I was born in New York City and lived there until we moved to New London in 1943. However, the New York that I talk about occasionally always refers to Staten Island, which is nothing like the New York City we all see on TV and in the movies. That “New York City” is Manhattan Island, which is just one of five NYC boroughs, and is very different from the rest.
Even though Mom and I only went over to Manhattan once in a while, I still felt that I knew “the city” — as New Yorkers refer to Manhattan — fairly well. After all, how many times do you have to see skyscrapers, ride subways, shop large stores like Macy’s and Gimbel’s, attend theaters, or glide past the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island on the ferry before they become just part of the background of your life? However, I may have known as much about the city as most city dwellers do, but in truth I knew next to nothing about what kept it running.
And so, a rude awakening awaited me in 1978, after I had come back from overseas, retired from the Air Force, moved out West, gone to college, and was happily focused on teaching science courses and turning a small house in a quiet neighborhood of the equally quiet Gulf Coast city of Port Arthur, Texas, into the stay-in-one-place-and-put-down-roots home that Lolly, I, and the kids had always looked forward to.
Quite by accident in 1978, I ran across a book in the public library, which startled me about as much as anything I have ever read.
Written way back in 1959, it was called “The World Beneath the City,” and it showed me that I may have walked the sidewalks of New York, but I knew about as much what lay beneath those sidewalks as I did about the mating habits of Siberian tigers.
And that ain’t much!
Oh sure, our New York City history classes taught us about Hendrik Hudson, who had sailed up the Hudson River looking for a shortcut to China, and ended up claiming the New York area for Holland, naming it New Netherland.
And I knew that after a 17th century war between England and Holland the small Dutch colony of about 8,000 souls, was ceded to England, and was then renamed New York.
But what didn’t I know?
Almost everything, including the fact that for its first 200 years the worst problem in New York City was its water, which was so foul that horses wouldn’t drink it, so polluted that it decimated the city population every year, and so expensive that the poor couldn’t even afford to drink it.
Furthermore, having been born in New York in 1932, by which time its water was pure, sweet, plentiful, and cheap, I had no idea what a battle it had been between 1905 and 1917 to bring that water from 100 miles away through a huge tunnel cut through solid rock far below the surface, a tunnel which passed — for example — 1,100 feet below the bed of the Hudson River.
And I didn’t have the slightest clue what lay beneath the New York City sidewalks.
When I began reading that book in 1978 some of the numbers on its very first page were hard to believe. Would you, for example, have imagined that as of 1959 there were 19,000 miles of electrical cables stretched below the sidewalks of no-power-poles-allowed Manhattan?
Wait till next week!