I’ve been telling you about a 223-page book called “The World Beneath the City,” written in 1959. Last week, I mentioned a section of Manhattan which is called the “Piecrust” because it’s an area where there are so many subway or train tunnels below the streets that the buildings have no basements, and stand on huge concrete supports. For example, the super high-class Waldorf Astoria Hotel ends just one quarter of an inch below the street.
For several weeks the police station nearest the Piecrust area was nagged by phone calls from a woman who kept saying that a gang of murderers were going down into the sewer near her apartment carrying bags full of bloody body parts. The police ignored her for a while, but finally gave in and sent a couple of cops over to see what was going on. When they arrived, and entered the area below the street through the sewer cover she had pointed out, they could hardly believe their eyes.
There sat a regular rural style railway station which had been abandoned when the streets in the area were brought up to normal street level. In it were dozens of hobos who had found a warm, dry home where they could live, cooking the supplies they brought in the burlap bags the woman had seen. The old station was torn down.
For centuries, transportation was second only to water as the city’s worst problem. Because Manhattan is long and narrow its streets were always clogged with pedestrians, men on horseback, and horse-drawn taxis, wagons, carriages, and trams. At times, the traffic was so clogged that it took less time to walk a few miles than to ride over them.
The problem was aggravated by filthy, rarely cleaned trams running on tracks, and a multitude of horse-drawn omnibuses, all run by competing companies which made payoffs to corrupt city officials, and grew in numbers until the streets were almost totally clogged, while their drivers actually fought fistfights for the right of way. To add to the problem, the streets grew ever more and more clogged and filthy because of horse droppings, which were not dealt with by the city, partly for lack of water to clean the streets.
At last, with the advent of steam-driven trains, it seemed that a possible solution might be at hand. However, it soon became obvious that adding tracks and steam locomotives to the already overcrowded streets was impossible, so someone came up with the idea of building overhead rail systems on which to run trains.
This led to the advent of elevated trains placed above the streets, by no means a happy solution. The construction of “elevateds” — or simply “els” as they were usually called — left a lot to be desired. Their supports were sometimes of doubtful strength, and riding in a swaying train car high above the street was not a pleasant experience.
On top of that, the wood- and coal-fired engines spewed out smoke, steam, and soot that blackened the buildings around them and shook their foundations, and the passage of a rumbling, hissing, clanking train every few minutes gave no peace to the people in the businesses or tenements they passed. However, since the owners of the els were lining the pockets of city and state officials, nothing was done.
And then — at long last — the subways.
However, that was a long, hard-fought, expensive, costly, and at times highly amusing, story.
Let’s save it for next week, shall we?