Battered City Syndrome

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.

In a city with 656 miles of subway track, 468 subway stations, 346 miles of tunnels and aqueducts, 6,000 miles of water pipe, 88,000 miles of electric cabling, 6,600 miles of gas lines, 6,000 miles of sidewalk, more than 2,000 bridges, and 103,700 fire hydrants, the Cross Harbor Railway, with its 13.1 miles of track and a pair of battered and rat-infested “float bridges,” might not seem to be an impressive infrastructural item. But the funky railroad, which Greg Kisloff says has experienced some “very lean” years of late, finds itself strangely positioned to become, as its thin brochure boldly proclaims, the “float bridge to the 21st Century.”

That’s because, as almost everyone agrees, Brooklyn is an excellent place for the long-plotted “hub port,” which would bring back business lost to container ports like Port Elizabeth and Port Newark during the fifties and sixties. There’s no way Jersey can take the giant new superships, people say. The Kill Van Kull, which leads to the Jersey ports, has only a 45-foot draft before hitting bedrock; Brooklyn’s sandy channel has 80 feet, easy. Operating much in the manner of an airline “hub,” the port will serve as a dock for the big ships, which will off-load their wares there to be carried up and down the coast by a flotilla of smaller vessels. Once the hub port comes, people say, in Brooklyn, the fleet will always be in.

Key to the hub-port idea is the prospective rail-freight tunnel under New York Bay from Brooklyn to either Staten Island or New Jersey. The idea doesn’t really make sense without it. This is because New York City, the largest consumer market in the United States, has the worst rail infrastructure of any city in the country.

Although the following facts have become a mantra along the waterfront, to the uninitiated, the stats boggle the mind. To wit: While most major industrial centers handle freight at roughly a 60-40 truck-to-rail ratio, in New York something like 98 percent of all goods moves by truck; 2 percent by rail. This amounts to an astounding 30,000 extra trucks on the roads per day, pumping exhaust into the air, clogging up traffic, ripping the hell out of the roadways. It wouldn’t be this way if there were a freight-rail connection between New York and the rest of the country. But there isn’t. Just to cross the Hudson River, a freight train has to go 220 miles north to Selkirk, New York.

“People don’t know this, but when the Port Authority was created in 1921, it was for the express purpose of building a train tunnel under New York Harbor,” says Congressmen Jerrold Nadler, a hub-port and rail-freight obsessionist. You listen to the story and you begin to understand that while we might like to believe that august Promethean visions shaped the city, it is the scummy skullduggeries of long-dead politicians that often have the greatest lasting influence. After the Port Authority failed to dig the tunnel, the cause was taken up by New York’s then-mayor, Tammany minion John F. Hylan. Hylan’s tunnel was routed not to Jersey, as in the original plan, but to Staten Island, thereby keeping the project’s huge patronage under city (i.e., Hylan’s) control. Governor Al Smith balked at this. When Hylan resisted, Smith recruited Gentleman Jimmy Walker to run against the mayor in the upcoming Democratic primary, and that was it for John F. Hylan and his tunnel. The Depression and then World War II soon followed, and the New York Harbor rail tunnel became another little bit of the New York that never was.

“Skip ahead to the 1960s, when Robert Moses was building the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,” Nadler continues. Though most people had forgotten the cross-harbor rail tunnel, Moses hadn’t. Having begun his epic career as Al Smith’s most brilliant lieutenant, Moses had Hylan’s original plans in his Randall’s Island office. As if to make sure the tunnel stayed dead, Moses, who abhorred trains of any type, located the shaftway Hylan had begun in 1924 and filled it in with the same dirt excavated during the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Of course, if the rail tunnel had been built 70 years ago, the Brooklyn waterfront wouldn’t have died and the place might already be the hub port. Now most significant political figures in the city support building the new tunnel (D’Amato and Moynihan have recently come onboard) even with the price hovering in the $2 billion range. Related bills also mount. The decaying Gowanus Expressway, originally expected to last at least 100 years, is barely hanging on after 50, largely because of those 30,000 extra trucks. Some say tear the loathsome roadway down, replace it with a tunnel, but that’ll cost upwards of $2.4 billion. The alternative is to rebuild the thing in place, engendering a decade of mind-frazzling detours.

When it comes to infrastructure, bricks and mortar are the least of it. Like ideas, the built city moves in cycles, often capriciously. It pays to follow the larger arc of things. This is something Dave Hendrickson knows well. A proud member of the sanitation department, Hendrickson gives tours at the 2,500-acre Fresh Kills garbage landfill, a piece of New York City infrastructure so spectacular that, along with the Great Wall of China, it is one of the few man-made objects that can be seen by astronauts orbiting the earth. A man who enjoys visiting the dump’s Christmas-tree-mulching facility because the smell reminds him of his childhood, Hendrickson says working at Fresh Kills, where the city currently dumps 13,000 tons of trash a day, has taught him “a respect for what people keep, what they throw away.”

