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A stream runs through it: Motts Creek's surprising twists and turns across Nassau

Motts Creek is one of dozens of streams and creeks that wind their way through Nassau and Suffolk and are considered 'hidden waters.' Longtime Malverne resident Angelo Assante talks about his memories of the creek growing up in the area. (Credit: Linda Rosier)

Peel back the centuries, the layers of suburbanization, and you can see why, in the 1800s, Walt Whitman proclaimed Long Island "the Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water!"

While perhaps not as sweet, its waters still flow — in surprising places.

“We're standing on top of the stream," says Sergey Kadinsky, pointing to a drain cover along the sidewalk near the entrance to Rath Park in Franklin Square where Motts Creek has its humble beginnings. 

A freshwater stream, running below basketball courts and a concrete parking lot? It seems absurd. But perhaps not when you learn that the park was built in 1959 on one of the last farms in western Nassau County. (Where better to farm than near the nourishing waters of a stream?)

Crisscrossing Long Island, flowing to both ocean and Sound, such streams (or creeks or brooks, the terms essentially interchangeable) have been modified, straightened and, in many cases, submerged for long distances under roads and housing developments.

But they have not gone away.

You can see them snaking discreetly through many neighborhoods in Nassau and Suffolk. You might glimpse one as you drive along Route 106 or Montauk Highway. They inform familiar and pleasant-sounding place names — Meadowbrook State Parkway, Valley Stream, Brightwaters — even if few of us know or remember that they refer to geographic features.

Often their beds are dry unless it rains; others have become dumping grounds. Yet at certain times and in certain areas, you can still see these brooks as Whitman might have — full and flowing.

Kadinsky, 35, has been fascinated with the skeleton of waterways that crisscross Long Island and New York City since he was a boy growing up in Queens exploring Flushing Creek. He began a blog, "Hidden Waters," in 2015 that details the routes and histories of myriad creeks that were far better known to, and appreciated by, Long Islanders in the past. In 2016, he published a spinoff book, “Hidden Waters of New York City: A History and Guide to 101 Forgotten Lakes, Ponds, Creeks and Streams in the Five Boroughs” (Countryman Press).

Kadinsky, an adjunct professor of history at Touro College in Forest Hills, Queens, plans to write a similar book on the streams of Long Island — including Motts Creek, the subject of our late fall tour, which he learned about through researching old maps and documents. (It's likely called Motts Creek because land belonging to that early Hempstead family was located near here.)

A forgotten history

"I am surprised to hear that it has a name," says Anthony Sarchiapone, 53, a Huntington resident who grew up in a house in Malverne about a hundred yards from the creek. "That elevates it somehow, beyond being what I always thought it was, which was basically a drainage ditch."

As we learn during Kadinsky's tour of Motts Creek, it is that, too.

Across Naple Avenue, which runs east to west along the southern end of Rath Park, we see our first signs of the creek: A dry, sandy bed flanked by concrete abutments. These culverts, Kadinsky explains, were carved in the postwar period as western Nassau County became heavily developed. Motts Creek (like many others in this part of Long Island) became a repository for storm water. In the postwar era, it was straightened and widened to better accommodate runoff. (Before modern development, Motts Creek and its sister streams were fed entirely by groundwater.)

Two narrow bands of scraggly green abut each side of the creek. A well-worn path, used by generations of dog walkers, runs through one of them. "No Trespassing" barks the county sign on the fence as we proceed south.

"Keeping these stream corridors clean involves fences and 'no trespassing' signs," Kadinsky notes. That said, "it would be nice to see the land become a little more open to the public."

But what about the history of these little patches of woods as magnets for bored teenagers or worse? Kadinsky cites the many dog walkers and joggers who use the trails along these routes. "These creeks could serve as a linear park, connecting communities along their course," he says.

As if on cue, a runner comes by, crossing the footbridge near David Street in Franklin Square.

"I have wondered about this," says Anna Tonska, who lives nearby. "I've thought it would be great if it was filled with water. It would create such a different environment here."

Most would agree that it would be nice to be able to walk or ride uninterrupted along a recreational path, say, like the popular one that runs parallel to the series of streams along the Bethpage Parkway and through the Massapequa Preserve. But that's an exception: Like Motts, many of the Island's creeks disappear underground for long stretches that are difficult to follow.

Kadinsky uses his car's GPS to track the creek's elusive course, zipping from neighborhood to neighborhood, pulling up to dead-ends and peering through woods to glimpse its mostly-fenced-in footprint.

In the past, when they were more visible, the creeks made for natural dividing lines — the case with Motts, used as the border between Valley Stream and Malverne when the latter was incorporated as a village in 1921.

In the 19th century, people fished these waters or built mills nearby. It was different in the 20th century, as those who grew up near Long Island's streams and brooks can attest.

"'The creek,' as everyone referred to it, was many things to a young man growing up in suburbia in the 1960s," says Angelo Assante, 64, who lives a few blocks from where Motts Creek runs under the Southern State Parkway, through a tunnel above which someone years ago spray-painted "teenage wasteland."

Like many of his fellow students at Valley Stream North High School (where Motts Creek runs behind the football field), Assante walked to school through that dank tunnel. He also explored the creek and the woods around it — and played suburban archaeologist. "We would try and decipher the graffiti and drawings on the walls of the tunnel from the previous generations of teenagers," says Assante, who was in the class of 1973.

