Last summer, during the first weekend of a brutal July heat wave in New York City, a small river gushed down East Fordham Road, a commercial strip in the west Bronx.
The stream ran past discount clothing stores and cell phone retailers, catching the reflections of passersby who dabbed their necks with handkerchiefs and ate cherry slushies from paper cones. A second river poured around a nearby intersection, and a third stream flowed around the one after that, forming a near-perfect square of running water.
The culprits were fire hydrants, some opened legally and others not, depending on whether their water sprayed in tidy jets or surged freely. Women sat in lawn chairs nearby, and a few brave kids stuck their hands in the torrent, only to have their palms knocked away by the pressurized water. Outside of St. James Episcopal, a beautiful stone church on East 190th St., a hydrant ran at full volume, its wide arc soaking an empty street. Most vehicles slowed for a free carwash, except for a cop car that continued without pausing.
Opening a hydrant is, arguably, one of New York’s most mythologized summer activities. When venturing outside starts feeling like taking a stroll in a large dog’s mouth, news outlets’ go-to images for heat wave stories are often ones of kids frolicking in a hydrant shower. The photos tend to have a whimsical vibe, but they’re also reminders of how the city fails many residents during times of heat-related crisis. According to 311 data, the vast majority of open hydrant reports come from low-income neighborhoods where access to pools, parks and public air-conditioned spaces is limited.
Although this summer was relatively mild — giving the city its coldest July since 2009, based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data — the cooler weather was an anomaly, caused in part by the ripple effect of Typhoon Neoguri, according to AccuWeather. Not only have the last few summers featured plenty of heat waves, but as a 2013 climate report from the city pointed out, more sweltering weather is likely on its way.
Released in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the report found that by the 2050s, the number of 90-degree days per year in NYC is expected to roughly double, while the number of heat waves could triple. By that time, the report estimated, the city’s mean annual temperatures could resemble those of Norfolk, Virginia.
All this is to say that while this summer may not have felt like “open hydrant weather,” future summers probably will. It’s worth diving into, then, what role hydrants play in cooling down neighborhoods, and how they might be supplemented by other heat management methods.
Open hydrants have historically been a staple of New York’s low-income neighborhoods, with photos from the 1930s depicting children splashing near hydrants in Harlem and the Lower East Side (one photo even captures a WPA work site that’s been transformed into makeshift pool).
But as more residents were pushed into the outer boroughs, so was much of the city’s recreational hydrant use. One could still find kids cooling off in Lower East Side hydrants in the late 1950s, by the mid-2000s, such scenes were more common in Bushwick, Cypress Hills, Williamsburg, Inwood, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, and western Bronx neighborhoods like Kingsbridge Heights and Morris Heights.
The western Bronx, in particular, has seen consistently high hydrant use rates in recent years. From 2006 to 2013, despite a 43 percent city-wide decrease in 311 complaints about open hydrants, calls from Bronx neighborhoods like Morris and Kingsbridge Heights dropped by only 26 percent. Last year, they raked in a combined 1,216 complaints, exceeding other high hydrant use areas in northern Manhattan and eastern Brooklyn.
Since the city’s residents require at least a billion gallons of water per day, these running hydrants pose something of a conservation issue. According to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), a single open hydrant loses 1,000 gallons of water per minute, which is enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool in just 11 hours or provide a single person with a lifetime supply of drinking water in about 16 minutes. It’s also enough for 40 showers, 33 baths, 20 loads of laundry, or 3,533 water balloons.
Hydrants running on full-blast are also fairly expensive. New York gathers most of its water from watersheds in the Catskills, funneling it into 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes before sending it along to the five boroughs. With the city’s 2012 water report pegging the cost of delivering 1,000 gallons of water at about $4.53, a hydrant gushing for six hours at full-blast wastes $1,631.
But given their ability to prevent residents (particularly children) from overheating, running hydrants are frequently a public safety necessity. Not only do they provide a refreshing shower, they also lower the temperature of the air and pavement around them. This is crucial to urban areas suffering from the “heat island effect,” in which streets and dense collections of buildings retain heat and cause higher temperatures.
Parts of the west Bronx are prime examples of the heat island phenomenon. Nestled near two main thoroughfares — the Grand Concourse to the east and the Cross Bronx Expressway to the south — Bronx districts 5 and 7 are surrounded by heat-sucking asphalt. These transportation pipelines also cut residents off from the public pools at Claremont and Crotona Parks, which lie below the expressway.
This means that despite their high populations (district 5 has 91,571 people per square mile and district 7 clocks in at 73,308, according to 2010 Census data), the closest free pools often at least a 20-minute bus or subway ride away. Morris Heights does boast a pool in Roberto Clemente State Park, but it charges a small fee, and is still half-hour trip from the northern border of district 5.
The western Bronx hasn’t always topped the list for open hydrant reports, however, as Washington Heights held that spot for several years. In 2006, the number of 311 hydrant complaints received for a single Washington Heights zip code came to 1,315; over double the amount calls from any zip code in the Bronx.
In part, this was due to northern Manhattan’s elevation, which is the highest on the island. Since its water supply is dependent on pumps rather than gravity, pressure is harder to maintain, leaving the area susceptible to shortages. Even in 2012, with the hydrant issue relatively under control, community representatives were still getting water pressure complaints in the summer.
“We had a situation around Inwood,” Ebenezer Smith, district manager for upper Manhattan’s community board 12, told me last summer. “A gentleman who was living in a fifth floor walk-up was calling me almost every afternoon and saying, ‘Listen, I came from work, I don’t have water in my apartment and I can’t flush the toilet.’”
