Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing

Last summer, on the extremely short-lived blog Urbablurb – which only managed five posts before dying, yet still remains interesting today – we read about the little-known phenomenon of people fishing in the basements of Manhattan.

[Image: A map of the lost rivers of Manhattan, via Urbablurb].

Urbablurb quotes from The New York Times:
    We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and upon its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.

    With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed upwards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.

    One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.
The lost rivers of Manhattan are real; hundreds of streams and whole wetlands were paved over and filled so that the roots of buildings could safely grow. But whether or not you could ever fish in them – and this whole thing sounds like Dr. Seuss to me – is the subject of a post on the also now defunct blog, Empire Zone. There, a commenter informs us that fishing for eyeless carp in the underground cisterns of Istanbul is something of a national past-time.
Alas, we also learn that, as to the question of "whether any carp could be found swimming under Manhattan today," the answer, sadly, is no.
But how much would I love to find myself in New York City for a weekend, perhaps sent there by work to cover a story – when the phone rings in my hotel room. It's 11pm. I'm tired, but I answer. An old man is on the other end, and he clears his throat and he says: "I think this is something you'd like to see." I doubt, I delay, I debate with myself – but I soon take a cab, and, as the clock strikes 12am, I'm led down into the basement of a red brick tenement building on E. 13th Street.
I step into a large room, that smells vaguely of water – and six men are sitting around an opening in the floor, holding fishing poles in the darkness.

(Also on Urbablurb: Who is Jack Gasnick?).

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23 Comments:

Blogger L.Cerre said...

wow, this is so interesting. thanks for sharing. going to check out my BLDG's basement now!

gone fishing,

lee

2 or 3

May 05, 2008 12:05 PM  
Blogger Rombsy said...

If you ever make it to Victoria, BC, I can take you in some interesting storm drains which carry what was once Bowker Creek. Sections of it have been daylighted or were never buried in the first place, but upstream of one of those, and underground, there is a prodigious crayfish population, most have which have pale bodies due to the lack of sunlight I'm guessing.

On an architectural note, elsewhere in that drain, a portion of the ceiling incorporates what was once the underside of a bridge which seems like a magnificent vault in the middle of a 8'x10' square concrete tunnel. Further upstream again, portions of the storm drain are constructed of hoop and stave, like old barrels, but big enough to stoop through.

Keep up the good work! Looking fwd to the book...
~Robin

May 05, 2008 2:40 PM  
Anonymous Yule Heibel said...

Fascinating stuff, as usual, Geoff... I'm picturing this basement having a concrete floor, but with a gap or hole that goes 15 feet deeper? Or is the stream level with a basement that's 15 feet below grade?

In either case, it's strange that it was left uncovered.

Romsby, I think I've seen photos of those Bowker Creek sections, which you refer to, on Urban Exploration Resource forum (although the link I provide doesn't point to Bowker, just Victoria generally).

I once had a dowser go over my property, which also has underground streams/ water. He told me not try to lower my basement's floor (say, to increase ceiling height/ create a living space) because I'd probably hit a stream.

With pending food crises, however, maybe I should -- and try fishing!

May 05, 2008 4:52 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Perry said...

This story reminds me of how the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, built by Justinian around 525, was rediscovered by a 16th-century European visitor when he heard of people drawing water from holes in their cellars, and even catching fish in buckets.

From the history section of the Basilica Cistern site:

"The cistern remained unknown to the West until mid-XVI. century. Then the cistern was discovered by P. Gyllius, a Dutch traveler, who visited Istanbul in 1544-1550 with a view to studying the remains of the Byzantine, and introduced to the west by him. In one of his researches, when - while he was walking around Ayasofya - P. Gyllius was told that the homefolk of the houses in the vicinity drew water from the large round well-like holes found in their basements with the buckets they dropped down and that they even caught fish, he managed to go down into the cistern armed with a torch through the stone steps in the garden of a wooden house, which was surrounded with walls, which was found upon a large underground cistern. Under very difficult conditions, P. Gyllius managed to sail around in the cistern and measured it and witnessed the columns."

The cistern is a spectacular underground space, with moss-streaked walls and columns, and steadily-dripping water from the vaulted ceiling. Well worth a visit.

May 05, 2008 11:14 PM  
Blogger BreadCity said...

I am fairly confident this is one of the two or three coolest things I've ever head of in my entire life.

May 05, 2008 11:29 PM  
Blogger Yanurama said...

This post made me imagine a pen and ink drawing of the first modern explorers of the Keops pyramid, their kerosene lamps lighting long dusty corridors.

On the other hand, somehow the urbablurb is a kind of carp fishing hole in the middle of the Internet, sadly fishless, I concour.

Wonder if you have more of these in your little black book/map/favorites, Geoff.

May 06, 2008 6:24 PM  
Blogger Rombsy said...

