NYNEX, Embedded Angel of New York City

[Image: The original fire house from Ghostbusters, seen here via Google Street View].

Every once in a while it’s rumored that there will be a Ghostsbusters III – the current rumor being that Judd Apatow might produce – and so, today, while walking around the National Gallery of Modern Art here in Rome, in a state of 100º exhaustion, I got to thinking about what would make an interesting plot if BLDGBLOG were somehow hired to write the screenplay.
And this is what I came up with:
It’s 1997. NYNEX is on the verge of being purchased by Bell Atlantic, after which point it will be dissolved in all but name.
But all hell starts breaking loose. Pay phones ring for no reason, and they don’t stop. Dead relatives call their families in the middle of the night. People, horrifically, even call themselves – but it’s the person they used to be, phoning out of the blue, warning them about future misdirection.
Every once in a while, though, something genuinely bad happens: someone answers the phone… and they go a little crazy.
Thing is – spoiler alert – halfway through the film, the Ghostbusters realize that NYNEX isn’t a phone system at all: it’s the embedded nervous system of an angel – a fallen angel – and all those phone calls and dial-up modems in college dorm rooms and public pay phones are actually connected into the fiber-optic anatomy of a vast, ethereal organism that preceded the architectural build-up of Manhattan.
Manhattan came afterwards, that is: NYNEX was here first.
It’s worth recalling, in fact, that NYNEX – at least according to Wikipedia – actually stood for New York/New England, “with the X representing the unknown future (or ‘the uneXpected’).” It’s like Malcolm X’s telephonically inclined, wiry cousin.
So the phone system of Manhattan – all those voices! all those connections! leading one life to another – starts to act up, provoked by its dissolution into Bell Atlantic… and the Ghostbusters are called in to fix it.
Fixing it involves rapid drives from telephone substation to telephone substation, from library to library, all while Dan Ackroyd’s character keeps receiving phone calls about a family crisis… his ex-wife is calling… his dad is calling… they’re urging him to stop this whole, crazy Ghostbusters business… He starts acting funny. The voices on the phone say strange things. They call at strange hours. He feels kinship with public pay phones; they sometimes ring as he walks past. He tries to call his family back – but they’re not answering.
Harold Ramis starts to suspect something.
In the background there are shadowy figures called out to fix transmission lines – but they are actually wiring something up… something big…
The whole movie then leads up to the granddaddy of them all: an electromagnetic confrontation inside the windowless, Brutalist telephone switching tower at 33 Thomas Street (rumored haunt of the ghost of Aleister Crowley).

[Image: 33 Thomas Street, via Wikipedia, “is a telephone exchange or wire center building which contains three major 4ESS switches used for interexchange (long distance) telephony…”].

The opening scene: a pay phone on a sun-splashed street near Washington Square Park. You can see the famous arch in the background.
A man is sitting nearby, outside a deli. He’s got a bagel and a coffee and he’s reading the New York Times.
The phone starts to ring. He looks at it. It rings and rings.
He gets up, finally, and approaches the phone – and he answers it.
It’s his dad.
But he thought his dad was dead.
Ghostbusters III.
The city’s telecommunications system is not some mere collection of copper wires and fiber optics, the film will suggest; it’s actually the subtle anatomy of a barely understood supernatural being, an angel of rare metals embedded in the streets of Manhattan.
Somewhere between AT&T and H.P. Lovecraft, by way of electromagnetized Egyptian mythology.
These metals, Harold Ramis will explain, pushing up his eyeglasses, also correspond to materials used in pre-Christian burial rituals throughout Mesopotamia. Copper coffins. Traces of selenium found in embalming tools. He refers to Tiamat, dragon of multiple heads, and he draws mind-bending parallels between Middle Eastern mythology and the origins of NYNEX. NYNEX/Tiamat. NYNEX/Michael. NYNEX/Metatron.
Certain members of the audience think the whole thing sounds like bullshit. But they like the special effects. And who cares, anyway.
So the movie will involve everyone from Guglielmo Marconi to Thomas Edison to Alexander Graham Bell (he’s the “ultimate sorcerer,” Dan Ackroyd exclaims, laughing along with the rest of us), and it will make reference to the hundreds of architecturally interesting telephone substations scattered throughout the greater New York region.
It’s voodoo meets urban infrastructure by way of Avital Ronell. Architecture students will flock to see it.
Having seen the film, people will long for the days of pay telephones – when, according to the film’s mythology, you were actually using the body of an angel to make local phone calls.
Within the film, then, there are also brief scenes of excavation – a kind of angelic archaeology wherein Bill Murray digs through the plaster of tenement walls in search of ancient trunk lines. But he accidentally breaks into the plumbing.
At one point, he and Ernie Hudson drive north along the Hudson, discussing Christian archangels, afraid to use the car phone, looking for some kind of old anchorage point for the phone system.
They think maybe they can just shut the whole thing off.
They are surrounded by dark trees and the scenography is breath-taking.
Harold Ramis then uncovers a diagram of city streets and the exact locations of NYNEX lines; these line up with other diagrams from some Central European grimoire that he finds down in the basement of the New York Public Library.
They’re getting close, in other words.
And that’s when they discover 33 Thomas Street.
In any case, the film is released in the summer of 2012 and it’s a runaway blockbuster. It’s “a return to American mythmaking,” A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, and there’s immediate talk of a Ghostbusters IV.
Manhattan is the wired center of a vast, global haunting, a transmission point crisscrossed by whispers above a magical infrastructure no one fully understands.
Ghostbusters III: hire me, and I’ll write it! I don’t think it’d be a bad movie, actually.