According to residents and DEP officials, reducing the number of open hydrants has required a mixed strategy. It includes an increased presence of DEP patrol cars, hydrants fitted with hard-to-open caps, and a community outreach program that extols the virtues of “spray caps,” which cut hydrant waterflow by 97.5%, down to just 25 gallons per minute.
Spray caps, if you haven’t heard of them, are the loophole in open hydrant law. While letting a hydrant gush uninhibited can, technically, land you a $1,000 fine or 30 days in jail, using one with a spray cap is perfectly legal. The cap consists of a round metal lid with several small holes which, when attached to the front of a hydrant, produces a sprinkler effect. Residents over the age of 18 can get a hydrant cap by calling their nearest firehouse, according the city’s emergency management office.
In 2007, the DEP decided that spray caps were underutilized, and launched a public education campaign to get the word out. Named HEAT for Hydrant Education Action Team, the program outfitted teenagers in red t-shirts and had hand out flyers around upper Manhattan and the Bronx, urging residents to opt for caps.
The campaign followed the DEP’s previous attempt to eliminate summer hydrant use by installing special lid-locking devices in the mid-1990s; a tactic that was met with varying success.
“The kids figured it out,” said Xavier Rodriguez, the district manager for the Bronx community board that serves University and Morris Heights. “They got steel magnets from speakers, and the magnets enabled them to open these so-called custodial locks.”
And yet, despite magnet-wielding teenagers, Washington Heights did see a drop in complaints beginning in 2007, the year the HEAT program was launched. By 2012, after several years of study decline, the area had achieved an 80 percent decrease in hydrant calls.
“Yeah, the DEP shuts them off,” a man named Chris explained one sunny day in mid-August last year, as we stood in a shoe store called Kickz World on St. Nicholas Ave. Chris had lived in Washington Heights his whole life, and said that running hydrants were far less of a mainstay than they used to be. “And when they are on, it’s been with sprinkler caps,” he added, shrugging his shoulders.
Mercedes Padilla, a spokesperson for the DEP, credited the HEAT program and the department’s active presence in the neighborhood for the complaint decrease. She noted that during heat waves, the DEP increases the number of water crews that patrol the city with instructions to shut off cap-less hydrants.
“We have seen the numbers go down in the last couple years,” Padilla said in a phone interview. “The campaign is reaching the public, and the public is understanding. We’re continuing to press the point that illegally opening hydrants can be dangerous and have consequences.”
So why have areas of upper Manhattan seen a precipitous drop in calls, while the western Bronx has experienced a much smaller decrease? The answer seems to be a combination of a less prominent DEP presence, fewer HEAT volunteers, and the continued lack of pools and green space. Until the city installs more cooling zones and parks, or simply cracks down on open hydrants as it did in Washington Heights, hydrant use in northern Bronx neighborhoods is unlikely to decline.
“We’d love to have more parks and pools, but we are restricted by physical space,” Phil Abramson, Director of Media Relations for the Parks Department, said last year. “Everything is case specific. If there’s a particular location that the community can identify, they let us know and we work with property owners.”
Abramson pointed to PlaNYC, the environmental initiative launched by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as having helped increase the tree count in the Bronx. He also suggested that “creative solutions” were needed, such as the floating pool that docks in the south Bronx’s Barretto Point Park each summer.
The floating pool, which rests on a decommissioned barge, has indeed been popular since its Bronx arrival in 2008. But it’s an hour-long subway ride from northwest neighborhoods like Kingsbridge Heights, meaning that a closer, in-ground pool might be a more community-friendly solution for the area. Given the price tag, however, making such a pool a reality would take a serious effort from activists and community organizers, who would likely be responsible for identifying a potential site.
Barring a new pool, officials could increase air conditioning programs, as residents tend to avoid cooling centers, according to a July 2013 report from WNYC. Currently, the state provides free air conditioners to low-income residents with medical conditions, but the application process can be cumbersome and the program’s $3 million fund usually runs out quickly.
“The program is limited, hyped up, and very inaccessible,” Taleigh Smith, a community organizer who has worked with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition since 2009, told me last year. “They’ll throw money in for 500 A/C units and we’ll field thousands of calls.”
Beefing up the program could help ease the heat crisis, but given the financial and logistical hurdles of that strategy, increasing the presence of “mini-parks,” reflective roofs or rooftop gardens might be a faster, more sustainable option for cooling down neighborhoods.
“The more we could do with green roofs, the better,” said Smith, who has spearheaded many of the coalition’s environmental initiatives. “Imagine if you don’t have to sit on the stoop breathing carbon monoxide from cars. We want to help make roofs accessible, and help people seen them as potential green space.”
Smith’s call for green plots is echoed by Adrienne Cortez, a landscape architect who suggests building sidewalk gardens along each hydrants’ 30-foot no-parking zones. Equipped with spray caps, the hydrants could water plants while also acting as cooling sprinklers. According to Cortez, who studied the impact of hydrants in a project called “nyc: uncapped,” sidewalk gardens offer a chance to both reduce the heat island effect and preserve the social aspect of open hydrants.
The DEP could also ramp up its HEAT program in the western Bronx, letting people know that it’s okay to legally open hydrants — although that won’t solve the region’s lack pools and green space, making covert hydrant opening all the more tempting. And really, on a 95 degree day, when the pavement seems to undulate, who could be blamed?
“Take a look at the districts and you will find the same pattern,” said Ebenezer Smith, the Washington Heights district manager. “They are residential neighborhoods with a lot of density. You don’t see this happen in Fifth Avenue, it’s neighborhoods that are less fortunate. Some kids go to summer camp, but some kids are left behind. What are they gonna do?”