For Your Amusement, Feats of Strength, Intellect and...Water?

New York City Water System Tunnel No. 3.

If you're like most people in New York City, you probably don’t think much about the muscle and intellect it took over the decades to get drinking water to your tap. The New York City Water System, which is 95% gravity fed, is comprised of three watershed systems that touch eight NYS counties and Fairfield County in CT, and include 19 reservoirs, has a storage capacity of 587 billion gallons and serves approximately 9 million users each day. It took a lot of effort and it was not without its issues; luckily the engineers and workers who designed and built (and continue to build) one of the most extensive municipal water systems in the world also went to a lot of effort to document the entire process.

The photos, drawings, documents and even letters from the public were collected into an archive that, over the years, got disorganized and mismanaged. Luckily for those of us who do think about such things, order has now been restored to the archive and many of the photos have even been published into a book, thanks to the efforts of Gina Pollara, Executive Director of Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, and a team from the Cooper Union School of Architecture.

Last month, Pollara spoke at the St. Jean Community Center about the city’s water system and the reorganization of the many items documenting its construction. Pollara said that when they first entered the archive, “It was a mess of boxes and lamps and other architectural materials.” To even get started, they first had to assess what was there.

The team was able to recover a segmented and hierarchical structure that had been originally built into the archives as a way of managing the vast system. Records kept were very detailed; every letter received from the public was entered into a ledger; detailed, handmade drawings showed every bolt that was installed in every part of the massive system (keep in mind that much of the construction happened before computers).

The collection gives a strong indication of what life was like for the over 9,000 workers involved in tunneling and building out the system. Whole towns were established to give workers' families someplace to live and raise their children. Not unlike greater New York, or the rest of the country for that matter, these towns came complete with social ills like prejudice and racism, including Italian and Negro schools. The water system even had their own police force, which still exists today to protect the watershed.

On the other hand, building the water supply took a great toll on upstate families. Homes were taken, families were torn apart and whole towns were buried in the process of creating all the reservoirs. According to Pollara, "There is still a lot of animosity over this." Construction was often contentious and expansion of the system often faced significant local opposition. An audience member asked if there is evidence that the system’s impact on ecosystems was ever studied as the system was being planned. Pollara said “It’s doubtful; earlier studies were probably based more on what geology could support the tunnels.”

Photographers and writers captured all of this and Pollara’s group helped to restore it. The group was able to consolidate parts of the collection from various locations around the city, although some facilities were reluctant to let go of the linen drawings that they still use on a regular basis. The archive is now fully-functioning and is used by current staff in their continued construction and ongoing maintenance of the system. This is an important feature because the archive’s existence means that the city doesn’t have to waste precious resources duplicating information that already exists.

Back in the day (before the tightened security brought on by 9/11), people could tour the city’s water facilities. Unfortunately, those days are gone and it is very difficult to get a tour without a proper association (such as a university). The existence of such a treasure trove of information is important for developing an appreciation for the infrastructure that keeps New York City going and an understanding of why water conservation is so important.

People come to the city to marvel at the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge, and those are pretty outstanding structures, but you never hear anybody say that they're coming to marvel at the city’s magnificent water system. Maybe they should.