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Monday, June 1, 2009

NYC: The World's Fair Observation Towers

Relics of the World of Tomorrow: Climbing the Astro-View Observation Towers in Queens

         It was near midnight in late October, and I was in the Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, staring up at three concrete towers. They look something like three closely-spaced castle spires, with a flying saucer landed atop each one. The flying saucers are in fact huge round observation platforms, 64 feet in diameter; they were built for the 1964 World's Fair as the Astro-View Observation Towers of the New York State Pavilion's attractions.
         Visitors to the Fair packed into the streamlined Sky-Streak elevators that ascended on the outside of the towers, getting off at one of the three saucer-like platforms. From there, they looked out over an historic and unique display of mankind's greatest achievements, ranging from Michelangelo's Pieta to the world’s first public display of controlled nuclear fusion. Though the exhibits are now long gone, I desperately wanted to experience the view as well. At least I would be able to clearly see the centerpiece of the Fair, which had also been left standing: the striking 140-foot-tall stainless-steel globe called the Unisphere.
         Since the fair's end in 1965, however, the Astro-View Towers have been closed. The fair's governing body, the World's Fair Corporation, collapsed into bankruptcy, leaving the many plans for re-use of the pavilion structures unrealized. Now, decades later, weeds, bushes, and even trees grow around the Astro-View towers, and the rims and railings of the observation decks are thick with rust that is visible even from the ground. One of the Sky-Streak elevators remains, but it is stuck two-thirds of the way up the tower, with all the color faded out of its paint and pieces of its once-sleek shell slowly falling off.

         A tall fence with a locked gate surrounds the base of the towers, but I had discovered a slit cut low in the chain-link in an area hidden by thick bushes. I crawled through, trying to stay hidden as people came and went from the nearby Queens Theater in the Park. The theater too was part of the Fair's New York State Pavilion, and it is one of the few structures from the fair that is still used. Adjacent to the towers is the third structure of the Pavilion, the Tent of Tomorrow, a huge round arena that originally had a suspended roof of colorful panels supported by 98-foot-high concrete columns. Like the observation towers, it is long-abandoned, though the huge concrete columns remain, along with the giant terrazzo map of New York State embedded in its floor.
         From my spot in the bushes, I examined the three towers just as I had on previous visits, looking for a way up. There is a vertical slot in the side of each tower, like a tall narrow window, but the bottom of this window only starts at about third-floor level. Below that slot, there is nothing but blank and featureless concrete. Through the slot in one of the towers, I could see the framework of a stairway.
         There was a door in this tower, but it was firmly shut with not one, but two massive locks. Other than the door, the only possible way into the structure was through the slot-like window, but there was no way to climb up to it. A ladder would have solved the problem-but even if I had a ladder long enough, and managed to transport it via cab or subway, there was no way I could have set it up without attracting attention from people at the theater or from one of the police patrols that made frequent rounds in the park. There was only one solution I could think of: a grappling hook.
         I knew that it would be harder to use a grappling hook in real life than the movies make it seem. In the Hollywood conception of a grappling hook, the hero throws the hook, pulls at it until it catches firmly on something, and then climbs up the slender rope attached to the hook. But it's very difficult to climb straight up a slender rope; it needs to be as thick as a ship's hawser to give a good grip, and then it's too heavy to throw. I compromised by picking out a mid-size rope—5/16", about as thick as a standard rock-climber's safety rope—and then knotting it every two feet. It wasn't actual climbing gear, just a nylon rope I bought from the hardware store; it was not intended to support a person, but knew it would hold me for the short time I needed it to.
         The hook was harder. When I looked up "grappling hooks" on the web, I found everything from cheap ninja-styled toy hooks to antique grappling hooks collected by military enthusiasts. The most exciting thing I found was a $4,000 grappling-hook launcher, looking something like a bazooka, that could send a hook and trailing line nearly 500 feet. The ad copy didn't say, however, how the person who launched it from 500 feet away could see whether or not the hook had caught on anything solid before trusting his life to it. I needed something cheaper anyway. I decided it was time to call on some real talent, and I headed downstairs from my apartment to talk to Dan, the welder who lived on the bottom floor of our converted Brooklyn warehouse. He had once been a bridge-welder, and he had showed me a souvenir of his certification test: a chunk of a weld three inches thick between two steel beams, cut open to make sure there were no air pockets or defects through the entire thickness of the weld. After seeing that, I knew I could trust his skill.
         He told me it would be easy enough, but that I needed to find the steel. A few days later I was back with some rusty steel bars—nearly 3/4" thick—that I had scavenged from a construction site.
         The most challenging part of the project turned out to be making the eyelet for the rope. In order to make the whole thing as strong as possible, Dan wanted to make this out of the same bar that made the main hook, instead of attaching separate pieces of metal. He heated half the bar until with an oxy-acetylene torch until it was glowing cherry-red, and the air around it shimmered. Then, wearing huge leather gloves and welder's aprons, the two of us heaved at it together like medieval blacksmiths, trying to curl it around the vice that held one end. We even broke the vice loose, but Dan repaired it and we kept on, alternating between heaving at it and re-heating it. The hook end went more quickly. The finished product was not pretty, and heavy as a cannonball, but I was thrilled. I picked it up to admire it but it was still incredibly hot and it burned me even through my welder's glove. We dropped it into a bucket of water to cool, and the water steamed and bubbled.
         Three nights later, I was back at the old World's Fair site, and once again I was hiding in the bushes. The parking lot was full of cars. A friend, Jeremy, was with me. I'd lured him out with the promise of the most spectacular view of the night skyline he'd ever seen, and he had come with me even though it was November and the temperature was well below freezing, with one of those driving winds that can make New York in winter seem like the coldest place on earth. Now he looked both cold and worried.
         "I thought you said there was no one at the theater this week," he whispered to me.
         I had checked the theater's schedule, and had picked a night when there was no show scheduled. I hadn't thought about rehearsals, however, or any of the hundred other things that goes into a preparing a theater for future shows. We waited until past midnight, but the activity showed no signs of abating. It was far too cold to keep on waiting any longer, and we decided to go for it anyway. We would just have to stay inconspicuous and quiet. After crawling from our hiding place, I coiled the rope carefully, and then swung the hook and released it in a perfect underhand throw towards the window slot.
         It got less than halfway to the window before the weight of the rope caught at it, and the hook crashed back to the ground in an aborted arc that sent loud clangs of metal-on-stone echoing out into the night. We dove back into the bushes, and waited to make sure no one had heard. A police car came by, and for moment we both thought it was coming for us; but as it went on past us we realized it was just the normal park patrol. Jeremy tried throwing it next, with an equally useless result, and then we took turns: one person throwing it, and the other trying to catch it on the way down before it clattered on the concrete. We mostly failed—it's not easy to catch a falling chunk of heavy metal bars, especially one that falls unpredictably because of the rope drag—and we spent a lot of time diving back into the bushes and waiting to make sure no one had heard us.
         Finally, with Jeremy throwing the hook and me throwing the coil of rope behind it, it found the slot. I pulled on the rope and could feel the hook sliding in the interior of the pillar, and then it caught on something solid; the framework of the stairs, I thought. I tugged at it, and then started up hand-over-hand along the knots I'd tied.
         I think the hardest part about climbing a rope up a wall is near the top, where my own bodyweight tensions the rope and pulls it so close to the wall that it's hard to get a hand around it. (Lower on the rope, the angle is shallower, and so it's much easier to keep the rope away from the wall.) This climb was doubly difficult because I was worried about pulling the hook free if I changed the angle on the rope or moved it too much. I was able to make it almost to the top, though, without moving the rope, and I reached out for the smooth concrete sill at the bottom of the slot. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief when my foot slipped on a knot. My reaching hand slid uselessly off the smooth concrete, and the full weight of my body came down with a jerk onto my rope hand, mashing it painfully between the knot and the wall. In the first moment I was terrified I was going to fall from the rope. As I caught myself, I was even more frightened that the jerk of my arrest would pull the hook loose from its anchor. I glanced down; I was already much higher than I was accustomed to climbing without a harness and safety gear, and suddenly felt very, very nervous.
         I took a deep breath and carefully hooked my fingertips over the edge of the concrete again, before pulling myself up until I got one forearm, and then the other, onto it. There was still nothing to hold on to and I had to keep squirming forward, relying on friction, with my legs and most of my torso still hanging over nothing, before I could get a grip on an inner corner and pull myself all the way in. As I slid through the narrow gap and onto the stairs, I saw for the first time what had been serving as an anchor for my grappling hook and my life: a tiny, rusted electrical box, that looked like it might give way at any moment.
         Close up, the staircase inside the tower was a frightening wreck, with some of the metal treads rusted completely off. The framework at least was still mostly intact, although shaky and bent in places. I tied off the rope, leaned out the window, and whistled for Jeremy to tie my camera bag to the rope so I could haul it up. Then I dropped the rope back down again for him to climb. Slowly, and with great effort, he climbed about two-thirds of the way up, and then I could see him pause, trying to gather strength for the rest, before deciding on retreat instead. He made it most of the way back down before his grip weakened and he started to slip, sliding down the rest in a sort of controlled fall that left him sprawled on the concrete. He tried again, using his feet to better advantage, but with his arms already tired from the first attempt it was a hopeless task.
         "Go on," he called up to me. "I'll wait."
         My disappointment that he wasn't with me was quickly forgotten as I took stock of my situation and realized that I was actually in this thing. Above me was the first of the three platforms, and I started up.

