WHY NEW YORKERS CARE ABOUT INFRASTRUCTURE
Gotham Gazette (GG): What inspired you to do a picture book about the city's infrastructure?
Kate Ascher (KA): I love infrastructure. Big things, and the way things work, have always interested me. I didn't really think about writing a book until after 9/11 when in the newspaper you found a lot of these info-graphics about the bathtub at the World Trade Centre, and the slurry wall, and the Verizon building that came tumbling down.
GG: Was there one thing that you found particularly surprising that people did not know about the city's infrastructure after 9/11?
KA: I guess it was some basic stuff about the trade centre, how it was built, and stuff I knew from having worked at the Port Authority. People seemed horrified that in one fell swoop all these systems could go out. But it could happen anywhere, particularly in lower Manhattan. Everything is just built on everything else.
GG: You write in the introduction to the book that New York City is more dependent on infrastructure than other city in the world. Can you elaborate?
KA: Every city is pretty reliant on infrastructure; I think what we
have is more communal infrastructure. We tend to rely on these integrated systems like the steam system or the central sewage system because we're such a dense, vertical city. The city can't really function without elevators, and it can't function without a subway, which both rely on electricity. I guess you could make an argument that we're more dependent on power than other cities, where people can at least get in and out of their house without electric power.
GG: Is there anything that our density allows us to do that you couldn't do in a less dense city?
KA: You certainly wouldn't see the value of things like massive subway systems in a less dense city. It does make us more energy efficient.
GG: Do you think that as a whole New York is better served by its infrastructure, or worse served? Or is that even a fair question?
KA: I would argue that our infrastructure is probably as good as almost any city. What I think is really interesting about it is that it is so very old. It was designed 100 years ago, when the city was a fraction of what it is now. It really seemed to have lived up to the task of expanding to accommodate twice the number of people, three times the number of people.
GG: Are there places where we can see it getting stretched?
KA: I can't offhand think of an example that is a weak spot in our infrastructure. But my guess is without investment now there will be some things that will be creaking and breaking down soon. The water system is a great example of something that has been identified as needing investment, and the investment is being made in a third water tunnel. Were that not underway, that could be a real vulnerability.
GG: The third water tunnel is one of several big projects you outline in the book. Can you talk about which projects are the biggest, and tell us about them?
GG: The water tunnel is the biggest project of all, and you can actually see some of the shaft work on the West Side not far from Penn Station. That project won't be done until 2020. Eventually it's going to bring water to the city. It's been going on for decades; I'm not sure when it was started.
GG: Will we get anything new when that is finished, or will that just keep the service from deteriorating?
KA: The two main water tunnels serving the city lose many thousands or millions of gallons of water that just pour out of them each day because they are leaking. So the idea is to have this third water tunnel, start using it, and then be able to take those other tunnels out of service to be maintained in turn. “New Bridges, Old Bridges”– that’s probably the biggest capital project underway, but there are plans afoot to build a new bridge connecting Staten Island and New Jersey to replace the Goethels Bridge, which is aging.
GG: Another project that you write about in the book is the deepening of the harbour. Can you talk about what that project is and why it's necessary?
KA: I could talk for a very long time about that... The deepening of the harbour is not something that's happening just now. It has been happening pretty consistently since the beginning of the century, since the natural depth of the harbour is 17 feet. It's sandy, because the silt comes down the Hudson. This was fine when you had little skiffs and rowboats but as soon as you began to have bigger steam ships and cargo ships it wasn't deep enough. Now they've gotten to the point where to get down deeper in a lot of the areas that are the shallowest you basically hit sheer rock, so you can't just dredge it up with a dredge. You have to go in and blast the rock to smithereens and then literally pick the rock up and dispose of it in a certain way. Mostly this is being done for the ships coming into the harbour and headed to Newark Bay, which are the biggest container ships that require the most depth. It's a very big project. It's funded two-thirds by the federal government, and then there's a local part that the Port Authority usually pays.
GG: There's a conventional wisdom in New York about big projects, which is that the politics are so intractable. I was surprised to hear about some of these enormous projects that haven't seemed to spark much controversy. Did the battles just happen in the past, or are there certain types of projects that for some reason are immune to that type of politics?
KA: Well, you can't get anything done without some kind of a battle, but it's not necessarily a citywide battle. Nothing gets done easily. I'm not sure it ever did if you look back at history. I sometime wonder how they even created the New York City water system. They took 2,000 square miles of upstate New York and flooded dozens of communities and built these aqueducts and these reservoirs. You could never do that today! But somehow they were able to do it... When you work on a project like the 2nd Avenue Subway that touches communities up and down the East Side, however, it's much harder to work out a package or a deal that's going to make them happy.