To this end, Hendrickson tells the following story of New York City infrastructure: One chilly November afternoon, an elderly lady, described by Hendrickson as “elegant and meticulous-looking in a floral dress,” came to the dump in tears. In charge of the raffle at her Queens church, she’d inadvertently tossed out all the tickets. “She said she’d never be able to face the church people again,” Hendrickson recalls. “But sanitation is not haphazard. We can track things. I spread the load with her garbage over a 100-foot-square area up on the active bank, got down on my hands and knees with thousands of gulls flying around, and I found every single one of those raffle tickets. Then she started crying again. ‘You don’t know what you’ve found,’ she said. ‘Yes, I do,’ I said. ‘I found your raffle tickets.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘you found my honesty and dignity. You gave me my life back, right here in this city dump.’”

Now Fresh Kills, which first opened in 1948 when the city decided to consolidate rubbish at a single dump site, is slated to close on December 31, 2001. Although the date seems uncomfortably imminent, too much political capital (primarily Mayor Giuliani’s and Governor Pataki’s) has been invested to back down now. What comes next boils down to one question: Where do you stash 13,000 tons of garbage a day? A: not anywhere near where I live, dude. With solid-waste removal a going concern in the hinterlands, New York’s garbage will end up far away (Virginia and Texas are vying). But as for establishing a system for getting it there – upgrading garbage transfer stations in the city and creating new ones – that is likely to precipitate some of the ugliest, most drawn-out battles the city has ever seen.

For his part, Dave Hendrickson says he will take the Fresh Kills closing in stride. He’s nearing retirement, anyway. Leachate-gas stench or no, fifteen years at Fresh Kills has been “a great experience,” the sanitation man says. Not that he’s in favor of keeping it open. Once he lived close to the dump, just on the other side of Richmond Avenue, but he moved his family to Rockland County. “Things get used up; if I learned anything from working here, it’s that,” Hendrickson says.

All of which made me think of Joseph Mitchell’s 1951 essay “The Bottom of the Harbor,” a good deal of which is set in the Fresh Kills area. Centering on his friend Mr. Zimmer, an employee of the Bureau of Marine Fisheries who roamed the then-thriving New York waterfront looking for shellfish poachers, Mitchell describes a Fresh Kills full of “pheasants, crows, marsh hawks, black snakes, muskrats, opossums, rats, and field mice,” a place where rabbis used to come to collect twigs and cuttings suitable for harvest festivals. It was here, Mitchell says, that Zimmer came to relax. Except now, his friend was worried. “At times, out in the marshes, Mr. Zimmer becomes depressed,” Mitchell wrote. “The marshes are doomed. The city has begun to dump garbage on them… . Eventually it will fill the whole area.”

Which it did – not that Mr. Zimmer lived to see the full extent of it. Still, the harborman might be happy to learn that somewhere down the road, after decades of detoxification, Fresh Kills will eventually return to the wetlands it once was. The black snakes and marsh hawks, should any remain, will be back.

If once upon a time people strode toward the future in this place, now, as the daily damage reports underscore, we’re deep into middle age. The band-aid men are the true champions of the city now; maintenance is the only abiding verity. It isn’t that the city isn’t capable of the Big Effort. Anyone riding 25 stories down below Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx to visit the 200-yard-long valve chamber of the $5 billion Third Water Tunnel cannot help but be awed. Twenty-eight years in the making, the water tunnel, the city says, is the single biggest infrastructure project in the Western Hemisphere. But for all this prodigious digging (and the death of 24 sandhogs in the process), the tunnel is meant only to supplement the existing pipes, enabling them to be repaired for the first time since they were laid down in the beginning of the century. Today, even when we do the impossible, we’re still only keeping up. It’s the same with the effort to replace the late, lamented Pennsylvania Station. The celebrated plan, championed by Senator Moynihan, involves no grand new structure – just retrofitting an existing post-office building.

Nowadays, building the future appears a far less heroic endeavor, arrived at by increments. I got to see a bit of it one cold and misty February night, just over the city line in Yonkers. A few months earlier, a car had crashed into a gasoline truck, setting off an explosion that destroyed a New York State Thruway overpass. Tonight, the overpass would be fixed. A 120-foot-tall crane was lifting an 80-foot-long, 73-ton prefab section of new roadway. It was then fitted into place like a gargantuan Lego. Hours later, with five more giant “pieces” snapped together, the bridge was finished, in time for the morning rush.