         Because the treads were so weakened with rust, I straddled the stairs, with one foot on each side of the frame. In a few minutes I stepped out onto the first platform, which had originally been a cafeteria; I imaged hundreds of people, laughing, eating, and admiring the brilliant spectacle of the fair.
         I crossed to where the platform intersected the next tower, and continued up its equally deteriorated stairway. There was more and more damage as I went further up, and I was glad for the gloves that protected my hands from the rusted railings that I gripped tightly, in case something under my feet gave way. As awkward as my straddle-legged climbing was, I fell into a rhythm and was surprised when I quickly came out onto the second platform. This was much higher than the first; I stayed well away from the edge, wondering just how sturdy this old concrete was, and crossed over to the tallest tower.
         For most of its height, this tallest tower holds only the elevator and electrical wiring, but from the second to the third platform it's the only way up and so the access stairs are built into it. A short climb brought me directly beneath the top platform. Under each of the platforms, I noticed, the stairs were in slightly better shape; the deck itself must have protected the metal stairs from the rain that caused the rust.
         The top platform is double-decked, with the upper deck about 15 feet above the lower. The stairs between the two levels were deteriorated almost to the point of non-existence, and I had jump to avoid falling as two of the treads broke loose under my feet and crashed to the deck below. But then I was at the very top, and all around me was New York City, seen in rare and magnificent form.
         To the north, I could see the Unisphere, with Shea stadium and the National Tennis Center stadium behind it, and further away the green necklaces of the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges. As I watched I could see the lights of circling planes, too, waiting to land at LaGuardia. To the south, there was the alien-looking bulk of the Tent of Tomorrow and past that the Long Island Expressway, a great glowing stream of cars, and beyond that Meadow Lake and then Willow Lake, each one reflecting all the lights around it. Just to the east, I saw the Queens Theater building. Far to the west the skyline of Manhattan was nothing but tiny shapes of light in the distance, the buildings recognizable only by their relative heights, and all around me the vast city rippled and twinkled under the moon. I was mesmerized. I don't know how long I was up there, but eventually I realized that I was so cold that I couldn't stop shivering, and I started back down.


         The towers I climbed, along with the Unisphere, the Queens Theater, and the Tent of Tomorrow, are some of the most obvious relics of the Fair. In fact, though, much of the landscape that I'd seen from the towers-Meadow Lake, Willow Lake, the entire 1,255 acres of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and most of the highways-was also a legacy of the '64 World's Fair and of its predecessor on the site, the 1939 World's Fair.
         Thematically, both of the fairs expressed a belief in mankind's ability to change the world for the better through technology, and the history of the site itself gives strong support to this belief. Originally, Flushing Meadows and its environs were dotted with marshes, supplied by streams that flowed into the Flushing River and Flushing Bay. It was impossible to build in the marshy ground, and so as the surrounding area urbanized, the meadows became a landfill. By the 1920s, it was a giant ash dump, run by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company under a man called "Fishhooks" McCarthy. With the entire city running on coal heating, the area was described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the novel The Great Gatsby as a vast desolate, hellish "valley of ashes" that stretched as far as the eye could see.
         When the 1939 World's Fair was being planned, the Commissioner of the Parks Department was Robert Moses, a visionary whose single-minded focus on rebuilding the city to fit his visions was both horrifying and wonderful: horrifying sometimes for what he destroyed to make room for his visions, but wonderful for what he created. In the desolate landscape of the ash dump, where generations' worth of garbage had created hills over a hundred feet high, he saw the possibility of a green and fertile landscape for the Fair—a vast tract of land that, once landscaped, would continue to serve as a city park for generations to come.
         Unlike many visionaries, Robert Moses was very good at getting things done. In just three years, between 1936 and 1939, his workers filled in the marshes; re-channeled the Flushing River and built huge sewer tunnels to contain its tributary streams; created the 84-acre Meadow Lake, the largest in the city, as well as the smaller Willow Lake; and landscaped the entire 1,200 acres of newly-habitable land. Moses wrote that his teams "leveled the ash mountains, and rats big enough to wear saddles, with white whiskers a foot long, gazed wistfully at the bulldozers and [those] who disturbed their ancient solitary reign." By 1939, it had become the perfect setting for the fair, the theme of which was, appropriately, "Creating the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today."
         The 1939 Fair was a tremendous success, and in a multitude of exhibits it expressed the same potent, supremely self-confident spirit that had led to the transformation of the site. At the center of the fair, visitors could enter the huge globe of the Perisphere and see, from a god's-eye view, an intricate model for a futuristic urban utopia called "Democracity." Even more fantastic, for many visitors, were the real scientific and engineering accomplishments introduced at the fair: technologies like television, air conditioning, nylon, color photography, and an early electric calculator.
         Twenty-five years later, the 1964 World's Fair was held in the same place. Robert Moses was the driving force behind this fair, even more so than he had been in 1939, and he became the chairman of the World's Fair Corporation. Like its predecessor, the 1964 Fair was a dazzling display that celebrated mankind's progress; there were artistic and historical treasures and technological wonders, including a display of early computers. Many exhibits—like the Apollo rockets that would soon take mankind to the moon—promised more wonders to come.
         It was not, however, an unqualified success. Attempting to increase revenue, Moses and the World's Fair Corporation charged fees to exhibitors and also opened it for two successive years, both of which violated standards set by the governing body for World's Fairs, the Bureau International des Expositions. Due to this, very few other nations participated, and so the major pavilions in 1964 were those of American companies, which of course had commercial rather than cultural goals.
         In the end, it was a financial disaster. The 50 million visitors were only about two-thirds of what had been anticipated, and at the end of the Fair the bankrupt corporation defaulted on a $24 million loan from the city and paid its other creditors only pennies on the dollar. The majority of the fair's pavilions were demolished as planned, but there was little money available to convert the remainder to permanent uses, and some—like the New York State Pavilion structures—were left to rot.
         When I think about the fair, though, these faults seem almost inconsequential. What is most important about both of the World's Fairs is the powerful and hopeful belief they expressed in the ability of mankind to create positive change in the world. The towering relics of the fair are reminders of this, but it is perhaps best shown in the fairground site itself: in what was first an uninhabitable swamp and then a desolate dump, the city created a shining vision of utopia; a place where nearly 100 million visitors came to see the future.

