Flashback: UPTOWN HEADWATERS By Brian Wiprud

An orange vest and manhole hook are my badge and gun, but they don’t go a long way towards actually solving any mysteries. While there are no blood-stained carpets, screams in the night or broken clocks in my line of work, New York’s underground exhibits all sorts of physical clues by way of manholes, pull boxes and pavement cracks that form the border pieces of the puzzle I need to complete. I’ve got a ground full of utilities to untangle, abandoned trolley columns or maybe a lost tunnel to find. And the only witnesses around to paint the picture of what happened here are maps.

Monday morning a traffic circle lands on my desk, one of those big, leafy, cobblestoned roundabouts sitting at the corner of a park. Our client needs us to tell them if they’d cave in the subway, cause a blackout or rupture any water mains should they have a mind to push some of the curbs around and erect a statue in the middle of the circle. My boss tells me it’s urgent and that I’ll have a twenty-scale base plan by the end of the week from our surveyors. Then he adds: “They also need us to look into the possibility of an underground stream.”

I make a face, but don’t have to say what I’m thinking. Every other case I come across, folks are on about underground streams. “We’ll see,” I say, picking up the phone. Time to round up the witnesses. I call Syd over at Con Edison, make a routine request for their electric, gas & steam maps (they call them “plates”) for the Circle. I also ask if he can see his way clear to snag me a WPA map, an invaluable source of utility infrastructure information. During the depression, gangs of workers hired by the WPA were sent out to dig up many of New York’s streets just to map what was in them. Con Edison has a full set of these plans, and they’re a pretty accurate snapshot of 1930’s street guts. All sorts of abandoned utilities are shown (trolley tracks, cable car gear boxes, refrigeration lines, column foundations, elevated subway stairs and columns, etc.)

Then I call Jack at NYNEX for their maps, send Al our technician out to Lefrak City for water and sewer plans, and head out the door. Next stop, the Transit Authority. In a midtown skyscraper, Mr. Davis sets me up at a machine with the appropriate roll of TA microfilm and I start scoping out the original plans for the installation of the subway under the Circle. The records just happen to include a map showing the original geography of the area circa 1800. They show a stream flowing across the top of the Circle, and attached profiles suggest that the area was raised up to its current elevation with as much as thirty feet of fill. Other maps show the location of their vent structures, subway tunnels, roof, stairways, etc.. I print out the sheets I need, get a postal money order around the corner and tip my hat to Mr. Davis.

Was there really a stream or were the subway plans just showing some kind of drainage ditch? I hop back on the “C” train and make for the New York Historical Society. I go through their data bank of old maps and get them to pull Viele’s Map, so named for the venerable nineteenth century cartographer. High-school French will do you wrong if you go asking for the “Vee-yay” map. Around these parts you better pronounce that “Vee-lay” if you want anyone to know what you’re talking about. Anyhow, it’s a swell lithograph, long as a Buick, that depicts New York’s street grid superimposed on the original geography. While it’s smartly done in earthy hues of red, green and blue, you’d think Vee-lay” somehow had some advance knowledge of photocopiers. The thing is practically un-Xeroxable. So I run my finger up the map and there it is: the Circle – with a stream running across the top and a pond just to the east. Stalking past the feckless crowd sunning on steps of the Museum of Natural History, I’m busy trying to get my brain around this uptown creek idea. See, it’s not like there’s a lot of free space under the streets where a water course could flow. From one to six feet down you’ve got criss-crossing electric, telephone, gas, subway conduit, drainage and all manner of rubble. At six to ten feet you have the larger electric and telephone duct banks, smaller sewers, old foundations and, in this case, the roof and stairs of the subway. At ten feet to twenty five feet you’ve got interceptor sewers and the subway tunnel blocking the stream’s path. Then you’ve got brick and concrete manholes all over the place. There just isn’t any place for a stream to flow.

All the while, it’s irking me that I can’t get ahold of one of these Vee-lay maps without shooting a hole in my bank account. I punch a code on a platform payphone and by some miracle get Doc at his office over at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He’s a professor, a geotech man that’s come through on more than one occasion. I’m hoping he knows where I can get a cheap Vee-lay.

