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The Excellent Acoustic Properties of a Sewer; or, Mayor Low's Wild Ride

Jul 26, 2011 3:00 PM | 1 comment

Raw sewage weighs heavily on the minds of many Brooklynites these days, ever since a massive load of the stuff (about 200 million gallons) was flushed into the Hudson River last week.  Four of the city's beaches have been closed due to unsafe levels of bacteria and icky things, including Brooklyn's own Sea Gate Beach.  It's unpleasant enough to think about all that voided matter clogging up our river and carrying that awful offal to the ocean, but it's more unbearable still for such a thing to happen during one of the hottest weekends on record.  In the wake of the incident, environmental activists and understandably grossed-out citizens alike are taking a hard look (but not a sniff, thank you) at the city's antiquated sewage system.


There was once a time, however, when the city's sewers were adored and celebrated, when each new subterranean channel was hailed as an engineering marvel, and a walk in the underground waterways was an exciting treat for the curious and adventurous.  If there was ever a golden age of civic sewer pride in Brooklyn, it came in the late 19th century, when the "Great Storm Sewer" was built under Brooklyn's streets. 

The city was growing faster than its infrastructure could keep up.  A boom in building had caused tin roofs and paved streets to replace open fields; when rain fell, it was deflected off these hard surfaces and routed into sewer drains rather than soaking into the earth.  The result was flooding in the streets, flooding in the cellars, and thousands of dollars in damage every time a storm struck, as the water inevitably traveled downhill, left to pool "in the low lands along Flushing Avenue," as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported in 1891.  The city of Brooklyn conceived a solution in the form of an enormous, underground sewer tunnel, which would collect runoff from the low lands and carry it out to sea.  The project drew attention for its ambition and ingeniousness and was covered extensively the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Scientific American.

Image from the January 30, 1892 issue of Scientific American, showing a cutaway of the "Great Storm Sewer", running below a church at Clermont and Greene Avenues.

Crews of about 40 men worked round the clock in two shifts to burrow a tunnel 35 to 80 feet below today's Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Gowanus neighborhoods.  Running for about two miles under Greene Avenue to Fourth Avenue to Butler Street, the storm sewer emptied into the Gowanus Canal.  The tunnel ranged from 10 to 15 feet in diameter, and the Eagle boasted that it would be possible to "drive a span of horses and a road wagon with two men on the seat, two miles through this sewer, a much more remarkable performance than the boating which is done in the lighted sewers of Paris."  The writer did concede that the horses would at one point have to be switched out with ponies, as the tunnel ceiling dropped near its terminus at the Gowanus Canal.  At the time of its completion, it was believed to be the third largest working sewer in the world.

Image from an extensive article on the working conditions in the sewer in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 9, 1891. Night-shift workers take their dinner break at midnight, 80 feet below Bedford Avenue.

By February of 1892, the great sewer was ready, and the city invited the public to inspect the impressive tunnel.  As described in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, these tunnel tours seem to have been a festive affair.  Visitors descended by elevator at Washington Avenue in groups of six, stopping at a cavernous arched passageway 73 feet below ground.  "There were a number of women among the visitors and they gave expression to excited 'Ohs' and 'Ahs' ", as women of the 1890s were apparently wont to do.  "A number of boys were there, of course, and they tested the excellent acoustic properties of the sewer with a great show of satisfaction. They whistled and sang songs and were delighted when the melody was carried along through almost the entire length of the cavern, gaining in force and change in tone as it reverberated against the walls."  In all, nearly ten thousand people had the pleasure of enjoying the sewer's charms before public inspection was closed in March.   

A visit to the big sewer tunnel was not a charming experience for all, however.  In November of 1890, an Officer McLaughlin was making his rounds near the construction site of the sewer line when he heard "moans and cries coming apparently from the bowels of the earth."  Upon investigating, he found that the sounds were coming from the sewer opening at the corner of Bedford and Greene Avenues, where a man who was "found to be gloriously drunk" had fallen into the sewer "while navigating from one side of the street to the other."  After recovering from his bumps and bruises, the man pleaded not guilty to a charge of intoxication.