Friday, May 1, 2009

NYC: First Time Into the Tunnel

            The hole I was digging was about three feet deep and halfway under the wall when I ran into a tarpaulin imbedded in the dirt. It caught at my shovel strangely, and I couldn’t tell what I’d run into in the nighttime darkness until I took out my flashlight. I knelt down next to the hole to see.
            The beam of my flashlight showed the dirty blue plastic and then, as I prodded it with the shovel, I saw a half-rotten shoe sticking out of the worm-infested folds. A dead body. The idea filled my mind with a sudden wave of revulsion and horror. For a moment I couldn’t move. Then I reached out and slowly pulled on a corner of the tarp. The shoe tumbled out, attached to nothing, and behind it there was only dirt.
            I let out a breath that I hadn’t known I was holding and sagged against the handle of the shovel. My moment of panic was over but my heart was still racing. I didn’t want to keep digging by myself, and so I walked over to the stairs leading into the next terrace of the park and waited for my friend Elinor to get back from her cigarette run. When she returned, she sat down with me and we both smoked a Camel before starting to dig again.

            We were in Riverside Park, and the only light came from a crescent moon and from the occasional passing car on the West Side Highway. In the darkness there was nothing visible but the stunted grass of the field, and beyond that the leafless trees were outlined against the clouds that moved raggedly across the October sky. As we returned to our surreptitious nocturnal digging, I felt like a grave-robber in a horror story.
            Next to us, the 15-foot stone wall leading to the next terrace of the park was a dark mass, the light barely enough to make out its texture. We kept our flashlights off as we dug so as not to be seen—though it was unlikely anyone else would be in this desolate area in the middle of the night.
            We were trying to get into the West Side Line tunnel, a two-and-a-half-mile long tunnel that runs underneath Riverside Park from 72nd Street to 123rd Street. The tunnel was created in the 1930s when an existing line—the New York Central Railroad’s West Side Line, that dated back to 1849—was lowered beneath ground level and covered over. The line was abandoned in 1982 and the massive subterranean space was taken over by a community of homeless New Yorkers who were quickly dubbed the “Mole People.” The squatters built plywood shacks and wired in electricity from streetlights on the surface; water for drinking and washing came from Riverside Park’s public bathrooms or occasionally from tapping into pipes that ran close to the tunnel’s walls. Then Amtrak acquired rights to the tunnel; they kicked everyone out, bulldozed the shacks, and began running trains again in 1991.
            From what I had read—researching in old newspaper articles, and the few books that mentioned the tunnel in recent decades—it seemed like the last of the mole people were gone by 1995. I hadn’t been able to find any information about the tunnel since then, though. I was intrigued; I wanted to see it. I wanted to see what traces of the one-time community remained, and I wanted to know—is anyone still down there?
            One of the newspaper articles had mentioned that, during the heyday of the underground community, the residents who lived close to the center of the tunnel had created new entrances by digging underneath a retaining wall in the park. When the Parks Department found these holes, they would fill them in, but the mole people just dug new ones the next day, according to the article. It sounded easy and quick, as if it was just necessary to clear some dirt from under the wall to make a space big enough to slip through. We’d even found a place where the ground looked like it had been dug up and replaced, assuming that it would be easier to dig through the site of an old, filled-in tunnel than through undisturbed ground. But we had already been digging for more than two hours, hacking through the rocky earth, and when we finally reached the bottom of the wall, we found it was solid concrete at least two feet thick. We would have to actually tunnel underneath it. Even without the tarp slowing down our progress, it was clear we’d be digging for a while longer before we could get all the way under the wall.
            Later, I would find out how foolish our labor was—there are far easier ways in at the ends of the tunnel, although there is no entrance within a mile of where we dug that night. Now that I’m more experienced, I’ll usually look at current and old city maps, review satellite images, and walk at least some of the route on the surface when I’m trying to get into a new tunnel. But this was the first city tunnel I had tried to get into, and at the time it seemed reasonable that I would have to dig my way into something underground.

            Eventually, I had dug out enough that I could reach through and feel empty space. We cleared out a little more dirt so we could squeeze our bodies through. I put my flashlight in my mouth, and then pushed myself headfirst down and into the hole. It was a tremendously awkward entrance. I pushed with my elbows, scraped my ribs, got dirt and trash down my shirt collar, and even thought I was stuck for a moment, but eventually I was through.
            I stood up with the eerie sensation that I get when I go from a warm sunny day into the dim, hushed coolness of a cathedral. At first it seemed that the space just stretched on forever around me. Even when I realized it wasn’t infinite, I could still see that it was very, very big. My flashlight beam barely showed the far wall, a little over 60 feet away. The tunnel is about 30 feet high, and I was standing in a sort of concrete compartment built about two-thirds of the way up one wall. It was about five feet deep and twelve feet long, bordered at each end by massive rusty I-beams that support the roof. The top of the tunnel is wider than the bottom, like the cap of a mushroom, and we had dug underneath the edge of that outer cap; the compartment I was in is basically the dead space where the top section fits over the main structure of the tunnel. If I were to sit or lie down, I realized, I’d be invisible from the track level, making it a perfect little bedroom niche. I’d already felt that there was debris under my feet, and now I looked and saw that I was standing on the rotting remnants of a long-ago squatter’s life: mouldering shoes, clothes, damp and blackened books, bottles and cans, more shoes, and something that was once a blanket, everything mixed together into the disgusting strata of a landfill and so damaged by water and time that all the items were now the same shade of a fetid dark gray. The tarp and shoe that had so frightened me earlier had been part of this mass of garbage.
            Elinor kicked her way through our little hole. She brushed ineffectually at the dirt smeared into her shirt. After crawling through the trash and dirt, I felt like I was covered with crushed worms and spiders too, but no matter; we were in.

            Elinor got out the cigarettes as she stared around and I reached for one. As I smoked I looked down at the floor of the tunnel below; we might be able to drop down without hurting ourselves, but I couldn’t see how we could climb back up. It was fifteen feet or more, and the smooth concrete wall offered no holds.
            “How the hell can we get down?” I said, wishing we’d thought to bring a rope. Elinor suggested we use the tarp. “We can tie one end to that thing. Hopefully those cables aren’t still being used.” She pointed her light at her feet, where rusty bolts held up two old electric cables that were strung along the wall.
            The tarp was a little rotten and a little torn, but still strong enough to support us. I worried more about the sixty-year-old bolts. We slid down one at a time, arms and legs wrapped around the makeshift rope, getting even dirtier in the process.

            The air was dusty enough that I could see the particles glittering faintly in the beams of our flashlights as we walked along the wide expanse of dirt on one side of the tunnel. In the center there are two parallel tracks, for trains running north and south. Amtrak’s Empire Service line is the one that passes through the tunnel, and the trains continue north across the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge to the Bronx and then on up the Hudson Valley. We stepped hesitantly and slowly, not talking, afraid to disturb the ominous quiet and unsure what to do now that we were in.
            We passed a huge mound of old trash bulldozed against a wall, evidence of the people who had once lived here and the subsequent clean-up by the Amtrak workers. Dozens or hundreds of niches like the one we’d entered through lined the upper portion of the tunnel’s west wall, and I wondered how many had housed people.
            Graffiti was scattered throughout the tunnel, both simple tags and huge colorful pieces, all layered on top of each other and mixed together with aphorisms and messages—“This city will chew you up and spit you out,” and “R.I.P. SANE,” and “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the tunnel, not a creature was stirring, not even a rat…” On later visits I came to understand that the most desirable spots for murals are the places where ventilation gratings let sunlight in, and this is part of why so many pieces are drawn over each other in clustered layers of paint.
            Some of the only murals left undisturbed were the giant black, white, and silver paintings done in the 1980s by a painter named “Freedom.” The murals range from about ten to twenty feet tall, and were pained with the help of a ladder. They range from a Dali-style melting clock, dripping its way down the wall, to a replica of a Ted Williams baseball card, to huge portraits of tunnel residents that are now long-gone. Freedom first found his way into the tunnel when he was 14, and visited constantly for years, making friends with the residents and creating the murals specifically for them, his only audience. These murals have a tremendous impact when they suddenly appear in the beam of a flashlight, the faces gleaming like an old albumen photographic print. Most were already more than a decade old by the time I first saw them, and the fact that so many remained unscathed demonstrated the respect Freedom had earned from his fellow writers. A portrait of the Mona Lisa’s face was one of the few Freedom works that had been tampered with; a new piece of graffiti covered the bottom half of with ten-foot-high mural. But the newer tag had itself been painted over with the words "Where's your respect, toy?"

