When I moved to New York City 30 years ago, I noticed immediately that NYC did not have the same kind of urban sprawl that Detroit did. When Detroit died there was tremendous outward growth, like you find when you throw a stone into a body of water and you watch the rings from the initial contact ripple out and away from the center. Detroit was the stone that splashed into the water and the vast rippling rings moving outward became the bustling suburbs. The flat farmland took on a new hue with cookie cutter houses and big tall glass buildings, and many, many strip malls, that seemed to appear overnight.
In contrast, development in New York City is simply building right on top of what was there before. Land reuse is constant. Things will be torn down and new things will arise almost immediately. What was most fascinating to me was what was underneath. And every now and then I would get a chance to glimpse the infrastructure that supported the growth of the city above. Skyscrapers that touch the sky first had to be dug out deep into the ground, deeper than anything I had ever seen before. Likewise, when the streets were torn up in my neighborhood to lay new pipes, I was enthralled at the depth of the gorge in the street where the new pipes would lay. This is deep, but there is an infrastructural world even deeper than this that exists under the city, they are tunnels, huge vast tunnels. Most of which were dug out in the early 20th century. When the city was growing rapidly and the technology was now in place to facilitate this complicated process. These tunnels are under the rivers and under the dense schist that Manhattan is built upon. Subways had to be built, as well as sewers and the vast tunnels that cross the Hudson and East Rivers. But it is the precious water tunnels that bring the prize of pure water from the north to the ever-growing population of New York City that is most intriguing to me.
Even today, 800 feet below the noisy streets of Manhattan, huge boring machines work to make their way through the stubborn dense rock. Inches forward mean success, maybe 30-40 feet in a day. It is a slow process. The machines are massive, unlike anything anyone would ever see above the ground. The head of a boring machine is outfitted with rollers that claw away at the rock, slowly working its way inward. The men that do the work are unique. While people go to and fro on the streets above without even an inkling of the work taking place below them, Sandhogs take an elevator down, way down deep into the ground, hundreds of feet down to a place of complete silence and absent any light except for that which is brought by the machines and men. Like many professions in the city, Sandhogs pass their work onto their sons, who in turn pass the work to their sons. This work would be an unknown for most of us, but for them it is a way of life, a 24/7 way of life. If not for the Sandhogs New York City would not exist in quite the same way. Their work has made transport easy, what was once done by boat now is seamlessly done through smooth snake like tunnels. Water that New Yorkers use all day long exists for the city only because of the work of the Sandhogs. Water that is dear to us is available by simply turning a handle.
Please join Gina LeVay as she talks about the work of the Sandhogs in an illustrated slide discussion on Monday, March 1, at 6:30 PM, at the Mid-Manhattan Library.