Current lunar phase: Waning Gibbous



Desert Day

by RYAN HAGEN, illustration by ZACK SULTAN

The last time anyone saw the water of Minetta Brook, the stream that once ran through what is today Greenwich Village, it was gurgling through a clear pipe in the lobby of an apartment building at the foot of 5th Avenue. That was six years ago.

Trout had been caught in this waterway, which originally emptied into the Hudson, until the 18th century. The local Native Americans named it Mannette, the “Devil’s Water.” The Dutch renamed it Mintje Kill, loosely, “the littlest stream.” By 1820 the City had swallowed it up, submerging the brook under brick and stone, and along its course was Minetto Street. The creek periodically resurfaced, menacing the basements of buildings along what became Minetta Street and Minetta Lane. The Devil’s Water ran under the boots of the Irish gangs who brawled in these streets, which Stephen Crane, writing in 1898, called “two of the most enthusiastically murderous thoroughfares in the city.” Crane was dead of tuberculosis two years later. Minetta Brook survived somewhat longer.

New York lives to overwrite nature. Here, the rivers that are too big to bury are laced over with bridges, and laced under with tunnels. A glittering skyline replaces the cliffs and gentle hills that once ran along the horizon. Our grandest parks are idealized fantasies of nature, every square foot planned and shaped by architects. Even the night sky gets a second draft in New York. The Gotham stargazer is met with a milky orange cataract of reflected streetlights overhead, and instead of stoic constellations he sees the flash of fast moving jets.

New York’s potable water is piped in from far upstate, or trucked into town by the bottle for individual resale. Think of Manhattan for a moment as a gondola in a Venetian canal; ornately decorated, comfortable, and surrounded with alluring, brackish, undrinkable water. If the arteries that supply New York with its drinking water were suddenly choked off, would we its residents be any less desperate with thirst than a lost caravan in the desert — or, more accurately, survivors of a disaster at sea in a life raft with no fresh water aboard?

We as New Yorkers spend a good deal of time daydreaming of nature. We want to get out into it, as if somehow in the urban environment we are outside the natural world. But it wouldn’t take more than a hiccup in the power supply, or a moderately sized hurricane, or a precision terrorist attack, to leave us bereft of that illusion — to leave us merely thirsty souls on a desert island. If it all went wrong, would you drink from the Hudson? Would you storm the apartments on 5th Avenue for a chance to draw down the waters of the long-suffering Minetta Brook?

I propose a holiday to ruminate on this desert truth of our city. Call it Desert Day. Desert Day is about taking yourself slightly, invigoratingly, out of phase with the city around you, to uncover the wilderness that lies beneath. It’s a challenge, to think of New York as part and parcel of the natural world. On Desert Day, take no water from the tap. Shut the valve on your toilet tank. The day before Desert Day, collect enough water to carry you through the holiday without relying on the systems that make life possible in this urban desert. FEMA suggests that you need one gallon per person, per day. But is that really enough? Can you cook your own meals, brush your teeth, keep clean with just a gallon jug at your disposal?

While you’re at it, consider living for a day in the city as though you were in the wilderness. Buy no food. Conduct no commerce. Turn off your cell phone. Power down your computer. Avoid public transit. Do not succumb to the allure of the automobile. Walk. Take a bicycle, perhaps, across the urban landscape. Is the city different when you stitch together the neighborhoods between your usual destinations by walking or biking through them? Will you rely more on — will you communicate better with — your fellow New Yorkers when the usual barriers we erect around us fall away?

For the more serious among us, can you subsist only on food you find around you, in the dumpsters and from the plants that remain?

Do it with friends. Can you navigate the geography of the Five Boroughs, meeting and talking with people without the insulation and electronic trinkets that saturate our lives?

The New York Moon declares August 10th Desert Day. We will offer a full report of our experience. What will yours be?


A New York Moon “Blueprint” is essentially an idea encapsulated in a short amount of words or imagery. blueprints It is something that could occur to as you ride the subway or right before you fall asleep. The Moon is interested in publishing re-imaginings of the city or world, and proposals that are as much thought experiments as possible creations. For example, if you think the intersection outside your house could be designed better or at least in a way more accomodating to human interaction, draw it and submit it, or photoshop it. On another plane, if you, in a fit of Fourierism, have a novel idea about to organize your building’s daily routine so as to inspire creativity and love, we are all ears and eyes. It is best, perhaps, to read a few blueprints to get a better understanding of how they work.

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