            We walked on the tracks, stopping to see the things that leapt out of the blackness into the beams of our flashlights, with no idea of how far we’d come or how long we’d been underground. Eventually, we realized it was almost five in the morning and decided to head back.
            On our way back to the hole, we heard a train coming. It was just a low rumble at first, coming from all around us, and for a few moments I thought I was just imagining it. Then Elinor heard it too and we both stopped and looked down the tunnel behind us. Far away, the darkness of the tunnel was inexplicably brightening like an underground dawn in the moments just before the orb of the sun is visible. Then the headlights of the train itself appeared around the curve, moving dangerously fast, and the full roar of the engine hit us.
We sprinted for a wall, turning off the flashlights as the light and noise of the train filled the space around us. After so long in darkness and the silence, it was deafening and blinding; the air hummed with the brightness of the light, and the concrete wall shook with the sound. Then the engine flashed past and the beams of the headlights swept on down the tunnel. I caught a quick-flash filmstrip view of heads silhouetted through the windows, the smell of dust and steel, and the clashing of the steel wheels on the rails.
            For the short moment that the train was actually passing the tunnel had been bright as day and we felt exposed—we must have been seen, there seemed no chance that all these people could pass 15 feet from us and not know we were there. But the bright-lit faces in the windows had all been staring straight ahead; and then it was gone, heading uptown, across the river, and out of the city, and we were left with the darkness and silence again.

            We made our way back to our starting point and climbed up the tarpaulin to the debris-filled ledge with our hole. We decided to walk north along the ledge before going back to the surface. We edged past concrete partitions and climbed around the huge, rusty steel I-beams that support the roof of the tunnel. After walking a few hundred feet, we found a bed—a sleeping bag laid over slabs of foam padding. It had obviously been used recently. Though we stepped over the bedroll and walked on, I felt nervous. It was clear we weren’t the only ones to come to the tunnel, and I wasn’t sure what kind of people the others would turn out to be. These residents already lived on the very margin of the city; would they be angry that, after they had been pushed out of our world, we had invaded theirs?
            I could tell Elinor was feeling worried, too, though she seemed less affected than I was. She suddenly dropped down on her knees to look through a narrow space between girders. "Here kitty—come here, kitty…"
            I peered over her shoulder and saw two cats, wary and fierce-looking, standing immobile and staring at her. I moved for a better view between girders and suddenly realized that I was looking into an entire room built into the side of the tunnel: clothes were hung on a line stretched from corner to corner, a dingy table was sitting next to a battered chair, and an antiquated radio kept company with a couple more cats perched on the table. The more I looked, the more cats I saw: half-hidden behind the clothesline, perched in the shadowed areas of the girders on the sides, and looking back at us from every corner of the room. All of them were staring at us warily, their eyes gleaming wickedly in the light from our flashlights.
            We all stood still for a moment.
            "Wow," said Elinor, "look at all those cats."
            The cats seemed well-fed and at home; along one wall we could see a messy row of food bowls, disposable aluminum trays, and water dishes made from the bottom halves of plastic gallon jugs. The scene was bizarre; who would make a home here, buried in this nocturnal room with two dozen cats? I felt something in my stomach halfway between nervousness and fear.
            In following years I would get to know Brooklyn, the woman who lived in that room and fed the cats. Homeless as a teenager, she had found her way into the tunnel the first time by following the half-wild cats that she’d begun to feed in Riverside Park.
            “I came, I looked under the wall, I said ‘Oh! Look at all these cats!’ and then I felt sorry for them. I fell in love with the cats so I would come everyday and bring them cat food. And my cats love me. I’m all they have…” she told me, years after that first visit.
At the time, however, I knew none of this. Instead, I felt the weight of all the darkness behind me like a rising tide, and I wanted nothing more than to escape to the surface.
            We headed back, passing the bed and then climbing back over the partitions and past the steel beams. When we got to the hole, Elinor went through first. I handed through the flashlights and then squeezed myself through, pushing with my feet against a half-buried cooking pot. I'd stopped noticing that the tunnel air was dusty or stale, but when I finally took a breath of New York City air, it was the purest, sweetest, cleanest thing I've ever tasted and I could smell the open space, the autumn breezes, and the light of the first fingers of dawn.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

NYC History: The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel

Walt Whitman, writing just after the Atlantic Ave Tunnel was closed:
    The old tunnel, that used to lie there under ground, a passage of Acheron-like solemnity and darkness, now all closed and filled up, and soon to be utterly forgotten, with all its reminiscences; of which, however, there will, for a few years yet be many dear ones, to not a few Brooklynites, New Yorkers, and promiscuous crowds besides. For it was here you started to go down the island, in summer….
…We were along there a few days since, and could not help stopping, and giving the reins for a few moments to an imagination of the period when the daily eastern train, with a long string of cars, filled with summer passengers, was about starting for Greenport, after touching at all the intermediate villages and depots. We are, (our fancy will have it so,) in that train of cars, ready to start. The bell rings, and winds off with that sort of a twirl or gulp, (if you can imagine a bell gulping), which expresses the last call, and no more afterwards; then off we go. Every person attached the road jumps on from the ground or some of the various platforms, after the train starts…. The orange women, the newsboys, and the limping young man with the long-lived cakes, looks in at the windows with an expression that says very plainly, “We’ll run along-side, and risk all the danger, while you find the change.” The smoke with a greasy smell comes drifting along, and you whisk into the tunnel.
    The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent. How beautiful look Earth and Heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! it might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals—the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that’s a large proportion—into some tunnel of several days journey. We’d perhaps grumble less afterward at God’s handiwork.

-Walt Whitman, “Brooklynania” #36, 1861 (Approx.)

