundwork for hearings on the issue. Those ultimately resulted in a bipartisan December 1950 report: “Employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in government,” led by Democratic senator Clyde R. Hoey.

The report, which drew upon extensive interviews with federal agencies and the military, concluded that gay people should not be employed by the government because they were "generally unsuitable" and because they constituted a security risk. The unsuitability was said to stem from the fact that "overt acts of sex perversion" were a crime under federal and local laws, as well as the assertion that "persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society generally." Furthermore, the report said, gay people "lack the emotional stability of normal persons" and "indulgence in acts of sex perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility." This lack of moral fiber was said to make gay people, who might be blackmailed for their activities, particularly "susceptible to the blandishments of the foreign espionage agent."

In a callback to the park stings of the 1940s, the report successfully recommended changes to D.C. criminal procedure that forced men suspected of “perversion” into court when they were caught by law enforcement, effectively outing them. The report also pushed government entities to develop clear policies and procedures for terminating gay and lesbian employees—a recommendation that would have tremendous consequences.

"As Dangerous as the Communists"

Kenneth Wherry
Kenneth Wherry
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The government seized on the idea that being gay was a security risk. As Senator Wherry put it, "Only the most naive could believe that the Communists' fifth column in the United States would neglect to propagate and use homosexuals to gain their treacherous ends." In a 1950 newsletter, Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson cited “sexual perverts” as a government peril that was "perhaps as dangerous as the actual communists" [PDF].

Inspired in part by the Hoey Report, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive order 10450 in 1953, listing “sexual perversion” as grounds for identifying someone as a security risk. The document made it possible to aggressively pursue people like Airman Second Class Helen Grace James. James has described being followed and watched during her days in the Air Force, even during activities as innocent as eating a sandwich with a friend or going to the bathroom. The feeling of constant scrutiny affected her mental health and her sleep. "We were scared all the time," she told the Criminal podcast.

Once James was arrested in 1955, the Army threatened to go to her parents and friends with news of her sexuality, saying James was "a threat to the nation and a bad person," she explained to Criminal. "I finally said, just write down whatever you want to write down and I'll sign it."

After being discharged, James fled the East Coast. "[I] had no money, no support at all. I couldn't tell my family, I couldn't tell my friends," she said. "I had hoped to make a career of the Air Force, I loved it." Being kicked out of the Air Force, she felt, was a stain on her military family. She fought for years to change her undesirable discharge to an honorable one; she was finally successful in 2018.

James suffered in silence for years, but Frank Kameny took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1957, he was fired from his job as an astronomer with the Army Map Service for being gay. In his Supreme Court petition three years later, he called the government's policies on homosexuality “nothing more than a reflection of ancient primitive, archaic, obsolete taboos … an anachronistic relic of the Stone Age carried over into the Space Age—and a harmful relic!” His case may have been the first explicitly involving LGBTQ rights to make its way before the court, which denied his appeal. Kameny went on to become a prominent member of the gay rights movement, and was a founder of the Mattachine Society, an activist organization that collects and preserves important archival material related to LGBTQ history.

All in all, an estimated 10,000 people lost their jobs in the Lavender Scare. President Clinton effectively overturned parts of Executive Order 10450 in 1995, but the government didn't apologize for the discrimination until the administration of Barack Obama.

Fellow Travelers

Frank Kameny attending Pride on June 12, 2010
LGBTQ activist and Lavender Scare target Frank Kameny attending a Pride event in 2010

Although not a well-known period in history, The Lavender Scare has had a cultural afterlife. It was the subject of a 2017 documentary, and a key element of a 2007 novel, Fellow Travelers, which followed a youthful civil servant, a forbidden affair, and the terror of living a double life in 1950s Washington. The book was adapted into an opera first staged in 2016, complete with a set inspired by the overbearing style of 1950s brutalist architecture.

“The piece wants to memorialize those people whose lives were lost, or jobs were lost,” Peter Rothstein, who directed the Minnesota Opera production, tells Mental Floss. Many members of the LGBTQ community aren’t aware of the Lavender Scare, or don’t know about its full extent, something Rothstein discovered when he started to research in preparation for the production. “I thought I was kind of up on my queer history. I was like 'whoa!' The scope of it.”

While stereotypes about gay men and musical theater abound, Rothstein notes that musicals play an important role in America’s cultural history and climate. Many recent works, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamiltonhave explored historical and cultural identity—and with Fellow Travelers, Rothstein says, the medium was particularly apt. “There’s a huge subtext of men not able to articulate for themselves, because they haven’t really been given language to describe their emotional, sexual specificity," he explained.

This neglected piece of queer history reflects a time when shame kept many people silent. Thankfully, historians such as Johnson are collecting stories before survivors of this generation fade away. As they uncover more tales of careers—and lives—ruined, perhaps the Lavender Scare will begin to take on more of a role in mainstream history books.

Periodic Table Discovered at Scotland's St Andrews University Could Be World's Oldest

Alan Aitken
Alan Aitken

The oldest surviving periodic table of elements in the world may have been found at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Courier.

University researchers and international experts recently determined that the chart, which was rediscovered in a chemistry department storage area in 2014, dates back to 1885—just 16 years after Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev invented the method of sorting the elements into related groups and arranging them by increasing atomic weight.

Mendeleev’s original periodic table had 60 elements, while the modern version we use today contains 118 elements. The chart found at St Andrews is similar to Mendeleev’s second version of the table, created in 1871. It’s thought to be the only surviving table of its kind in Europe.

The periodic table soaks in a washing treatment
Richard Hawkes

The St Andrews table is written in German, and was presumably produced for German universities to use as a teaching aid, according to St Andrews chemistry professor David O’Hagan. The item itself was dated 1885, but St Andrews researcher M. Pilar Gil found a receipt showing that the university purchased the table from a German catalog in 1888. A St Andrews chemistry professor at the time likely ordered it because he wanted to have the latest teaching materials in the scientific field, even if they weren't written in English.

When university staffers first found the table in 2014, it was in “bad condition,” O’Hagan tells The Courier in the video below. The material was fragile and bits of it flaked off when it was handled. Conservators in the university's special collections department have since worked to preserve the document for posterity.

The 19th century table looks quite a bit different from its modern counterparts. Although Mendeleev laid the groundwork for the periodic table we know today, English physicist Henry Moseley improved it in 1913 by rearranging the elements by the number of protons they had rather than their atomic weight. Then, in the 1920s, Horace Deming created the boxy layout we now associate with periodic tables.

Learn more about the St Andrews discovery in the video below.

[h/t The Courier]

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