I must say I'm frankly astonished (astonished!) that no avid BLDGBLOG reader in NYC has tracked down this building and ferreted their way into the basement by flattery or cunning. It is or was at 992 Second Avenue.

I'll mail a prize to the first person who can tell us what is there to be (re)discovered.

May 06, 2008 11:31 PM  
Blogger Word Gnome said...

My grandfather used to tell me that there was a bar in Manhattan where you could go fishing in the basement. I believed him, but nobody would ever believe me when I told them. Vindication!

May 07, 2008 1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've heard about Chinese, in debt to their coyotes, told to fish for eels from Chinatown restaurant sub-basements that have access to a sewer. Lots of asian restaurants serve eel. Who knows where they come from?

May 07, 2008 3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I seem to remember Joseph Mitchell (probably in Bottom of the Harbor) writing about NY basements, but he was talking about flooding and rats. I can't recommend said book enough. Everybody should read it.

May 08, 2008 9:44 AM  
Blogger dan said...

Geoff

two things:

the Flogos news story is a fake faux news story, PR hype masquerading as news. nothing is happening there but demo videos and a cool website. but there are no contracts with any clients. the reporters were lazy.

2. polar cities

can you blog one day and show images from my future city for survivors of global warming?

http://pcillu101.blogspot.com

thanks

love your images and blog. wow.
cool stuff.\

email me offline at danbloom

GMAIL

May 08, 2008 10:01 AM  
Blogger reversealchemy said...

These subterranean fish would have been great in Delirious New York. What would Freud say? Or Virginia Woolf with her description of thoughts that nibble the end of the line, slippery and hard to catch, but this time the basement fish of a packed city.

May 09, 2008 9:04 AM  
Blogger The City Desk said...

Oh, this would make a nice item for The City Desk.

May 09, 2008 10:51 AM  
Blogger mmm said...

This reminds me of the suspenseful ending to Philip Pullman's novel The Tiger in the Well. A subterranean river becomes so full it bursts through a cellar's floor and eventually destroys the foundation to the point that the entire building collapses. Here's a quote from the scene:

"The entire center of the room was gone. In its place was a pit with jagged edges, opening onto a dark, surging waste of water - the surface of a torrent that swirled from right to left, whirling, gushing, and splashing the whole room with mud and filth."

July 01, 2008 2:29 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Nice quotation, mmm - thanks!

July 01, 2008 2:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just saw something on tv, Griff Rhys Jones in Paris. it was nothing special but there was a part where he visited bee hives on top of the Palais Garnier, which were first put up by one of the building's firemen. it reminded me of this story because he apparently installed them after setting up a successful trout farm in a lake underneath the building.

October 27, 2008 12:56 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

I'd heard of the beehive guy, but I had no idea about that trout farm. I'll have to look it up!

October 27, 2008 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In No. Calif there is an old bar with a stream running under it ...the story goes it was quite intentional as early owner used for sending illegal drugs and moneys out of the building...!

December 17, 2008 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, this is true, and the address was 992 Second Avenue.

The store there was named Gasnick Supply Co., and I worked there from 1982 to 1989, and indeed, under a trap door in the basement, there was a running stream. Jack Gasnick, my boss and store owner, claimed to have caught fish in there, but I never witnessed that, so I can't attest to it.

Don't bother to look for the building, it's gone - demolished about 7 years ago to build over-priced hi-rise condos.

November 14, 2010 10:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish, "anonymous of 992 Second Avenue" that you had made it possible for a reporter to contact you. We at NPR are fascinated by this story and think it would be wonderful to talk to anyone who knows anything at all about Gasnick's basement.
So if you happen to see this, tell Geoff who you are and we can arrange a contract.
thanks,

June 21, 2011 3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

NPR,

"anonymous of 992 Second Avenue," could be a former clerk named Norman Blank, quoted in this quite-random NYT article about Mr. Gasnick: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/10/nyregion/about-new-york-kvetch-kvetch-a-little-shop-of-hardware.html.

Even If this is not Mr. Blank, Mr. Blank could very well know who the anonymous poster is, or about the story in question (or even about the fate of Mr. Gasnick).

Regardless this would make for a fantastic piece. Personally I've been curious about this story since first reading about it little more than a year ago.

March 07, 2012 12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I am not Norman, but I worked along side him, Sam DiMaria, Diego, Roy, and others. Thery were all great guys.

Last I heard Jack lives in Battery Park City, and is brother Walter (a really nice man) has passed away.

March 26, 2012 3:35 PM  
Blogger Abby Swanson said...

I see that there haven't been any updates on here in about a year but I have become very interested in Mister Gasnick's story and I am wondering if anyone on here (Geoff, NPR, or anonymous) would be willing to share any new information that has come to light with me.
Anyone who knows any thing or would be willing to talk to me about Jack Gasnick, please email me at swansonabbym@gmail.com

April 13, 2013 6:13 PM  

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