    Underneath Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, stretching west from the busy intersection with Court Street, is an old Long Island Rail Road tunnel. At 21 feet wide and 17 feet high, it was big enough for two locomotives side-by-side. Today it feels more like a natural cave than a man-made tunnel. It once carried passenger trains filled with summertime crowds heading to towns and resorts on Long Island. But after it was closed in 1861, it remained essentially forgotten for well over a century, until a young Brooklyn historian in the 1980s found references to it and eventually tunneled into it.
    The train tunnel was built for a passenger railroad line that connected Brooklyn’s ferry landing at the foot of Atlantic Street with the Long Island Railroad station in Jamaica (now part of Queens). Since it was built for passenger trains and ran underground through a city (the city of Brooklyn), it is the world’s first subway tunnel—predating by many years the famous but short-lived Pneumatic Subway that Alfred Ely Beach built in lower Manhattan in1870. It was also one of the longest train tunnels in the world at the time.
    At the time the tunnel was built in 1844, both steam trains and the city of Brooklyn itself were still quite new. Though Brooklyn had existed as a town for many years, it was only in 1834 that the bill to incorporate it as a city was passed in Albany (over the heavy opposition of New York City). Steam locomotives as well were essentially an invention of the 1830s.  In 1830, Peter Cooper had demonstrated the first practical steam locomotive in the US, a small engine called Tom Thumb that managed to pull a passenger car at 18 miles per hour, showing that the new technology could be far superior to horse-drawn trains.  Over the next two decades, rail lines would not only revolutionize shipping through New York state, but would also facilitate incredible development in the towns and suburbs around New York City. Seeing both the massive immigration-fueled population explosion in New York, and the desire of the wealthier to get away from the crowded, dirt city center, developers began to lay out residential tracts in Brooklyn. Commuters could travel between the two cities via the South Ferry, a ferry line that would lend its name both to the South Ferry station in lower Manhattan and Brooklyn’s South Ferry station at the foot of Atlantic St.
    Companies were chartered to lay individual rail lines, and one of the earliest in Brooklyn was the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad Company, chartered in 1832, to lay tracks between what were then two villages. Tracks were laid along what is now the route of Atlantic Avenue, although at the time it was Atlantic Street and extended only slightly east of Flatbush.
    In 1834, the Long Island Rail Road was chartered as well, with plans to run from Jamaica (now queens) westward through Long Island.  The original goal of the Long Island Rail Road was to connect New York and Boston, using ferries to cross both Long Island Sound and the East River. (This plan would end up ultimately seeing little success, especially when an overland rail line was completed through Connecticut, but the company would handle passengers traveling to the new towns and summer resorts that sprang up on the island through the 1800s.) The Long Island Railroad would not finish laying the 94 miles of track that connected Brooklyn with Greenport, where a steam ferry took passengers to a connecting train to Boston, until 1844, the same year that the Atlantic street tunnel was built.  But in the meantime, the new rail lines gave unprecedented access to towns along its route, laying the groundwork for Long Island’s railroad suburbs.
    The first Brooklyn and Jamaica Company trains ran along Atlantic Avenue in 1836.  Within a year, however, the company had leased its tracks to the Long Island Rail Road, which was continuing to lay tracks further and further into Long Island.
    But steam technology was in its infancy, and the locomotives were both weak and dangerous. The engines sometimes exploded violently. From their inception, steam locomotives were not allowed in Manhattan south of 27th Street because of this; as the city expanded north so did the cut-off line, and Grand Central was built at 42nd street because that was the southern terminus for all steam-powered locomotives at the time. The city of Brooklyn likewise forbade any use of steam within city limits until 1839, and so trains were pulled by horses until out of the city limits. Regardless of the ordnance, horses would still have been during the first part of the journey, as the early steam locomotives were not powerful enough to handle the hill between the ferry landing and Court Street, and even after steam was permitted horses still were attached to the train to help it up the grade. (Which created its own problems, as the horses were easily spooked by the loud, clanking, frightening engines; the Long Island Rail Road eventually solved this problem by putting a passenger car in front of the engine, as a buffer between it and the horse teams.)  Local business and residents were not happy with the operation, especially as the railroad expanded. A letter to the editor in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle recalled that, before the tunnel was built, the railroad would send “their locomotives to Smith street, and there stationing one or more on the open street, belching forth their thunder and steam, rendering the whole neighborhood inaccessible; add to this the blocking of up Atlantic street, from Henry street to Smith street with carloads of manure, and the sidewalks and lots with heavy and obstructing material, all permitted to remain as long as possible…”
    Starting on May 24, 1844, the Long Island Railroad began work on the tunnel as an open cut, after the Brooklyn Common Council had authorized the construction of a tunnel “constructed of good materials, with sides having good and substantial stone walls, to be arched with brick or stone,”  The first trains ran through in December of 1844.  In its annual report of 1844, the Common Council described the tunnel:
The whole length of this structure is little more than half a mile. The walls are of massive stone, of the thickness of six feet, and ten feet high. The arch is of brick, twenty-two inches thick, the whole laid in hydraulic cement.
    Light and air came in through three ventilation shafts that rose to the surface, about 17 feet above the roof of the tunnel at the center. (These ventilators—“not to exceed four feet in diameter, and to be constructed with suitable iron railings at least four feet in height,” according to the charter, we capped to a depth of three feet when the tunnel was closed.)
    Although already in daily use for trains, the report noted, the tunnel was not entirely finished; it was expected that another $15,000 worth of work was needed, bringing the total cost of the project to $66,352. “This great work,” the report declared, “will greatly facilitate the operations of the Company, obviate many dangers, and as a work of art will embellish the city of Brooklyn.”  Implicit in this was the fact that lessening the visibility of noisy, smoke-emitting steam trains would help property values in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and that routing the trains through the tunnel would allow for expansion of residential development south of Atlantic Ave.
    Despite the tunnel enclosure, the smoke and noise along Atlantic still aroused widespread opposition from local residents, especially as Prospect Heights developed into a wealthy and prestigious suburb of New York in the 1850s.  New development south of Atlantic, which had been facilitated by the tunnel, now led to calls to close the steam rail line completely, as residents and business complained about the space the tunnel entrances took up in the middle of the street, and the barrier that the rail line created to north-south movement on the local streets. In 1858, Brooklyn banned steam locomotive operations within city limits, a measure aimed specifically at the Brooklyn and Jamaica Railroad line, and despite challenges the ban was upheld by courts the following year. A compromise with the railroad was reached when it was decided that the city would buy the tunnel for the sake of closing the steam line; local property owners adjoining Atlantic street would be assessed for a total of $125,000 to pay for closing the tunnel and repaving the street.  “The consummation of this work,” the Times declared, “offers a great improvement in the street, for which the owners of property can well afford to pay the assessment levied therefor. ” 
    Steam locomotives were completely eliminated by 1860, though horse-drawn train cars ran through tunnel for another year. But by December of 1861 the tunnel had been completely closed, and the street smoothed and restored to a full 120 feet wide.  The two ends were filled in with dirt, but most of the tunnel—about 1,600 feet—was left empty. The railroad tracks and ties were removed, and today the only hint of the railroad that once ran through the tunnel is the corrugated dirt floor, with shallow and time-rounded depressions showing where the railroad ties used to sit.
    A horse-drawn rail line was installed on the surface of the newly smoothed and widened Atlantic Street to connect to the Jamaica station. The Long Island Railroad, giving up on Brooklyn, built a new track (the LIRR Main Line) between its Jamaica station and a ferry terminal at Hunter’s Point in Queens County.
    Considering the incredible growth of Brooklyn over the next decades, perhaps it’s not surprising that the tunnel was so quickly forgotten. Between 1860 (when the tunnel closed) and 1880, the population of the city leapt from 279,000 to 599,000—meaning that well over half the residents had not been alive in Brooklyn when the tunnel had been active just 20 years before. By 1900, when the Borough of Brooklyn had over one million people, the number was somewhere between 5% and 10% of the population. This is the downside of urban development and growth: the past is quickly forgotten. But it does linger on in the realm of urban myth and legend. By 1893, it was the subject of a “romance,” a short story in the New York Times that began:

    “The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel!” exclaimed Bilderhouse, looking up from his writing table.
    “That’s what I said,” replied Furbish. “Don’t you know there’s an old, unused tunnel there, under the middle of the street, extending from the ferry almost to Flatbush Avenue?”
    “Don’t believe it. Never heard of it before,” said Bilderhouse, leisurely resuming his work.
    Fruitlessly searching for an entrance to the tunnel after a dying man tells of treasure hidden there, the hero of the story dozes off at a bar and dreams of the Keats poem “Endymion.” (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep.”)
    By 1911 the myth had expanded, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the tunnel might be infested with giant rats and “desperate men,” and that “the popular impression prevails today that it would be a good deal safer to go down into its darkness armed.”  In 1936 a squad of police did their best to get in, after the District Attorney received an anonymous letter that said “If you inspect the old tunnel you might find something interesting.” (It was thought that they might find the body of Bo Weinberg, a gangster who helped the infamous Dutch Schultz expand operations into Brooklyn during prohibition .) They tried cellars along Atlantic Avenue, rapping on basement walls with crowbars, but found no connection. “The place is supposed to be alive with rodents big as behemoths,” Captain John McGowan told the reporter, although Sahib Lineburgh, an inspector with the Transit Commission who had been in the tunnel 20 years before, called the stories “bosh.” When he went in during 1916, he said, he and his men drilled into it both at Court Street and Henry Street. “We put ladders down and went down, carefully, because we’d heard all those legends about poison gas, and pirates dens and rats big as cats.” But they found nothing, though they had to walk through an inch-deep, 56-year accumulation of mold—no rodents, no treasure, and no connection to any buildings on Atlantic Avenue.  The police eventually called on workers to dig an entrance from street level through the ceiling arch of the tunnel.  They found nothing, but the hole they made is still visible in the roof of the tunnel. Another exploration during World War II, due to  reports of German saboteurs hiding in the tunnel, was equally fruitless.  (The closest the old tunnel came to being opened up to the public was probably also during WWII, when the WPA suggested using it as an air raid shelter, but it was not pursued.  )
    Just one of the legends about the tunnel turned out to be true: that it was filled with poison gas. In the late summer of 1980, a 20-year-old railroad buff named Bob Diamond became the first person since 1941 to enter the tunnel. But a few feet in, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) tests found carbon monoxide.  Carbon monoxide is a well-known danger in tunnels; it’s slightly heavier than air, and over time the carbon monoxide released from cars can seep into underground spaces, creating an odorless, invisible, and absolutely deadly layer of gas.
    Bob Diamond would eventually work to open up the tunnel for tours to the public, which still enter through a nondescript manhole in the middle of Atlantic Avenue at Court Street. That summer, he was still just an engineering student and a railroad buff; he’d spent months researching the tunnel and eventually found plans for it at the Brooklyn Borough President’s office. But he approached city agencies and got them to agree to help him. What he found that day, before the trip was aborted because of the bad air, was the brick arch of the tunnel’s ceiling, creating an open space about three feet high over the dirt filling the tunnel. He couldn’t go any further that day, but he would eventually find that the majority of the tunnel was completely open and untouched.