“Replacement parts, built somewhere else – this is part of where we’re going,” says my guide for the evening, Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. “Gridlock Sam,” all-around infrastructure maven and former New York City traffic commissioner (it was he who ordered the Williamsburg Bridge closed in 1988). “It’s not romantic, but it works.”

Watching that huge concrete slab dangle in midair, I couldn’t help but think of a recent visit I’d made to the headquarters of Robert Moses’s old Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Commission. Here, alongside a giant photograph of Moses and Walt Disney surveying a plan for the 1964 World’s Fair, are several models for projects both completed and not. Among these is a four-foot-square miniature of Moses’s most despised, neighborhood-wrecking scheme, the never-built Lower Manhattan Expressway. Pull on the Lucite handles and a swath of Broome and Kenmare Streets disappears, to be replaced by a plastic facsimile of the prospective expressway. Watching this model in action now is a creepy experience. After all, it was Moses’s pernicious social legacy that made heroes of people who stopped huge infrastructural projects, not of those who built them. Still, in these patch-and-paste days, there lurks a demented nostalgia for the era when such wholesale manipulation of the landscape, no matter who or what stood in the way, was deemed the great work of men. The memories of it, conjured up by Moses’s toy model, make a 73-ton prefab hunk of concrete seem puny. Which is another infrastructural irony, considering many observers believe that the prefab system used on the thruway bridge might be the best way to renovate Moses’s teetering Gowanus Expressway. One wonders what the old power broker, who was routinely saluted by tollbooth operators as he passed by in his chauffeured limousine, would think of something as un-Promethean as that.

So this is what it’s come to: a future by Lego. Snap in, snap out. I suppose it could be worse. Still, there is plenty of non-interchangeable, one-of-a-kind, no-size-fits-anything infrastructure here. It’s why this place is unlike any other, which is something I like to point out to my children when we drive around and visit the city’s living fossils. You can’t depend on kids to get excited by the sort of prose Harry Granick wrote back in the forties. They might think it’s corny. It’s better to let them see for themselves.

Recently, we’ve been stopping at the 9th Street-Gowanus Canal bridge. Until it was closed in 1994 after flunking safety tests, we crossed the 84-foot-long span on a daily basis. Now we watch the city try to replace it, which has not been easy. In fact, according to one engineer close to the project, “the 9th Street Bridge is one of the most fouled-up jobs to hit Brooklyn in 25 years.”

It was a problem of overload of trans-temporal, intermodal infrastructure at the bridge site, I try to explain to my children. The car bridge was built in 1903 to span the reeking Gowanus (a key industrial-shipping passage for decades after it was first dredged in the 1840s). Above is the elevated F-train stop at Smith and 9th Streets, erected in 1933. Ninety feet high, to accommodate the now sparse Gowanus boat traffic, the hideous, concrete-covered F station is the highest in the entire New York subway system. This became a concern when it was noted that the train trestle had begun to vibrate during the sinking of the caissons for the new 9th Street Bridge below. The Transit Authority demanded that the Department of Transportation stop work while the F-train stanchions were outfitted with motion sensors. It was found that the trestle had, indeed, “settled” somewhat, which required the periodic uplifting of the structure with beer-keg-shaped hydraulic jacks.

All this, I told my children, was the reason we hadn’t driven across the 9th Street Bridge in close to four years and were not likely to for several months to come. There were other stories of infra-snafus as well, mostly having to do with problems incurred as a result of the intense pollution in the Gowanus, but the kids were not in the mood. Aside from being gleefully disgusted that the D.O.T. used divers for welding projects under the toxic muck of the Gowanus, they’d rather go to Coney Island, they said.

No problem. The journey to Coney is a deeply trans-temporal experience, infrastructurally speaking. Among other treats, you get to drive under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. When the bridge that would alter Staten Island for all time was first constructed, Moses boasted that if the cables of the span were stretched end to end they would circle the earth five times and reach halfway to the moon. But it was John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever who had the most memorable line about Robert Moses’s bridge and New York City infrastructure in general. Sitting beneath the bridge’s mighty roadway, describing how a worker slipped and fell into the massive concrete anchorage (and was still in there), Travolta reflected a moment, then snickered. “Dumb fuck,” he said.

Anyway, arriving in Coney, we contemplated the superstructure of the Stillwell Avenue elevated subway stop. First opened in 1920 as the southernmost reach of the then privately owned BMT system, the fortress-like Stillwell station serves as the last stop for the D, F, N, and B lines, a distinction noted in the name of the now-shuttered lodging establishment across the street, the Terminal Hotel. We sat there a while in the semi-forbidding darkness, watching the trains rumble in and out of the beat-up yet seemingly impregnable station. “Isn’t it amazing that people just like us built that?” my daughter finally said, as if the Stillwell Station were a Mayan pyramid come to Brooklyn.

Battered City Syndrome