Thursday, October 25, 2007

Day 82 - Why do they call it Conduit Blvd, anyway?

I've been saying this a lot lately, but days like today remind of how lucky I am to have time that is my own. I saw an article in today's Metro NY on the Parks Department's proposal for part of the disused Ridgewood Reservoir. All I know about the plans is what I read in this article. In brief, it seems one of the basins may be filled in to allow for ballfields of artificial turf to be installed for active play. I don't yet have a strong opinion on it. My initial reaction is that natural green spaces should be maintained as such and perhaps adapted to allow recreation that complements their landscapes. I realized that this was one of the few parts of NYC's water infrastructure I still hadn't seen. But being concerned that there may be some significant changes in the offing, I wanted to have a look for myself. I was interviewing a manufacturer in nearby Ozone Park for a piece I'm working on, and since I had nothing to do afterward, I took the Q56 down Jamaica Ave. to Highland Park to have a look around.

The bus lets you of just past the Cypress Hills National Cemetery's perfectly aligned rows of headstones, and its rusting cyclone fence. It was gray and blustery late morning--perfectly autumn. Treetops were beginning to smudge from deep green to yellows and ochers, more vivid beneath the diffused light of an overcast sky. I slung my bag over my shoulder, leaned forward into the wind and marched up the path. Near to the top an old pair of staircases lead to top edge of the old reservoir. At some point it was probably a common thing to see folks from the neighborhood mount the hill and circumambulate the basins high up over the graveyards and apartment buildings. Along the path, the globes of all of the lamp posts--scores in total--are smashed to bits now, but I bet this was a lovely place to take an evening walk at one point. Might still be. Just darker.

The reservoir is fenced off. Some sections have been peeled back by folks intent on being inside. One such opening led to the top of the wall that bisected the basins--a path I was salivating over sneaking into. But nobody knew I was here, it was now raining pretty steadily, and the reservoir at mid-morning is a lonely, overgrown place. The stone walls sloping down into the undergrowth were slick. I used to be braver about such adventures. I'll be back, though.

One basin is filled partly with water and forms a makeshift wetland, fragmites and bullrushes looking more like Jamaica Bay than the Brooklyn-Queens border. The other is almost fully covered in cherry and willows and mulberry. At the edges are boarded up buildings that were the pump houses and valve chambers, in use until the mid-1960s. All are out of reach behind the fencing, ivy overtaking their thresholds.

The old reservoir sits atop the moraine that is the spine down the center of all of Long Island--from the East River to the East End. This is the furthest point south to which glaciers advanced during the last ice age. As glaciers pushed southward over tens of thousands of square miles, trillions of tons of soil, shale, boulders and sand were scraped up along its frontier, a Mother Nature-sized bulldozer. As the ice sheets retreated, all of that detritus was left to form the geologic feature that gave us the makings of many bridge-and-tunnel jokes. It also created a porous land form wonderfully conducive to naturally filtering and holding rainwater in underground aquifers.

The City of Brooklyn burgeoned in the mid-part of the last century and its collective thirst for clean water grew commensurately--probably moreso. At any rate, it outstripped the ability of wells and natural aquifers in Brooklyn to slake the thirst of residents, brewers, tanners, and gristmillers. Ridgewood Reservoir was commissioned around 1858 to hold waters brought in from Baisley Pond in what is today southeast Queens but was, then, still Nassau County. Water ran through an aqueduct--or conduit--westward from there into Ridgewood. The curiously named North and South Conduit Boulevards--familiar to anyone driving along the Belt Parkway to JFK Airport--framed the route from the pond to a point at the foot of the hill beneath the reservoir. From there, a steam pump forced water up the incline (the eponymous Force Tube Avenue, just south of Highland Park, marks its path) into the receiving basins where it would sit, ready to be used by Brooklynites. The height of the reservoir allowed gravity to do the rest of the work of distribution. After the greater City of New York came into existence in 1898 and Brooklyn was included in the more reliable Catskill watershed system, the Ridgewood Reservoir became vestigial.

If you can visit soon, it's a worthwhile spot to take in some fall foliage. And if you have a chance while you're out there, arrange to take the A-train out to Lefferts Boulevard. This is one of three routes to which I had not been to the very end of the line. Beneath the elevated, along Liberty Avenue from from Lefferts Boulevard all the way back to Rockaway Parkway, is one of New York's classic shopping streets. It's updated to reflect the Guyanese population that has largely filled in the modest row houses in Ozone Park. But it is a classic, disappearing scene in New York: a strip of locally owned stores providing a range of products and services for a diverse population. I don't recall a single chain shop, and saw quite a few old-time bakeries and fish markets. Residents appeared to have almost all of their needs met by this 20-block strip. It is magnificent.

1 comment:

ddstarr said...

Conduit Blvd (at least the Queens portion, which is much wider than the Brooklyn portion) was intended to carry I-78 between the Williamsburg Bridge and the Nassau Expwy (now NY-878), running first all the way between Broadway and Bushwick Av, and then along Fulton St(?) to Force Tube Av and then Conduit Blvd.

It's only recently that commercial maps have finally stopped showing Linden Blvd. as a continuous main thoroughfare all the way from N/S Conduit Av. to Rockaway Blvd. and 113th St. A couple of dead-end small pieces exist between 88th St and Cross Bay Blvd, and the ROW is visible between two fences in Addabo Park. Anyone know the history of this? Anything to do with the planned IND Second System extension of the (A)(C) lines at Euclid Av?

If you're really curious about this last one, look on for all references to "76th St", the Holy Grail for all of us NYC Subway nuts.