Whitman, Walt. From "Brooklyniana," a series of twenty-five pieces in the Brooklyn Standard between June 1861 and November 1862. Found in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, edited by Holloway, Emory. Doubleday, Page, & Company, Garden City, N.Y., 1921

Wallace & Burrows. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000

Horton, Gail. “A Brief History of the Greenport Terminal of the Long Island Railroad” 1992. ONLINE AT http://www.rmli.org/Page/Grennport_History_detail.htm

"Long Island Railroad.” The Times And Commercial Intelligence, June 14, 1838 SCAN ONLINE AT http://arrts-arrchives.com/atlaverr1.html

"Steam on Atlantic Street (Letter to the Editor)." Brooklyn Eagle, December 29 1858, p 2

Brooklyn Common Council, March 29 1844, Ordnance granting permission to the Long Island Railroad Company to construct a tunnel through Atlantic street. SCAN ONLINE AT http://arrts-arrchives.com/tunnel.html

Rogoff, Dave. “Atlantic Avenue (Cobble Hill) Tunnel” May 1962 Bulletin of the ERA's New York Division, online at http://rapidtransit.net/net/faq/nyc/AtlanticTunnel.html 

Brooklyn Common Council Annual Report, 1844, p 177-178, SCAN ONLINE AT http://arrts-arrchives.com/tunnel.html

"The Atlantic Street Controversy with the L. I. Railroad Company." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 1, 1858, p. 2

"Brooklyn News." New York Times, December 23, 1861.

"The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel: A Romance." New York Times, January 23 1893, p. 10

"Old Tunnel Eludes Police Explorers." New York Times, July 19 1936.

Gordon, David. "A Transit Legend Lives In Brooklyn." New York Times, February 7 1973

“Eerie Brooklyn Cave May Be Air Raid Shelter.” 1940 article scanned at http://arrts-arrchives.com/tunnel.html

"A Tunnel That Can Keep A Secret." New York Times, August 6 1980.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

NYC: Knickerbocker Avenue Extension Sewer

     In the 1880s, Bushwick was one of the most dynamic and thriving neighborhoods in the city of Brooklyn, NY. It was known especially for its many beer breweries. At the time, Brooklyn was still a separate city from New York City, and it was the third largest city in the United States. (New York City, composed at the time of just the island of Manhattan, was the largest city in the country; the five boroughs of today’s New York City would not be joined until 1898.)
     Both Brooklyn and New York City were growing incredibly rapidly. In the single decade between 1880 and 1890, New York City’s population would grow by 24% from 1.2 to 1.5 million, and Brooklyn’s population would grow an incredibly 42%, from 567,000 to 806,000. Stimulated by explosive growth in the region and fueled with cheap labor, the 1880s saw the opening of some of the most incredible engineering works of the century, including the Statue of Liberty (installed in 1886), and the Brooklyn Bridge (opened in 1883). On a smaller scale, Brooklyn’s first elevated railway opened in 1885, with its eastern terminus at the very edge of Bushwick.   
     The same year, the magazine Scientific American featured a completely different kind of engineering project on the cover of its December 12th issue: a massive 12-foot diameter sewer that was being built to carry the combined sewage and stormwater from Bushwick to a new outlet on the East River.
     From the point of view of an average Bushwick resident, this tunnel was not particularly interesting. Bushwick already had an extensive combined sewer system, with the largest sewer main, which ran along Knickerbocker Street, a full 11 feet in diameter . But the outfall for the Bushwick sewer system was into Newtown Creek, a slow-moving stream that had been turned into a canal. The new sewer featured in Scientific American, called the Knickerbocker Avenue Extension, was built to carry the flow away from its current outfall in Newtown Creek to the East River, about two miles away. For the population of Bushwick, nothing would change; their sewers would function as normal. But the new tunnel would keep sewage away from Newtown Creek’s many fright docks, even as the flow of sewage from Bushwick increased with the population. As the Scientific American article explained:
The necessity for the work is apparent from the fact that the present outlet sewer for this section of the city, which drains an area of about 2,800 acres, some of which is very low and flooded by every rain, is discharged upon the low lands at the head of Newton Creek, making a nuisance greatly detrimental to public health and damaging to valuable property in the vicinity. Frequent complaints from people living near this outlet and by the Department of Health rendered the construction of a new outlet absolutely necessary.
     But, the article explains, “although there is nothing new either in the sewer itself or the duty it is designed to perform, the method of building one section of about three-quarters of a mile in length is certainly unique and interesting.”
     This “unique and interesting” method was the technique used in digging the sewer as a deep tunnel (instead of as an open cut) in the section closest to the East River, where higher land meant that the tunnel was about 65 to 75 feet beneath the surface. To bore a sewer as a deep tunnel instead of as open cut was extremely unusual, and to do it the engineers used a new system of modular iron plates that were inserted at the head of the tunnel to support the roof and sides as the digging was done. Well behind the head of the tunnel, the plates were removed (to be re-used at the front) and bricklayers installed the bricks, set in cement, which would form the 12-inch thick walls of the circular tunnel. An iron-framed five and one-half foot diameter “pilot hole” preceded the main tunnel slightly. As the Scientific American article explains:
This method of tunneling not only gives an exact idea of the nature of the material in advance of the main work, but also served to firmly hold the sides of the excavation, preventing caving in; and where the route extends through a street lined upon each side with houses, and, as in this case, at an unusual depth below the surface, it has many advantages…
     At the time, this was all fairly unusual and impressive from an engineering point of view. The engineer Brunei had been the first to use cast-iron plates as lining for his landmark tunnel under the Thames as far back as 1843, and a train tunnel under the Hudson had even been started in 1874 using some of the same techniques (though that tunnel would not be finished until 1903), but the vast majority of urban tunnels were still built with a cut-and-cover method. The Knickerbocker Avenue Extension marked perhaps the first time that this sort tunneling technology had been used for a sewer or drain.
     This technique is actually very similar to how tunnel boring machines function today, with the cutting head and shield at the very front, and reinforcing plates installed directly behind the shield, providing not only support to the walls of the tunnel, but also bracing for the TBM to push forward. Of course today the digging is done mechanically rather than by manual labor, concrete is poured behind the plates to reinforce the tunnel instead of hand-laid bricks, and the debris or muck is taken out on a conveyor instead of pushed by hand along tracks in small carts as it was in the Knickerbocker extension, but the essential concept is the same and is quite different from the earlier methods of digging-and-blasting ahead of any reinforcement, with bracing only after the tunnel had progressed forward.
     I’d read about this sewer and its construction some years back, and had spent some time walking its route above-ground, or at least as close as I could figure it out. I never found the outfall but spent only a little time looking for it, knowing that the original outfall might be gone-- during the 20th century new development has sometimes changed or covered up original river outfalls. But recently a friend stumbled on the outlet completely by accident. This is how the outfall was described at the time it was built:
The outer end of the outfall is 18 feet in width and 6 1/2 feet in height, measured from the center of the invert, the curve of which has a radius of 41 feet; the sides are vertical, and on them rest iron I-beams, 12 inches deep, and varying in length from 20 feet at the outer end to 13 feet where the outfall sewer joins the circular one.
     Today the outermost iron I-beams have rusted to threads, and the breakdown of bricks and concrete at the top of the outfall makes it look like little more than a pile of debris by the water’s edge. The East River is actually a tidal estuary, and at high tide the water comes within six inches of the top of the outfall tunnel—or higher if there are waves or bad weather.

