What Lays Beneath

There is a whole other New York City, just under our feet

Con Edison distribution slipcer at work in Bergen Street

They crowded around the manhole that lay smack dab in the middle of Bergen Street and peered into the underground. The cover was off and they were looking into what resembled a black hole. Upon closer inspection, it was still very dark. But surrounding the walls of the manhole were cables and wires taped on — lots of it. They were the crew employed at Con Edison, the guys that maintain the largest underground electrical system in the country.

As one of those guys Mathew Stefanski, a distribution splicer at Con Edison slowly stepped inside the manhole he said, “People think we work in the sewers but they’re really just concrete little rooms almost.”

If it isn’t sewage then what is it like down the manhole?

Its dark, cramped and very hot.

“Working in the heat is probably the worst,” Stefanski added. “I could deal with the snow. You can always dress warmer but you can’t really do anything (in the summer). With these clothes you can’t take it off; it’s all protection.”

And the smell?

“Up top it smells more like fumes,” said Gary Feltus, a general utility worker at Con Edison “You get a lot of fumes up top so it smells like burning plastic.”

Urban myths aside, there is nothing petrifying to be found down the manhole — just the usual “rats and roaches crawling in and out,” Feltus added.

Still, the subterranean world can be extremely dangerous. “Every time you go down there you’re working with live electric. You do have 27,000 volts running through the hole,” Stefanski said. And, he added, staying underground for long periods can get quite “scary.”

I leaned over the manhole to get a closer look at what he meant. But all I could see was dirt and all I could hear was a generator roaring loudly. I could no closer, or deeper to what lay beneath. And so, I began to dig differently — through into piles of data and facts about what lay hidden beneath the streets of New York City.

Credits: The Noun Project

Number of manholes in New York City: 264,000

Number of miles of steam pipes and mains: 105

Number of miles of electric cables: 98,000

Number of miles of sewers: 7,500 (If they were placed end to end, the sewer pipes and drains would stretch from Times Square to Australia)

Number of miles of track in the subway: 840 (If laid end to end would stretch from New York City to Chicago)

Number of stations in the New York subway system: 486

Number of miles of telecommunication cables: 50,000

Average manhole depth: 11 feet 3 inches

Average distances between the manholes: 200 feet

Number of businesses relying on the steam system: 100,000 + (including famous institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center)

Percentage of world’s web traffic in New York City: 3 (The city is home to only 0.1 percent of the world’s population)

Number of gallons of wastewater sewers carry per day: 1.3 billion

Percentage of clean water in New York City sewers: 99

Miles per hour steam flows: 75

Con Edison is the nation’s largest investor-owned energy-delivery companies. Their system is a monster in its own right.

Number of miles of steam pipes and mains: 100

Number of miles of underground electric cables: 94,000 (could wrap around the Earth 3.7 times)

Number of miles of gas pipes: 7,300 (If laid end to end can reach Paris and back)

Percentage of Con Edison’s gas coming from Canada: 30

Number of customers Con Edison’s gas is distributed to: 1.1 million

Credits: New York City Department of Environmental Protection

New York’s underground business uses many far-flung resources to keep the city afloat. New York’s clear and fine tasting water comes from the Catskill, Delaware, and Croton systems. The complex water system runs on gravity, except for buildings six stories or higher. Natural gas comes from refineries in Texas, Louisiana and ancient deposits beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Hence taking up to five days to reach the city.

Brooklyn Gas Pipelines in Blue (Credits: National Pipeline Mapping System)

But how it did it all begin? When did the idea of moving underground find its place?

Credits: Brooklyn Historical Society

The first modern contraption placed beneath Manhattan was a sewer. It was a simple channel beneath Broad Street, built when the city was still New Amsterdam. It was designed to pump raw sewage into the lower Hudson River, a practice that surprisingly only ended in 1986. Sewage pipes were then placed beneath the streets, their construction increased with the rapid population growth and cholera outbreaks in the 1840s caused by human waste-contaminated drinking water. Notably, some of the sewer pipes still serving Lower Manhattan predate the Civil War.

Thomas Edison developed the first power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan in 1882, serving only 85 customers. It was the customers of the New York Steam Co. a centralized steam system that waited out the Great Blizzard of 1888 in comfort,using a patented system of “district heating,” that used centralized boilers and a network of main and branch pipelines to deliver heat from the steam directly to their homes. A centralized heating steam operation appeared to offer an efficient alternative to faulty system of uncertain buying of wood and coal by individuals and families.

At the inception of New York City’s gas network, the mains were made of wood. Cable and telephone wires were first laid underground after overhead lines snapped in the Great Blizzard of 1888.

So why do people think there are alligators inside the manhole? In 1935 the New York Times reported that one New York winter when it was snowing heavily Salvatore Condulucci who was assigned to clean up the snow in Harlem saw an open sewer manhole and decided it was an ideal place to dump the snow. It was there that he saw something moving inside the manhole. He then screamed “Honest, it’s an alligator!” Hence, the legend of alligators inside manholes began. Somehow the alligator had made its way from Florida.