Water, Water Everywhere

A toponym is a place name, a notion of maps, signs, and our heads but rarely actually written onto the land itself. These names are packed with the histories of the peoples who did the naming. Rivers in particular hold onto ancient names, however filtered by later folk, as this nation so amply demonstrates. George R. Stewart’s classic Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, originally published in 1945 and back in print, is a good place to start on this topic. Kill brook creek run, if you know what I mean.

Here in the city, many of the old names have been paved over, like the topography itself. We live atop the Harbor Hill Moraine, but I know very few people who have ever heard of it. Yet its path is marked by the names of Brooklyn neighborhoods: Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Greenwood Heights, Windsor Terrace, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Cypress Hills… you’re sensing a pattern: the moraine stretches all the way out to the far eastern end of Long Island. It’s why the mere 4th floor here gives us such an expansive view, from Staten Island to Midtown Manhattan with the long smudge of the Watchung range in New Jersey in-between. Walking up and down the hill everyday reminds us of all this glacial rubble, a feeling a car can not provide.

Another thing we’ve covered over is most of the water bodies of the city. But you can’t keep a good water down. Sergey Kadinsky’s Hidden Waters of New York City (2016) explores the waterways visible and invisible in guide-book form (but unaccountably without maps!). The most famous example is the Minetta in the West Village. This stream is completely covered over, and gives its name to a lane and street, but it still moves towards the river and the occasional basement. The big apartment complex at 2 Fifth Avenue has a glass pipe in its lobby where the water can sometimes be seen bubbling up.

You’ll learn much in these pages. But a caveat: I spotted some errors in places I know best. Green-Wood’s Dell Water has not been filled in; I think he means Dale Water. And he gets the cemetery’s Sylvan Water and Valley Water confused. That’s easy to do because Sylvan Water, the largest pond, is actually in a valley. (Green-Wood reeks of Victorianisms.) Also, no explanation for why Whale Creek, an offshoot of the Newtown Creek, is so named…

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You may have noticed that when I link to books discussed in these pages, I do not link to Amazon. There are other ways to get your hands on books, not least libraries. Yet Jeff Bezos is now the richest dick in the world. I’m glad to say I’ve had very little to do with that. (I stopped using the company many years ago when learning of their labor practices.)

The price of convenience, so called, has turned out to be oligarchy and a ruling 1% smashing the shit out the rest of us. No one with a critical take on history — consider slavery, the Money Power, the Gilded Age, fascism, contemporary China — should be shocked by this. Yet Americans are indoctrinated with the fantasy that democracy and capitalism are entwined, that one equals the other, that a “free market” leads to liberty. This is bullshit piled so high people are drowning in it. No actual capitalist has ever believed it. Why should you?

1 Response to “Water, Water Everywhere”


  1. 1 peopleplaceswords December 17, 2017 at 12:35 pm

    keep linking the political message to yr. blog. necessary! needed!


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