The Rentable Basement Maze

[Image: The subterranean vaults of Manhattan, seen here in City Hall station, which closed in December 1945; photo by David Sagarin (1978), via the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service].

A city with an abandoned underground train line, one that cuts beneath some of the nicest townhouses in the city, develops an unexpected new real estate idea: renting out temporary basements in the form of repurposed subway cars.
Access stairs are cut down from each individual house till they connect up with the existing disused train tunnels below; each private residence thus becomes something like a subway station, with direct access, behind a locked door, to the subterranean infrastructure of the city far below.
Then, for a substantial fee – as much as $15,000 a month – you can rent a radically redesigned subway car, complete with closets, shelves, and in-floor storage cubes. The whole thing is parked beneath your house and braked in place; it has electricity and climate control, perhaps even WiFi. You can store summer clothes, golf equipment, tool boxes, children’s toys, and winter ski gear.
When you no longer need it, or can’t pay your bills, you simply take everything out of it and the subway car is returned to the local depot.
A veritable labyrinth of moving rooms soon takes shape beneath the city.

[Image: The great Manhattan underdome, photo by David Sagarin (1978), via the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Engineering Record of the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (which includes many other incredible photographs of that subway line)].

Within a few years, the market matures.
You can then rent bar cars, home gyms, private restaurants, cheese caves, wine cellars, topless dancing clubs, recording studios, movie theaters, and even an aquarium. You can’t sleep in the middle of the night and so you wander downstairs to look at rare tropical fish, alone with fantastic webworks of coral beneath a slumbering metropolis.
Bespoke planetarium cars are soon developed; you step into your own personal history of the sky every night as the clanking metal of distant private rail switches echoes in the tunnels all around you, basements unlatching and moving on through urban darkness.
Shoe storage. Rare book libraries. Guest bedrooms. Growing operations. Swine flu quarantine facilities.
The catalog of newly mobile subterranean architectural typologies comes to include nearly anything the clients can imagine – or afford. Rumor has it, a particularly wealthy widower on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has whole exhibitions from the American Museum of Natural History parked beneath his house when the Museum closes at night; he goes down in his slippers, and he looks at dinosaur skeletons and gemstones as he thinks about his wife.
But then the economy crashes. The market in rentable basements dries up. The lovingly detailed personalized cars that once trolled around beneath the city are dismantled and sold for scrap.
Within a generation, the very idea that people once had personal access to a migratory maze of temporary rooms far below seems almost impossible to believe.

Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing

Last summer, on the extremely short-lived blog Urbablurb – which only managed five posts before dying, yet still remains interesting today – we read about the little-known phenomenon of people fishing in the basements of Manhattan.

[Image: A map of the lost rivers of Manhattan, via Urbablurb].