GG: Do you think that project will ever actually happen?
KA: I don't think it will happen in my lifetime. Look at the history: fits and starts, money put in and taken away. There just never seemed to be the will to push it forward, because politicians change, and times change. So my guess is that it will get built in parts over an extended period of time. I don't think it will ever be what it was originally intended to be. But it may turn out to be something useful even if it's only a partial completion.
GG: One thing your book does is compare our subway system to other systems around the world. I was wondering if you could just go into that a bit. Where are we better? Where are we not as good?
KA: I wouldn't attempt to compare our service to the service in Paris or something like that, but what the book does do is compare the number of route miles and the number of stations. I think we have more stations than the Moscow, Japan, or London systems. So it's not the largest system in terms of the number of people, but we do have some of the routes that are the longest – like the A train that goes out to Howard Beach. We also have some very deep stations, like the A train in Washington Heights. It's not that it's bigger in volume, it's that we have more stops. One of the things we do have that none of those systems have is that we go all night. All the systems in the world's other major cities close at one or one thirty in the morning, and reopen at five or five thirty. Ours goes all night.
Book Club Member Margie Dotter: Do you know anything about the hidden subway stations?
KA: There are a number of platforms that are around that aren't used anymore, but there are also at least half a dozen – and maybe more – unused subway stations. There's a little map in the book showing where they are. Some of them you can see. If you stay on the 6 train – and you're not supposed to – as it comes around City Hall, you can see the old City Hall Station, the real elegant one. It's only about four cars long, so it could never handle a real train. On West Side subways up between 86th Street and 96th Street there's the 91st Street station on the 1,2, and 3 lines. You can see some dim lights and graffiti. But somebody decided it was just too close to 96th Street and 86th Street. There are a bunch of them around. They're cool.
Book Club Member:Did you find in the course of your research any other phantom places underground, in other systems or whatever?
KA: Well, the word phantom is very romantic. It's basically unused stuff. When pipes go out of service for whatever reason – because they've been supplanted by some kind of other technology, or something has been moved in another direction – it's amazing how many of them are just left in situ. There are the old tubes from the pneumatic mail system. There are sewer pipes that are not in use any more that people are thinking about using for different types of telecom service, laying cable and stuff like that.
GG: In your book you mention some other type of non-functional infrastructure.
KA: There are the crosswalk buttons, and I think there are something like 3,200 of them. A quarter of them work. They once worked, and they no longer work. There are also red light cameras that look at an intersection and take a picture of your license plate as you violate the red light. There are a relatively small number of them, maybe two dozen, maybe fifty, that work. They definitely work, because I've gotten two tickets. Two! And both of them I was like “I didn't run a red light!” And then they send you the time and a picture of your car going through the red light, so you can't argue with it. So I know where those two are. But in addition to the however many they have that really work, they put in an additional two hundred that are total fakes, but that are meant to make you feel like you're being watched. You're not being watched, but they're a lot cheaper than having a system that has 250 live, complicated cameras with sensors. Most of those are just for show.
Book Club Member Magda Adboulfadl: Can you talk a little bit about the politics of the capital budget? It's such a long-term issue being run by short-term mayors, and it seems like it would be easy to ignore. I was wondering how insulated from politics the capital budget is.
KA: In the capital budget process there are teams of people representing each of these infrastructure interests who very clearly set out what needs to be done. I guess the real question is: are we being as ambitious as people were 100 years ago when they set up these very elaborate systems. I don't know that we're being as visionary about infrastructure as perhaps we should be.
Calvin Johnson: I had a question about jurisdiction, and how many different governmental bodies you worked with in doing the research for your book – federal, state, local, public authorities – and how they all interact with each other in the city's larger infrastructure?
KA: That's a big question. The city's infrastructure is so many different things. I broke the book up into five sections just to make it manageable. But even within each of those sections there are so many entities. If you take sewers, the city's Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for sewers. They have certain criteria that they have to meet for the state. But they have federal rules they have to abide by as well. I don't think that there's any area where you don't have to consider all levels of government. One area where the states don't play a very big role is freight transportation, maritime, and aviation. That's pretty much localities and the federal government. But every area has its unique bureaucratic mess that governs it. Sometimes it works better than other places.
Jim Matthews: What did you find most interesting or most surprising in putting this book together?
KA: I have been impressed with how farsighted the original infrastructure planners were. It doesn't matter if it's water, sewer, power, roads. The whole street grid for Manhattan was put together in 1811. It's pretty amazing that it has held up as well as it has. But the thing that has been most surprising to me is how many people actually care about this stuff. I wrote this book because it was in my head and I wanted to do it.