     I’d had a healthy fear of rising tidewaters ever since the time a few years ago when I was briefly trapped in a storm drain by the incoming tide, so we planned our trip carefully around low tide. It was clear from scouting it that this was still primarily sanitary sewage flowing the pipe, and so we loaded up with protection: we bought hip waders, rubber gloves that went up to the elbow, and wore respirators to keep out any loose particles in the air (though the respirators were unwieldy enough that I soon took mine off). We met up at a bar on the corner of the street above the route of the sewer, just a couple hundred feet from the outfall. When we finally walked into the outfall, it was an hour before low tide, and the water was ankle-deep. We ducked under the rusted I-beams and fallen brickwork, but we only made it about 50 feet in before coming to the floodgates.
     These one-way gates are common now on large CSOs (Combined Sewer Overflows/Outfalls); during normal dry-weather flow, the new interceptor will take the entire flow (of mostly sanitary sewage) to a treatment plant, and gates prevent the incoming tide from flowing back into the system. But during storm events the system maxes out, and the pipes to the treatment plant can take only a small portion of the water, which eventually pushes the gates open and jets out into the bay. Normally, to open the gates for inspection, a truck will hoist the gates up using a chain that goes to the surface. We had no truck, but I had a pair of ratcheting truck tie-downs (good for up to 10,000 pounds), and we were able to pull the gate open slightly by alternating the two— we’d attach one to the chain, tighten it up to open the gate 2-3 inches, then attach the second and tighten it to take the pressure off the first and move the gate another couple inches.
     When we finally had the gates far enough open to slip through I was delighted. Ahead of us stretched the 12-foot high, perfectly circular tunnel lined with hard, dark red bricks. Just in front of us, a catchbasin about six feet long and as wide as the entire tunnel was set into the floor. The fast-moving flow of sewage coming toward it down the tunnel was a little over a foot deep, and it flowed into the catchbasin in a small, powerful waterfall. From the catchbasin, as I knew from sewer maps, it flowed into a 3-foot, 6-inch brick interceptor which led in turn to a 7-foot main interceptor that took it, along with the flow from other old Brooklyn sewers, to nearby treatment plant.
     We carefully climbed around the catchbasin, which was filled with roiling gray water that seemed to be waiting for us to slip even a little on the moist, slick, slimy bricks.
     And, finally, we were in the main tunnel. A 12-foot-high tunnel of hand-laid brick running east-west, 64 feet underneath Williamsburg. A pioneering engineering project from the days when the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty were built. But unlike those monuments, the tunnel we were in had probably averaged less than one visitor a year in the intervening 125 years.      Another few steps and we were almost directly underneath the bar where we’d been drinking just before. We walked about three-quarters of a mile, then turned around and came back. The tide was rising, and we came out through knee-high water around our waders, seeing the lights of Manhattan reflected in the opaque water.
     And really that’s the end of my story. Seems anticlimactic, doesn’t it? But in exploring the urban environment, the fact of us being in the place isn’t the story. Even the process of getting into it isn’t really the story, although it often is close to one. The real story is the hidden thing itself, how it came to be and what it meant to the world. We were just there to see it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

NYC: The Brooklyn Bridge

Hart Crane
From “To Brooklyn Bridge”

“O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,--

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path--condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms."

         On my 29th birthday I finally climbed the Brooklyn Bridge.
         I had just broken up with a girl I’d been with for years, my longest relationship ever and the only one that seemed to be on track for marriage. We’d even talked about marriage sometimes, but whenever we talked about it I felt my skin start to crawl. For her, it was all she wanted. But I was terrified—terrified that the commitment would doom me to a life of boredom and monotony. After all, how can one single girl, no matter how fun or loving, be complex enough to continue giving me a sense of newness or discovery after decades lived together?
         A birthday brings on self-reflection, and I had been thinking about all these things, although they depressed me and made me worry I was incapable of real love.
         Late that night I found myself at the Patriot, a dive bar in lower Manhattan, slurping up a special birthday shot from a cocktail waitress’s belly button as she lay across the pool table. The whisky and the feel of the soft girl-flesh rushed into my head and suddenly I felt a wave of optimism and happiness. For months I had been feeling trapped, old, tired, bored and boring, caught up in a fast-flowing river where it took all my strength just to stay in the same place.
         But suddenly I knew differently. Today, my birthday, was the first day of the rest of my life, and the entire world of possibilities was open. So when Sunny, between drinks, asked me when we were going to climb another bridge, I had an answer immediately. “Tonight,” I said. “The Brooklyn Bridge.”
         I had wanted to climb the Brooklyn Bridge for years. Over time, though, i had stopped thinking about it as a real possibility. It’s illegal, of course. But it’s also illegal to climb the other bridges around Manhattan, and yet I’d been to the top of all of them. The difference is that with every other bridge around Manhattan it’s possible to go up the towers, either on service ladders or by climbing inside the latticework of girders. Going up the tower in these ways kept me more or less hidden from view. But the Brooklyn Bridge has solid stone towers rising straight up, and there are no ladders. The only way up is along one of the cables, which means the climber would be silhouetted against the sky and highly visible.
         This route also means walking up a sloping steel cable little more than a foot in diameter, using the auxiliary cables at each as handrails. We would do without any of the safety gear that bridge-workers use; though it would be reassuring to be clipped in, I knew it would make us impossibly slow. We had to move fast, which only made the tightrope-walk up the cable more worrisome.
         There’s something particularly spectacular about the Brooklyn Bridge, and it isn’t just because it was an engineering triumph that rivaled the Erie Canal or the Egyptian pyramids. It is absolutely beautiful, with nearly perfect curves and massing. And it connects what were at the time the largest and the third-largest cities in the country– New York City and Brooklyn.
         The towers, 276 feet high, are each made of three pillars supporting huge gothic arches and together form one of the most familiar sights in the world. At the time they were designed, in 1869, they were taller than almost anything else in the country– almost as tall as the spire of Trinity Church, taller than the dome of the Capitol in Washington DC– and far more massive than any other tall structure. The bridge needed to be tall so that high-masted sailing ships could still pass underneath it, going to and from what was then one of the largest and most active ports in the world.
         It was the first major bridge in the world to use steel suspension cables, which were developed by the bridge’s designer, John Augustus Roebling. Steel at the time, however, was still a fairly new development, and was considered too dubious a material for the massive weight-bearing towers. The original design for the bridge had been made in about 1869, and it would not be until two decades later that steel frames were first used to support massive structures: Holabird & Roche’s Tacoma Building in 1889 (the first building with an all-steel skeleton); the Forth Bridge in Scotland in 1890 (the first major all-steel cantilever bridge); and the early skyscrapers of Burnham & Root and Louis Sullivan in the 1890s. So it came naturally to Roebling to design these towers in stone, in the same monumental gothic style he had seen growing up in Mühlhausen, Germany, where he first passed the exam to become a Baumeister, a Master Builder.
         The towers are more massive than they need to be, as are the gothic arches they form over the roadway, and in fact they are partially hollow below the level of the road deck. In this, Roebling was using the language of expressive architecture. “In a work of such magnitude, and located as it is between two great cities, good architectural proportions should be observed,” he wrote. “The impression of the whole will be that of massiveness and strength.”