Urbablurb quotes from The New York Times:

We had a lantern to pierce the cellar darkness and fifteen feet below I clearly saw the stream bubbling and pushing about, five feet wide and upon its either side, dark green mossed rocks. This lively riverlet was revealed to us exactly as it must have appeared to a Manhattan Indian many years ago.
With plum-bob and line, I cast in and found the stream to be over six feet deep. The spray splashed upwards from time to time and standing on the basement floor, I felt its tingling coolness.
One day I was curious enough to try my hand at fishing. I had an old-fashioned dropline and baited a hook with a piece of sperm-candle. I jiggled the hook for about five minutes and then felt a teasing nibble. Deep in the basement of an ancient tenement on Second Avenue in the heart of midtown New York City, I was fishing.

The lost rivers of Manhattan are real; hundreds of streams and whole wetlands were paved over and filled so that the roots of buildings could safely grow. But whether or not you could ever fish in them – and this whole thing sounds like Dr. Seuss to me – is the subject of a post on the also now defunct blog, Empire Zone. There, a commenter informs us that fishing for eyeless carp in the underground cisterns of Istanbul is something of a national past-time.

Alas, we also learn that, as to the question of “whether any carp could be found swimming under Manhattan today,” the answer, sadly, is no.

But how much would I love to find myself in New York City for a weekend, perhaps sent there by work to cover a story – when the phone rings in my hotel room. It’s 11pm. I’m tired, but I answer. An old man is on the other end, and he clears his throat and he says: “I think this is something you’d like to see.” I doubt, I delay, I debate with myself – but I soon take a cab, and, as the clock strikes 12am, I’m led down into the basement of a red brick tenement building on E. 13th Street.

I step into a large room, that smells vaguely of water – and six men are sitting around an opening in the floor, holding fishing poles in the darkness.

(Also on Urbablurb: Who is Jack Gasnick?).

Walking over a valve chamber outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music

Whilst BLDGBLOG was out exploring the underside of Manhattan, from the island’s faucets to its outer city aqueducts, an email came through from Stanley Greenberg, photographic author of both Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City and Waterworks: A Photographic Journey through New York’s Hidden Water System.

He’s a fascinating guy.

“I started photographing the city’s infrastructure in 1992,” he explained, “after working in NYC government in the 1980s. A few things led me to the project. I felt that the water system was being taken for granted, partially because the government is so secretive about it. Places that were built as parks and destinations were now off-limits to everyone – especially after 9/11. I’m concerned that so many public spaces are being withdrawn from our society.”

The secrecy that now surrounds New York’s aquatic infrastructure, however, is “really just an acceleration of a trend,” Greenberg continued. “City Tunnel No. 3, the new water tunnel, has been under construction since 1970, and its entryways are: 1) well hidden, and 2) built to withstand nuclear weapons. While there were always parts of the system that were open to the public, there were other parts that became harder and harder to see. But even worse, I think, is the idea that we don’t even deserve to know about the system in ways that are important to us. It’s that much easier to privatize the system (as Giuliani tried to do). The Parks Department here just signed a contract with a private developer to turn part of Randall’s Island into a water park, which will not only take away public space, and probably be an environmental disaster, but will also institute an entrance fee for something that was free before. We don’t know how well our infrastructure is being taken care of and we’re not allowed to know, because of ‘national security.’ So how do we know if we’re spending too little money to take care of it?”

Greenberg’s photographic attraction is understandable. In his work, the New York City water supply reveals itself as a constellation of negative spaces: trapezoidal culverts, spillways, tunnels – cuts through the earth. His subject, in a sense, is terrain that is no longer there.

As Greenberg writes: “The water system today is an extraordinary web of places – beautiful landscapes, mysterious structures, and sites where the natural meets the man-made in enigmatic ways.”

These excavations, drained of their water, would form a networked monument to pure volume, inscribed into the bedrock of Hudson Valley.

“While the work is not meant to be a comprehensive record of the system,” Greenberg explained over email, “it is meant to make people think about this organism that stretches 1000 feet underground and 200 miles away. I did a lot of research, and spent some time helping to resurrect the Water Department’s archives, which had been neglected for 50 years, so I knew the system pretty well before I started. It got to the point where I could sense a water system structure without actually knowing what it was. My friends are probably tired of my telling them when they’re walking over a valve chamber, or over the place where City Tunnels 1, 2, and now 3 cross each other (near the Brooklyn Academy of Music), or some other obscure part of the system.”

