a mole's eye view of New York City
The old song about New York brags that "the people ride around in a hole in the ground." And Duke Ellington's throbbing composition, "Take the A Train," immortalizes the charging energy of the Eighth Avenue express as it hurtles beneath the city between 59th and 125th Streets.Skip to next paragraph
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New York, famous for its skyscrapers and clogged streets, has another, equally fascinating side that writhes and snakes in the earth below. It is really two cities: one seen in travel posters, the other hidden, and largely unexplored.
Peeling back a layer of concrete here opens the proverbial can of worms. A mind-boggling tangle of wires, pipes, conduits, cables, tunnels, and other man-made paraphernalia stares back at you. It's a tangle that every day becomes more complex and chaotic, as new construction projects add levels and layers to the city's underside. In fact, New York City could already be depicted as a piece of Swiss cheese with a bundle of skyscrapers sitting on top.
The average New Yorker, striding confidently across city streets, blithely certain that he is treading the good earth, is frequently suspended on a thin skin of pavement over layers of tunnels and caverns that stretch downward for several stories.
There are 137 miles of subway tunnels under this unwary pedestrain, 80,395 miles of electrical transmission and distribution wires, 6,000 miles of water pipes, 25 millionm miles of telephone cables, 104 miles of asbestos-coated steam pipes, and 7,000 miles of pipes carrying natural gas up from fields in Lousiana and Texas.
Most of these systems are within a few feet of the surface. When a hole is dug in a city street, it exposes in the rocky earth such man-made artifacts as: a long pipe descending from a fireplug to a thick water main running perpendicularly several feet beneath it; telephone cables, encased in white polyvinylchloride, with 1,000 individual telephone lines in them, coursing through the earth midway between the skin of pavement and the water main; natural gas pipes; a huge sewer main; cable boxes from the electric and gas utility; steam heating pipes, and other pipe systems.
Another 20 feet down is the city's subway system. And way beneath that there are the vast water tunnels: two main arteries, and a new tunnel under construction.
The world under New York is almost as honeycombed as the Paris that Victor Hugo wrote about, the "occult Paris" he saw under the "public Paris" of the streets. There, gypsum and limestone miners dug huge excavations to unearth the materials needed to make plaster of Paris.The miners were eventually ordered to stop because the city was in danger of collapsing. The Metro and the legendary sewer system under Paris -- which provided an escape route for Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" and a cul-de-sac trap for Orson Welles in "The Third Man" -- were built precariously above these mine pits. And great care has had to be taken to protect the geologic underpinnings of Paris.
There are no such worries about New York City, partly because of the solid mass of bedrock that anchors it comfortably to the continental shelf, and partly because of the incredible engineering care that has gone into constructing the city's major underground passages.
This engineering genius can be seen in action an a couple of tunnels currently being dug under the city. Underneath East 63rd Streets, where a new subway tunnel is being built, you can see something that looks as if it's right out of a C. B. de Mille epic depicting thousands of slaves toiling in a salt mine.
Putting on some rubber boots and a hard hat, I follow my guide down a nondescript staircase in the sidewalk into a wire-mesh elevator that is to carry us 10 stories below ground. The metal doors of the lift clang shut, the motor grinds heavily in the vast darkness, and we are on our way down the wall of a blocks-long excavation, catching only occasional glimpses of the cavernous pit before us.
It is a place that Dante could describe best: a subterranean world blasted out of the bedrock beneath the city streets, a world of semidarkness, noise, and stale air. Arc lights burn like miniature suns, illuminating only small corners of the pervading darkness; the occasional flash of a welder's flame splashes sparks against a stone wall; and the headlights of construction machinery stab their way across the mire-and-gravel earht.
My guide chats away at my side as we descend -- his thick, Indian voice all but lost in the thunder of machinery and moving rock -- about fan lines needed to carry the gases and dust out of the tunnel, and about the "mole," the tunnel- boring machine that chews a 20-foot hole in the bedrock at the rate of 35 to 64 feet every 24 hours. I am so absorbed in the scene around me I can scarcely listen.