         Sunny and I left the bar when it closed. She’s a rock-climber and I’d climbed another bridge with her once before, and even after our drinking I knew I could trust her to handle herself. In the glow of the city after-hours, we walked to City Hall Park and then up onto the long wooden footpath that crosses over the bridge.
         I had walked this path for the first time almost exactly ten years before. I had just come to New York for school; I met a girl and I was in love from the first moment I saw her. On our first date, both of us still new to the city, we had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. She wore soft black-leather gloves and I loved the feel of her hand in mine. I was completely and absolutely in love, but within a year I had successfully driven us apart because I believed I’d never be satisfied with her if we stayed together too long. She’s happily married now, and just had her first child.
         Marriage— or any relationship of true and mature love— must be a complete partnership, my last girlfriend told me. Two people decide to build a life together, hoping that as a team they can create something far more fulfilling than each could alone. This is how the Brooklyn Bridge was built, too. John A. Roebling designed the bridge, but died (of tetanus, from a crushed foot) early in the surveying process. His son, Augustus Roebling, took over as the main engineer, but was crippled by the bends while working on the underwater tower foundations. After that he watched the work through a telescope from his bedroom window, while his wife carried his orders to the workers and stood in for him at the site. The beautiful bridge that came out of these efforts is a monument to the ingenuity and glory of New York— but it’s also a monument to the commitment of one family, shared between father and son and between husband and wife.
         Sunny, walking along the path next to me, had a husband, but he wasn’t with us that night. Her marriage was on the rocks and would soon completely unravel. Like me, she’d been feeling trapped. Which, on the face of it, seemed like a silly thing for her to worry about. She’s a brilliant university professor, with three postgraduate degrees. She speaks four languages fluently and she’s an excellent rock-climber. And she’s gorgeous, and she can mesmerize a crowd by dancing to country music on a bar– which she’d been doing at the Patriot just an hour before. Her life seemed wonderful. What was she was trying to escape from? What more freedom could she possibly want or even use?
         On other hand, I had just broken up with the girl I loved and now I found myself approaching something I’d passionately wanted to do for years. And it was probably only because her marriage was in trouble that Sunny was willing to come along with me on this foolish quest. There was a connection between our romantic troubles and our willingness to go on an adventure. Why? Because adventure requires some risk— even if it’s just the risk of wasting time— and to risk yourself is to celebrate your independence. If you’re in a partnership, you can’t be so spendthrift with yourself, any more than you can gamble with funds from a company account. But when the life or the money is entirely your own, you can let go of the caution that ordinarily limits you to sensible investments.
         We walked to the middle of the bridge, where the suspension cables reach their lowest point, dipping down close to the wooden walkway. I climbed up first.
         At each end of the bridge, a police car idled at the edge of traffic. Police have been continuously stationed on the bridge since September 11th, 2001, watching for trucks that might be laden with explosives. The entire bridge, with approaches, is a little over a mile long. (The central span, between the two towers, is only 1,595.5 feet.) We were in the middle, which meant that each police car was, at most, about 3,000 feet away– a little over a half-mile. A half-mile is a long way to see at night. But with the bright lights that illuminated the entire bridge, would we be instantly visible as small dark shapes silhouetted against the towers?
         The police seeing us wasn’t even my main worry; I was more concerned with the people passing by. About 150,000 cars cross the bridge every day; that’s about 6,000 an hour, or 100 cars per minute, not including bikers and pedestrians. It was the middle of the night, but traffic still flowed unceasingly. We’d be on the cable for several minutes. How many of the drivers would look up? And how many of them, seeing us, would understand our need for freedom and independence, instead of calling the police?

         Of course, not everyone who risks themselves on the Brooklyn Bridge does it purely for the reward of the accomplishment. Police regularly respond to reports of suicide jumpers. And why would someone want to kill himself? Love, of course. As one of the Emergency Services Unit responders (officer Gary Gorman, in a 2000 interview) explained that, in addition to money troubles, “marriage or failed relationships seem to be the cause of most suicide attempts.”
         A jump from the deck of the bridge, 135 feet above the water, is
 sometimes survivable, so people who want a sure death occasionally jump from the top of the tower we were about to scale. That fall is invariably fatal. “It is hardly necessary to point out to thoughtful men the splendor of a suicide committed from this virgin height,” declared the Brooklyn Eagle in 1877, six years before the bridge was even opened.
         Suicide jumpers led to suicide guards, which are ten-foot-tall sections of fence installed along the cable. Climbing over a fence is no problem on the ground, but 150 feet above the water and fifty feet above the roadway it becomes far scarier. I’ve heard one report of a would-be suicide jumper who became so terrified while climbing over the guards that he changed his mind and decided he wanted to live. I wanted to live too, and I was very careful as I eased my body over the fence and dropped down onto the narrow cable again.

         The cable I stood on, one of the four main cables that supports the bridge, is fifteen and three-quarters inches in diameter with 5,434 individual wires inside. I take the strength of a steel cable for granted, but the bridge builders had had a hard time convincing the citizenry that it would hold the bridge up. Public confidence was shaken even more when it was revealed during the construction that a corrupt contractor had supplied defective steel, some of which was woven into the strands before it was caught. Additional strands of good steel were added to reinforce the cables, and the engineers assured the public that the bridge was not only strong enough, but far stronger than it would even need to be for the load it would carry. Nonetheless, fears of collapse led to a massive panic on the bridge a week after it opened, while sight-seers still crowded the roadways. Pedestrians fled the bridge in a mad scramble and twelve people were trampled to death.
         But more than a century later, the cable below my feet felt steady as a rock. I could feel the smaller cables thrum under my hands with the vibration of the light traffic, but I felt none of the structural vibration that I’ve felt on many all-steel bridges, in which the steel girders are always flexing slightly from the weight and motion of traffic.
         The cable slopes up more sharply as it rises to the towers, and soon I was walking up a steep slope. Roebling designed the bridge so that the weighted suspension cables would still follow a catenary curve, the natural curve that an unweighted rope will take when hung loosely between two points. I feared the slope would become so steep that my feet would slip before I reached the top, but before I had a chance to do more than think of it, I had finished the climb. The cable vanished into the stone wall; inside the tower top, it’s held in an iron cable-saddle on huge rollers. I went up a short ladder, past the overhanging cornice of the tower, and I was at the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.

         From the ladder I rolled onto my stomach and lay for a moment stretched out on the granite. I felt wonderful. The solidity of the stone this high in the air felt miraculous.
         I looked out over the skyline, brilliant in the cold air, with every spark of light on every building seeming both close enough to touch and impossibly distant and high. I felt awe and ecstasy for the beauty of it, and a deep sadness that I would never see more than the tiniest fraction of the stories behind each one of those lights.
         I rolled over onto my back and watched the stars until Sunny came over the ladder’s edge. We sat first on one side of the tower, looking north along the East River, and then we moved to the south side and looked out toward the Statue of Liberty and the still waters of the bay that once teemed with sailing ships. We both shivered from the cold, but we didn’t want to leave. Eventually I noticed the first faint lightening of the sky to the east, above Queens, hinting at the coming dawn.
         A helicopter passed over the bridge, and with a start we saw the beam of a spotlight stabbing down as the helicopter slowed. We ducked against the edge of the cornice and tried to look like shadows. Even huddled and with my face hidden, I still felt the brightness as the light washed over us. I didn’t think they saw us; the light passed and we breathed again. The helicopter circled lazily, but as it headed back toward the bridge it was joined by another. When the pair had passed over us again in a wide circle, we crawled to the ladder and hurried down the cable. It was far more frightening than going up; now we were forced to look down, and face-to-face with the drop. Another terrifying fence-climb over the suicide guard, and we were back to the walkway. Three helicopters circled now. They were probably looking for suicide jumpers, but I’ve never been so far from suicidal; I felt immortal.

         When the Brooklyn Bridge was built, New York was the busiest port in the world. It was the financial capital of the world and the industrial center of the nation. It controlled the majority of the wealth in a country that was quickly becoming a world superpower. It would soon be the most populous city in the entire world.
         Today the port traffic, always New York’s raison d’etre, is essentially gone. Still a financial center because it always has been, the city has rested on its laurels for nearly a half-century, attracting relatively little in the way of new commerce. Like Paris or Madrid, this city that was once was the center of a world empire will perhaps become just a showcase, an aged grande dame that is essentially a static— though still beautiful— shell of its past power and glory.
         But despite all this, I never worry that I’ll become bored with the city. It will never lose its power to awe and fascinate me, and it is so multi-faceted that I know I could live out my life within it and still never come to the end of newness and possibility. Maybe I’ll find that with a girl someday. Maybe I’ll even tire of New York, aging and changing as it is. But every time I see it laid out before, I fall in love all over again.