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Battered City Syndrome

In a city buckling under the weight of its own history, the question is: What’s going to break and when? A guide to urban decay.


Years ago, while functioning as a moving yellow blot of the city’s infrastructure, I’d drive my taxi across the rusting “inner roadway” of the Williamsburg Bridge and wonder: When this corroded artifact of old New York collapses, will it be better to hit the water with the cab windows rolled up or down?

Even now, a decade past its closure as a result of “major deterioration” and $800 million into a transport-snarling, lead-paint-flaking renovation, the less-than-stately Williamsburg, the world’s longest bridge when it opened in 1903, still offers an unbeatable view of the urban apocalypse. One need only stroll onto the span’s graffiti-dappled walkway (where Sonny Rollins once came to practice his saxophone because “no one else goes there”) to see weathered façades of Manhattan buildings crack and crumble. Down they come, craggy-faced gargoyles and shiny sixties-era white bricks alike, splashing into streets flooded by breaks in century-old water mains. Below, the harbor silts up at an alarming rate, toxic sludge nipping at the Statue of Liberty’s toes. Watch out! There go those nasty manhole covers again, blown sky-high by steam, flying down streets like deadly frisbees. Forget calling for help. Pay phones malfunction, sabotaged by their installers as part of a plot to make businessmen buy cellular. Except that now airwaves are clogged, a clear channel impossible to access. It’s Babel, the cybersquawk melding with the screech from the wheels of a J train that just missed an outmoded red signal out of Marcy Avenue station. And by the way, what’s that smell? Or doesn’t anthrax -- or sarin, for that matter -- smell?

All this is apparent from the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge: the whole lovely ticking time bomb of a metropolis we call home.

New York’s been here for 334 years, and has been breaking down for almost as long. The recent water-main break at Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, accompanied by the severing of a gas-line riser that sent forth a pillar of fire two stories high, was certainly flamboyant -- but mains have broken in the Madison Square Park area many times before. In August 1983, it happened twice in two weeks, sparking the requisite biblical commentary in the newspapers. What else can a 120-year-old pipe constantly rattled by subway trains, buses and trucks do but break?

So the city will have to keep sending out its swat-team emergency crews to clean up the mess. Tomorrow it will be something else. Out in California they have earthquakes, floods, and mudslides: God’s revenge. Here, disasters are man-made. The old infrastructure stalks us like a municipal Frankenstein.

Personally, I prefer that my infrastructure just shut up and do its job. But this was not always the case. When I was growing up in Queens, my father bought me a copy of Underneath New York, by Harry Granick. How exciting it was to learn from Granick’s stirring prose that in this most remarkable city yet concocted by man, the best stuff was beneath the surface -- secret, like buried treasure.

The city and myself were one, Granick pointed out. “For even as your brain, nerves, heart, lungs, and stomach are hidden from view, so it is with the city,” he wrote. “Its intestines, which like yours, eliminate its wastes, and its great arteries of rapid transit, which like yours carry the stream of life to all ends of its body. . . .”

From Granick, I came to understand that while the Romans might have had a couple of okay ideas about aqueducts, it was only when New Yorkers opened the Croton system in 1842 (establishing a major reservoir at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street) that humanity truly mastered the means of distributing fresh, clean water. Civilization had culminated in this very place where I had the good fortune to be growing up. Back then, among the kids who lived, as I did, just a few blocks from the wistfully named Utopia Parkway, one of the most favored after-school activities was watching the construction of Robert Moses’s Long Island Expressway. Once, it had been a commonplace six-lane boulevard named for Horace Harding, whoever that was. Now, it was a great horizontal vision of the future -- running right through our little Queens neighborhood!

This sense of history was clinched in early 1960, as we stood on the shoulder of the newly opened expressway and were startled as Nikita Khrushchev, on his way to the Soviet enclave in Glen Cove, blew us a big kiss from his passing limo. How were we supposed to know that the L.I.E. would come to be “the world’s longest parking lot,” a hated zone that would trap people in their cars for hours, no doubt contributing to the outbreak of Buttafuoco-like behavior that would grip future residents of Nassau and Suffolk?

Thirty-five years later, this harried New Yorker still occasionally manages to hear the heroic strains of Aaron Copland as the F train trudges into the station. Even now, beyond the years of fiscal crisis and deferred maintenance, the beleaguered infrastructure continues to define this city. The Eiffel Tower is a nifty little erector set of a postcard backdrop, but what does it do? The Brooklyn Bridge is out there working every day, shouldering the load, kicking butt, all the more beautiful for its continuing utility. It’s fantastic, really, to watch the stream of traffic cross that hallowed span, knowing that cars weren’t even invented when Roebling sunk the first caissons. Still, the bridge stays up, an indestructible dream in stone and steel.

With so much falling down these days, this remains the real drama of New York: what stays up. What still works. Created primarily between 1870 and 1940 -- the greatest single period of technological change in history -- physical New York was, and remains, a Promethean wonder, unique in the world. Los Angeles, secure as the fume-spewing epitome of the postwar automobile age, and Paris, neat repository of the past, are more like each other than New York is like either of them. Straddler of ages, New York is transtemporal, unfinished and unfinishable. The layered sweep of the modern age is exposed here, the way those old trolley tracks, ridden every day by your beloved immigrant grandmother, keep inching through the asphalt to mess up the tires of the family car. Therein, of course, is the problem. All this endless invention has left us cocksure cosmopolitans with a city that often seems like a redneck’s half-rebuilt engine, a jury-rigged mélange of mismatched spare parts that has to be babied to make it turn over. And if that doesn’t work, maybe a good kick will.

Truth be told, when you go looking for the essence of New York City infrastructure, a dull throbbing headache -- which will linger -- comes on quick. There’s just so much of the stuff, and so many people who want to tell you all about it. So you look for the symbolic, the defining place and thing. I found one the other day along the Brooklyn waterfront in Sunset Park. Fifty years ago, when New York Harbor (the first and still the most valuable piece of the city’s infrastructure) was the busiest in the world, thousands of longshoremen worked these docks every day. But now, most of the piers, some damaged by fire, have rusted and fallen into the bay. This was the general setting as I stood on a dilapidated barge loaded with thirteen double-stacked rail container cars filled with what Greg Kisloff, public-relations officer of the New York Cross Harbor Railway, referred to as “human excrement, packed in a cakelike form.”

“Sludge movement” makes up a good deal of his company’s business, Kisloff said. Linking with the New York and Atlantic Railway, the Cross Harbor uses one of its venerable, powder-blue locomotives to bring this specialized cargo to the “float bridge” it operates near the defunct piers at 50th Street in Brooklyn. From there, the railcars are rolled along tracks onto the deeply odorific barge to be hauled across New York Bay by tugboat. Arriving at the Greenville yards in New Jersey, the freight can then be shipped anywhere in the country. This particular 52 tons is ticketed for a vegetable farm in Texas, where they think treated human night soil is the cat’s pajamas, fertilizer-wise. While it wasn’t always in the dung-shuttling business, the Cross Harbor has been operating in much the same way since 1905.

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