Brooklyn didn't stop there -- by the turn of the century Public Works Commissioner William C. Redfield had plans to connect disparate sewer grids in the borough into a large web of drainage.  It would be the "most complete system in the world," the Eagle boasted (again), allowing sewage from Flatbush to drain out into the bay via a Bay Ridge sewer tunnel.  

A map from the Eagle, August 31, 1902, showing the Bay Ridge sewer line, then under construction.

The Bay Ridge sewer project received much the same fanfare as its Greene Avenue predecessor, with visits from engineer's clubs to breathless coverage in the Eagle.  Civic pride for wastewater passageways undoubtedly reached its peak in May of 1902, when no less a personage than Mayor Seth Low himself descended to the dark depths of the Bay Ridge sewer main, a silk hat atop his head.

No sewer had ever before received the honor of a visit from the mayor of New York City, and the Eagle covered the momentous occasion exhaustively.  The trip to the tunnel was just one stop on a day-long excursion into Brooklyn by automobile.  After a ceremony at Erasmus Hall High School declared the mayor "a patron saint of Flatbush," Low and his party of over 50 friends, dignitaries, and reporters approached a shaft "near the terminus of the Bay Ridge elevated railroad at Sixty-fifth Street."  This humble hole in the ground was where the mayor would make his descent into the unknown.  Automobiles had already been lifted down into the tunnel by crane in anticipation of the visit, so that the guests could enjoy a cruise through the bowels of Brooklyn.  Not all of the mayor's entourage would be along for the ride, however.  According to the Eagle, "There was no elevator, only a series of slim ladders with nothing but very slender rungs to hold one above the bottom of the shaft.  Several of the more portly suddenly discovered an interest in surface tunnel work and refused to go below."

Yes, it's true.  Mayor Low climbed down the ladder himself, to a red-brick tunnel lit by incandescent bulbs that barely illuminated the cavernous sewer.  The two waiting automobiles "stood panting and shaking," apparently eager to carry the Mayor and his party on a subterranean tour that the Eagle called, variously, "the event of a lifetime" and "a ride such as no mortal man ever had before".  It is unknown whether or not Mayor Low agreed with that assessment; however, his first utterances upon setting foot in the sewer tunnel are recorded for posterity. "Ugh, Redfield," he cried, upon stepping from the ladder into a puddle of standing water, "you've already put this sewer to use, haven't you?"

Beat the Heat! Visit the Brooklyn Collection's New Exhibit!

Jul 26, 2011 10:30 AM | 0 comments

Looking for an excuse to utilize BPL's air conditioning for a little while longer this week?  Why not stop by the Brooklyn Collection to view our latest exhibit from the Brooklyn Connections program:

This year, our exhibit focuses on the ways in which our Brooklyn Connections participants became historians while completing research projects on their favorite Brooklyn topics.  Each case is dedicated to a step in the research process, from developing an initial question to reflecting on what they learned. 


Included in this year's exhibit, you will see glimpses of projects covering a myriad of topics, including Coney Island, famous Brooklyn food, Jackie Robinson, Civil Rights, and Neighborhoods.  Individual cases contain original Collection materials, sample projects, student reflections and photographs of students:


We've even included a model of the famous Brooklyn-built vessel the USS Monitor:


The outstanding materials featured in the exhibit represent only a fraction of the hundreds of projects completed this year.  This year's cohort included students from 15 schools across Brooklyn:  Beginning with Children, Brooklyn Excelsior, Hellenic Classical, IS 30, IS 109, IS 138, JHS 240, KIPP AMP, MS 57, MS 126, MS 136, MS 282, MS 385, PS 192 and Teachers Prep. 