Such tales of hidden topology, of course, do not risk boring BLDGBLOG. One imagines, in fact, a slight resonance to the ground, Manhattan’s sidewalks – or Brooklyn’s – very subtly trembling with echo to those who know what lies below. As if the water system could even have been built, say, as a subterranean extension to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a strange and amazing instrument drilled through rock, trumpeting with air pressure – a Symphony for the Hudson Valves, Bach’s Cantatas played through imperceptible reverberations of concrete and clay?

“I did all my photographs with permission,” Greenberg continues. “For one thing, it’s hard to sneak around with a 4×5 camera. For another, many of the places are extremely secure. I went back and forth over several years, sometimes being allowed in, other times being a pariah (and a threat to national security, according to the city, since I knew too much about the system). For some reason in 1998 I was given almost total access. I guess they realized I wasn’t going to give up, or that they would fare better if I were the one taking the pictures. I finished taking pictures in spring 2001. After 9/11, I’m sure I would have had little access – and in fact the city tried to stop me from publishing the book. I contacted curators, museum directors and some well-known lawyers; all offered their support. So when I told the city I would not back down, they gave up trying to stop me, and we went to press.”

You can buy the book here; and you can read about Stanley Greenberg’s work all over the place, including here, here, and here (with photographic examples), and even on artnet.

Meanwhile, Greenberg has a show, open till 20 May, 2006, at the Candace Dwan Gallery, NYC. There, you’ll see Greenberg’s more recent photographs of “contemporary architecture under construction. Included in the show are photographs of works by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, Yoshio Taniguchi, Winka Dubbeldam, and Bernard Tschumi.”

Earlier: Faucets of Manhattan and London Topological.

Faucets of Manhattan

“About 600 feet deep in the bedrock that supports Midtown Manhattan,” we meet “a 450-ton tunnel-boring machine known as the Mole.”
The Mole is “digging City Tunnel No. 3 far beneath Manhattan’s street level, part of a 50-year, $6 billion project to upgrade New York City’s water system.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

As the New York Times describes, this is actually the “second phase of City Tunnel No. 3, a 60-mile tunnel that began in the Bronx in 1970 and is scheduled for completion in 2020. By then, the tunnel will be able to handle the roughly one billion gallons of water a day used in New York City that originates from rural watersheds to points throughout the city.” And though the tunnel “is one of the largest urban projects in history, few people will ever see it. But beginning next week, many New Yorkers will certainly feel and hear the construction.”

[Images: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

The speed of the excavation process “varies based upon the hardness of the rock it encounters. The task of determining what type of rock lies in its path falls to Eric Jordan, a geologist hired by the city. By drilling down and hand-picking rocks from the tunnels, Mr. Jordan has created a precise map of the type of rock under Manhattan. His involvement in the tunnel project makes his geologist friends jealous. ‘For a geologist,’ he said, ‘this is like going to Disneyland.'”
Jordan’s “precise map” of Manhattan bedrock would indeed be something to see; but until then, we can make an educated guess about the rock his tunnel will find by turning to Richard Fortey.
In his highly recommended book, Earth, Fortey visits Central Park. First you notice the skyline of towers, he writes. “Then you notice the rocks. Cropping out in places under the trees are dark mounds of rock, emerging from the ground like some buried architecture of a former race, partly exhumed and then forgotten… That New York can be built so high and mighty is a consequence of its secure foundations on ancient rocks. It pays its dues to the geology. This is just a small part of one of those old seams that cross the earth… relics of a deeper time when millennia counted for nothing.”

[Image: By Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times].

John McPhee picks up this lithic line of thought in Annals of the Former World. Archipelago New York, he writes, is made of “rock that had once been heated near the point of melting, had recrystallized, had been heated again, had recrystallized, and, while not particularly competent, was more than adequate to hold up those buildings… Four hundred and fifty million years in age, it was called Manhattan Schist.”
Of course, we can also turn to the U.S. National Geologic Map Database, and find our very own bedrock maps –


– which, awesomely, include Times Square, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the Museum of Modern Art, all floating above a sea of solid Manhattan Schist.
In any case, the new tunnel being dug to power the faucets of Manhattan are supplements to the pharaonic, 19th-century Croton hydrological network that keeps New York in taps (including the now derelict, yet Historically Registered, Old Croton Aqueduct). You can read about the Croton Dam, for instance, here or here; and there’s yet more to learn about the Croton project, including how to follow it by trail, here.

