About the Night Before Last

So, another word or two on sewerage and all… Steve Duncan’s presentation of his urban explorations, as I said, was interesting. He introduced me to this “Sanitary & Topographical Map” of Manhattan (since sewage is moved by gravity, it is intimately connected with topography), his pictures are fascinating, and he’s just generally a cool urban explorer. 

That said, though, I was itching to analyze, sythesize, and just generally map his information. Some of the best bits came as asides (I never thought about the fact that sewerage is mostly literally grey water—it’s full of soap from laundry, dishes, baths, and showers among other things). Also the realizations that a lot of today’s sewers started out as streams and creeks (so THAT’S why Downing Street runs at that odd angle!), that there usually isn’t a clear distinction between storm drains and sewers, that old sewers are usually still around (it’s too hard to dig them up or rebuild—easier to just keep adding to the system), were all kind of mentioned in passing. That and the, ahem, slightly dodgy means of gaining entry to this subterranean world (in New York all navigable rivers are technically publicly accessible, so….) were all fascinating, but kind of glossed over as well.

Mostly, though, I was kind of dying for a section. Something along these lines. Sectional drawings are the bane of architecture students (and a lot of practicing architects) because they reveal how things work, something not easy to fake your way through on your own. Also, I wanted more maps of how the sewers lie beneath the streets. The snippets shown of areas around Canal Street and LaGuardia Street (where the lecture was happening) were fascinating, but it’s always hard when watching a slide-lecture to pull it all together. I say give us more narrative—more daring tales of underground exploits (like the crazy infection he got from slipping in some sewer water; this link not for the faint of heart), more maps, charts, and diagrams that pull it all together. And personally I’d be interested in more talk of climbing up and in, too. All that and I’d be happy to read a whole book about this.


PS:  just saw this on Steve’s old website: “In order to conceal his infirmity, Franklin Roosevelt would try to avoid reporters and the public when traveling to NYC from Washington. He had a private train car, which would pull up into a special track underneath Grand Central. (Grand Central has two major levels underground, and each level has many lines and platforms; in addition there are other spaces between and around those two train-track levels). Once there, underneath Grand Central, he would take a secret elevator which would take him to the road level, just across the street from the Waldorf-Astoria.”  Wow. Stories like that are so interesting, explaining how the layers of the city evolved and accrued.



This entry was posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 and is filed under architecture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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One Response to “About the Night Before Last”

  1. Simon Pielow

    I like the analogy of the layers of the city, with its underground rail tracks and sewers, to something living – a massive beast, imbued with all the senses one would associate with animate objects by the millions of human and non-human beings crawling under, on and above the skin of sidewalks and roads; and, quite possibly, achieving a separate intelligance and perhaps a soul thanks to the mass of sentients. If only an observer could ‘read’ the city.
    Excuse the end-of-week rambling.