Next year, our program will be increasing with a cohort of at least 20 schools - incluing our very first high school!  Stay tuned to Brooklynology for more information about the coming year of Brooklyn Connections - and check out our website for more information too!




Jul 21, 2011 4:46 PM | 2 comments

Brooklyn is no stranger to that sadistic summer visitor, the heat wave. But we're tough. We can take it. We know how to cope. And because the Central Library is a designated cooling center here in the borough, and since just visualizing something cold can help ease the pain, I figured I'd share some photos from our collection of Brooklynites taking summer's worst in stride.

Who cares about the heat? Not this quintet of Coney Island bathers; dashing into the surf are, left to right, Frances Friedenthal, Lee Krush, Maureen Haver, Nettie Thomas, and Bea Resnikoff.

Small fry beat the heat -- Emilio Pastrawa, 8, does it the old-fashioned way by holding hot feet under stream of cold water from fireplug near his home at 18 Dennet Place. July 20, 1953

Beat-the-heat prescription -- South Brooklyn kids take the water treatment at Sunset Park, 5th Ave. and 41st St., to get away from the heat naturally. July 28, 1952.

How high the hydrant -- Either they're building fire plugs higher these days, or...well, at any rate, 18-month-old Anthony Castaldo of 272 3rd Avenue isn't worrying about much of anything except how to beat the heat. Scene at President Street and 3rd Avenue shows he found the answer. Forecast for today is fair with the high near 80 degrees -- Eagle photo by Senko. July 23, 1954.

Whoopee -- These small fry find a pretty good way to beat the oppressive heat at McLaughlin Park, Tillary and Jay Sts., with the co-operation of an obliging Park Department which turned on the refreshing spray. June 17, 1952.

Brother, it's hot! -- Mailman, Anthony D'Angelo of 82 1/2 Douglass St., sums up the sentiment of his fellow Brooklynites as he find it just a bit too warm for comfort while toting his mailbag around downtown areas.

But if, like poor Anthony D'Angelo above, you can't spend your days splashing around in a kiddie pool,  cooling your fever at a fire plug, or freaking out in a refreshing spray you can always heed the advice of dermatologist Dr. Charles Pabst, whose wisdom on hyperthermia aversion, printed in a 1948 Eagle column, still holds true today:

1. Avoid exertion and strenuous exercise.

2. Wear thin, loose clothing of light shades. Girdles are an abomination in hot weather and prevent a large portion of the skin from performing its function of cooling the body.

3. Drink eight or more glasses of water daily and add five grains of salt to the water three times a day.

4. Get eight or nine hours sleep every night.

5. Avoid worry and excitement; don't argue.

6. Keep air circulating in your room or office.

7. Take frequent cold baths. The old Chinese custom of letting water run on the wrists is very cooling and refreshing.

8. Avoid the direct rays of the sun, especially if you are a heliophobe whose skin reddens, blisters, and burns but never tans.

9. Reduce the number of calories in your diet.

10. Remember that alcohol and sulfa make you more sensitive to sunstroke, so if you drink do it in the shade.


So remember, as you head out this weekend: No girdles! Heliophobes take cover! And drink in the shade!

Gardens of Brooklyn Part II: Victory Gardens

Jul 19, 2011 3:55 PM | 0 comments

In the 1930s, Relief Gardens, also called Subsistence Gardens, run by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) helped hundreds of Brooklyn Families put food on the table in the depths of the Great Depression. In 1944, President Roosevelt called on all Americans to grow gardens to help compensate for the increased food requirements of forces at the fronts during World War II.  The Civilian Defense Volunteer Office (CDVO) encouraged people to plant vegetable gardens, facilitating the use of vacant land, and educating gardeners into the mysteries of crop rotations and companion plantings as well as canning and preserving. By 1945, 50,000 Victory Gardeners were cultivating 17,000 gardens in Brooklyn's backyards, vacant lots and city land.