[Image: Photograph by Robert Polidori, from “City of Water” by David Grann, The New Yorker, September 1, 2003].

Finally, in 2003 The New Yorker published an excellent article by David Grann called “City of Water,” about, yes, City Tunnel No. 3. I’ll quote from it here briefly before urging you to find a copy at your local library and read it for yourself.
Until Grann actually accompanied the tunnel workers – called sandhogs – underground, he “had only heard tales of New York City’s invisible empire, an elaborate maze of tunnels that goes as deep as the Chrysler Building is high. Under construction in one form or another for more than a century, the system of waterways and pipelines spans thousands of miles and comprises nineteen reservoirs and three lakes. Two main tunnels provide New York City with most of the 1.3 billion gallons of water it consumes each day, ninety per cent of which is pumped in from reservoirs upstate by the sheer force of gravity. Descending through aqueducts from as high as fourteen hundred feet above sea level, the water gathers speed, racing down to a thousand feet below sea level when it reaches the pipes beneath the city.”
Two main tunnels, he writes – and, thus, City Tunnel No. 3.
But I’ll stop there – after I point out that toward the end of the ludicrously bad Die Hard III, Jeremy Irons temporarily escapes the less than threatening eye of Bruce Willis by driving out of Manhattan through similar such aqueducting tunnels.

(For more tunnels: See BLDGBLOG’s London Topological or The Great Man-Made River; then check out The Guardian on London’s so-called CTRL Project, with a quick visit to that city’s cranky old 19th-century sewers, the “capital’s bowels”… Enjoy!).

Gondolas of New York

New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced an interest in building a network of gondolas across New York City.

[Image: Santiago Calatrava].

Well… not quite a “network” – “across New York City” – but one route, “linking Brooklyn to Manhattan by way of Governors Island on a tramway.”
Governors Island, incidentally, is a small island in the New York harbor: “The city and state of New York bought the island in 2002 from the U.S. government for $1. Until 2000, it had been the longest continuously used U.S. military facility, dating back more than 200 years.” $1!

[Image: Governors Island, upper left; Manhattan, upper right. The rest is Brooklyn. The gondola would go zipping back and forth].

In any case, the gondola, “estimated to cost $125 million, would be designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava, and would greatly change the face of Upper New York Bay. But there is a catch,” we read: Bloomberg “acknowledged that the system was still only an idea. He said, however, that he hoped it would eventually become reality and in the meantime inspire others to come up with big ideas for the development of Governors Island.”
Like a Shakespearean theatre?
Well, here’s an idea:
More routes. More gondolas. Gondolas you can rent as a live/work space. Private gondola routes, from high-rise to high-rise, with windows of bulletproof glass. Night-club gondolas. Church confessional gondolas. Flying prison cells, an Alcatraz of the sky, reforming criminals through scenic views.

Different architects and engineering firms should design the gondolas – Foster and Partners, Zaha Hadid, Michael Sorkin, Halcrow, even BLDGBLOG – and they shouldn’t stop there: gondolas linking to gondolas, which in turn link to more gondolas. Gondolas switching through Ferris wheels. Gondolas connecting to the space elevator – which leads upward to gondolas in space… then back to Greenwich Village. Return trip: two hours.
The city could recoup its investment by selling film permits to Hollywood. Die Hard 4.
Gondola greenhouses that follow the sun in a heliocentric circuit round Manhattan, growing mutant flowers.
An airborne hospital for the depressed.
Rumors break out that there is a hidden gondola somewhere, itself unreachable by gondola – Kabbalists and Aristotelians argue that, in fact, this is impossible, citing Maimonides. Entire websites go up, dedicated to finding it.
Folk maps are produced, printed in the back of Time Out, charting the fastest route, the most interesting route, the longest route, the scenic route. A listserv begins, describing gondola hacks: how to make your gondola do a 360º.
You can win the Olympics with it.

[Image: Santiago Calatrava].

Alternatively, forget the gondolas: Governors Island, in its 172-acre entirety, should be uprooted, dismantled, geologically ground-down to soil and dust – then hung from a series of sacks and hammocks off the side of the Empire State Building. Hanging gardens, indeed.