This too was part of the identity of the creek, and of many of Long Island's hidden waters that became magnets for teens, not necessarily with the purest motives.

As a sign of how times have changed, Assante — who lives in the house where he grew up — has four adult children who also attended Valley Stream North. Unlike Dad, none walked through the creek to get to school. Like their classmates, they found alternate routes to school.

In a new era

Changing parental attitudes may have been a factor.

"As a father, I can't imagine letting my daughter walk to school alone through that creek," said Sarchiapone, who graduated from Valley Stream North in 1984. "But when we were growing up, all five of the kids in my family, including me, walked through that creek every day and no one seemed to have any problem with it."

Farther south, near Franklin Avenue just northwest of Legion Place, the creek becomes lusher. While its bed is still dry, instead of scraggly patches of grass we see the first signs of phragmites, reeds typically found in wetlands.

And just like that, Motts Creek vanishes again.

Kadinsky points to a slight depression near an East Argyle Street driveway where Motts makes a slight turn west. "That's the creek under there," Kadinsky says with a grin. The bend is a reminder that while Long Island's streams have been modified in modern times, in places their original courses have stayed true.

Motts Creek vanishes underground for over a mile, resurfacing south of Sunrise Highway (south of Merrick Road, too) in the Gibson section of Valley Stream. It re-emerges from this subterranean stretch with a whole new look. Here, by a road that proclaims its presence — Brookside Drive — Motts Creek is no longer a dried-out scar. There is water in its bed and trees along its banks. At this point, the creek finally looks not like a drainage ditch, but a real stream.

From here, Motts Creek follows its natural curve, zigzagging south, beginning to widen as it approaches the shore.

At Mill Road in Hewlett, the creek vanishes into a thickly wooded area, the remnants, Kadinsky says, of a large forested area once known as Lord's Woods. One of the last woodlands on Nassau’s South Shore, it was a popular place to hike and camp for generations of Long Islanders.

Finally, in North Woodmere, near University Street, we see humble Motts Creek reaching its striking, full expression: A pond, about 600 feet wide, having meandered about a mile southeast from the woods.

At this point, as if shedding its old identity, the creek takes on a new name, Doxey Brook. The Nassau County park — accessible and best viewed from Branch Boulevard — includes a walking path and benches. Below the dam at the south end of Doxey, Motts becomes a tidal creek, flowing eventually into Jamaica Bay.

It's a startling transformation from what, about eight miles upstream, was a trickle of brackish water under a manhole.

"Some of the most famous rivers have humble beginnings," says Kadinsky. "I don't think most people know the full length of these local streams from source to mouth. And they might be happily surprised."

"That's amazing," says Sarchiapone, when told about the picturesque, watery conclusion to the dusty trace that ran near his boyhood home. "It sounds beautiful, and to learn that the creek still comes alive at some point gives me a good feeling."

Stewarding the waterways

"Wherever you may have previously journeyed," wrote Nathaniel Scudder Prime in an 1845 history of Long Island, "you cannot fail to acknowledge that you never beheld such clear and sparkling brooks before."

Few residents today could agree with that statement — since so few have "beheld" the brooks and streams that crisscross the Island. Today, most of the Island's estimated 70 or so free-flowing creeks are like chimeras: obscured by development, fenced off to prevent dumping, encased in tunnels.

But the streams, of course, have been here far longer than the malls and swimming pools.

"The streams on Long Island are related to the glacier or to the period of permafrost," explains Gilbert Hanson, distinguished professor of geosciences at Stony Brook University. "And they're actually occupying valleys that were formed during those times."

The South Shore streams were created by snowmelt and rain runoff during prehistoric summers about 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. At the time, Hanson says, the Island had a climate much like Siberia today: very dry, very cold for much of the year.

North Shore streams, he says, "are quite different." These, he said, were formed by high-pressure streams under the glacier, traveling at high speed through natural underground tunnels, that spewed out onto the outwash plain of the North Shore during the glacial period, 20,000 to 24,000 years ago.

While never navigable, the streams — fed by groundwater — were fuller, wider and free-flowing during the Colonial period. "From the point of view of the colonists, they were unbelievably important," he says. "They built water-powered mills along those streams."

That's hard to imagine since so many upland sections of these streams today are dry — one reason, Hanson says, that the water table has dropped over the decades because of development. Sewage treatment plants, which pump water into the ocean, also can affect the dryness of the creeks.

To see Long Island's waters as Walt Whitman or Nathaniel Prime might have, one can visit Connetquot Park in Oakdale, bisected for six miles by the Connetquot River. "It's pristine and beautiful," says Tom Casey, vice president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, who leads frequent hikes here. "It's a clear flowing stream with no development around it."

More typical of Long Island's waters today is White's Creek, which meanders through the hamlet of Oyster Bay, along the north end South Street (Route 106).

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, Friends of the Bay organized a cleanup for part of this creek. "It's pretty hidden," acknowledged Heather Johnson, executive director of the environmental group, as she watched clusters of teenage volunteers clearing debris from what, at first glance, looks like a patch of woods at the end of a parking lot on South Street, just north of East Main Street.

Closer inspection reveals a creek bed — dry as a bone.

The cleanup, Johnson acknowledges, is not going to restore this section of White's to its full-fledged beauty. "No matter what we do, it's not going back to the way it was," she laments.

— John Hanc

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