Victory Garden Girls--Borough president Cashmore receives the first of 200,000 garden work sheets and 2,000 posters from two members of staff of the Namm store, Jean Azzaro and Edna Stark, who are going to be Victory Gardeners (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 21, 1943) Photograph by Bernard Ravitz.

The benefits of having a borough full of gardeners in wartime were clear--few to no transportation costs, availability of healthy food allowing reduction of food rationing points on some items; reduced pressure on commercial gardeners which were working at full capacity; and improved morale for those working to support their families and communities in a time of war. Best bets for city gardens included foliage turnips (for greens), New Zealand spinach, onions (from sets), leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, potatoes, beans, tomatoes, radishes, beets, and people were encouraged to cultivate even a "pocket-handkerchief" of ground. The images below show that some of the plots were considerably bigger than pocket handkerchiefs.

Soil testing--Students of Manual Training High School make preliminary tests of Brooklyn soil as part of service to Victory Gardeners in school laboratory. Left to right: Donald Softness, Caroline Konig, Dorothy Pietaro and Bertram Wiener. Ten Brooklyn high schools are participating in the service.  (Brooklyn Daily Eagle Apr 7, 1943)

Everyone, it seemed, had a hand in the effort.  Chemistry students carried out soil testing, companies offered plots of land, grandmothers organized groups of teens, Namms store offered free lectures on subjects such as "Preparations for planting," and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden too offered free courses. Some gardens were cooperatively run, such as the 1.5 acre site at 99th Street and 3rd Avenue. The CDVO streamlined the process for detecting the owners of vacant lots and approaching them for permission to use the land. Boy Scout troops grew bushels of corn; the orphans of the Pride of Judea Children's Home planted seeds and tended the growing plants; the Parents Association of P.S. 180 worked on a garden with their children; John R. Mee of the East New York CDVO gave instruction on planting and cultivating to 25 boys and girls at his home every Saturday; and all this activity produced mammoth crops. One article from July 1945 estimates that about 230 acres were under cultivation.

King of the Victory Gardeners in 1944 was James Galati of 812 Avenue U,  who raised an assortment of vegetables on a 25 x 25 plot, including 5lb eggplants and tomato stalks carrying 70 fruits. His green thumbs won him a $100 war bond.

On the job--Mrs Louis Sternberg of Brooklyn CDVO helps turn the ground in community garden at 17th Ave.[sic: probably E. 17th St] and Avenue J. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 20, 1943)

Victory gardens will soon be growing on this land, part of several acres which the Brooklyn Union Gas Company has made available to its employees. Paul Bauman, company chauffeur, shows he can manage a horse and plow as well as a 10-ton truck...(Brooklyn Daily Eagle Apr 11, 1943)

Part of a bumper crop--Mrs Elka Israel, chairman of the West Flatbush C.D.V.O. Victory Garden Committee, displays a head of cabbage grown in the community plot made available by Fontbonne Hall. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle  Aug 26, 1945)

So succesful were the Victory Gardens that in 1947 President Truman urged that the Victory Gardeners should continue their work in peacetime. "The value of gardening in building strong bodies, healthy minds and happy people has never been greater. Today we need physical strength...we need moral strength to combat inflation and other economic dislocations; we need spiritual strength to see us through...trying days...We need relaxation, happiness and congenial relationships among our people. These needs can be met in great part by continuing a program which involves the participation of millions of Americans in home gardening."  A message for our times, perhaps?

Materials from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle photograph and morgue clipping collections and Youtube were used for this post.

Historypin in Brooklyn

Jul 19, 2011 11:31 AM | 0 comments

See what I've pinned on Historypin

Our talented and hardworking intern from the Multicultural Internship Program has been pinning at a great rate. Check out what's up there already. And for those not yet familiar with Historypin, five minutes of exploration will unlock most of the mysteries of the site. The little icon that looks like an eyeball with a line through it is the key to seeing then and now images. Just move the little red dot up and down. It's magic!