After a moment he says: “Can’t help. But you ever hear of UFC?” “Underpinning Foundation Company? Big outfit.” “Underpinning and Foundation Constructors, yes. They have a map that’s just as good. Better still, they give it away as a promotion.”

Back at the office, I hand Al his hat and send him off to charm the folks at UFC for a copy of that map. In my chair I find a copy of a City report. It’s the investigation of a collapsing wall near the Circle.

Inside it’s got a tortured copy of Vee-lay’s map, and the text suggests that the wall is perhaps being collapsed by a “subterranean aquifer.” I go in and drop the report on my boss’ desk. “Is this what started the stream nonsense?”

“It’s on Veal’s map, isn’t it? And now they’re telling me that you can see the stream through a crack in the sidewalk. Say there’s a sink hole, too.”

So now there’s a sink hole. I curl my lip. “We’ll see.”

I decide it’s time to gather all my witnesses together in one room and see what they might divulge. I have the electric, gas and telephone plates, as well as the WPA drawings. I even pull my collection of Electric Railroader’s Association maps of abandoned trolley lines. Together with the TA maps, I spread them out on my desk and the floor and turn on a few desk lamps. By now, fellow employees less possessed than myself are piling out the door, leaving me alone with my task.

Trench coat over his arm, my boss leans on the door frame. “Better just head up there and take a look, don’t you think?” He takes a bite out of an apple and points it at me. “Think maybe the answers are in the sidewalk, not in your maps.”

Maybe, maybe not. But I know the answer, however cryptic, is there in front of me in the maps. Rolling up my sleeves and bearing down on my witnesses, I find that the City sewer maps lie. They show the sewer as it was before the subway went in, circa 1932, and seemed to suggest that there are now some abandoned sewer pipes. Par for City records, I’m afraid. Abandoned telephone ducts run right across the circle, and some oil-o-static high-voltage lines elbow through, too. Buried trolley tracks go north-south, with an attached duct bank hard to port. Some heavyweight gas and water mains criss-cross, and in a lower quadrant

Water Supply has a complicated collection of regulator chambers. All these pipes, ducts and conduits have to zig-zag around subway stairs and vent structures. After I figure out this stream business, I’ve got to get one of the boys to draft it all onto one plan. There was a time that I would draft it myself, though nowadays the composite utility map shows up on a CADD screen in pretty colors, the product of someone more friendly with electronics than ink.

I’m on my second container of coffee, looking again at the TA profiles when it hits me. If the original ground contour is thirty feet down, that’s where the stream would be. If so, how can you see it through a hole in the sidewalk? And at thirty feet down, covered with all that dirt, rubble and subway, how would anybody see its effects? Except, of course, as settlement, just as the City report had suggested. But with that much fill, you don’t need a stream to cause severe localized settlement. In the days when this was backfilled, uncontrolled fill – dirt loaded with wood, boulders, whatever – was the norm. Settlement of this kind creates voids under the sidewalk that have a nasty habit of filling with water when it rains. Perhaps this stream is a `sink hole’ after all, a term most people use to characterize any localized settlement, but which actually refers specifically to subsurface voids caused by rain water infiltration.

We get no rain overnight or the next morning, and I figure the prospects of getting an eyeful of the underground stream pretty remote. Armed withmy map collection, I trot up the subway stairs and proceeded to take inventory of settled curbs, cracked sidewalks, or any other signs of settlement. I find precious little, much less any chink through which someone might spy a “subterranean aquifer.” Until I stray a block off the Circle, that is.

At the corner of the next intersection, I find a down-sloped concrete sidewalk notched into a “v.” It starts at a water main manhole on the corner, gets deeper where it passes the hydrant, then flattens out further downhill. Asphalt at the crux of the notch probably patched the hole through which somebody witnessed the stream. I note that the sidewalk flags next to the adjoining building aren’t party to the collapse. A look in an open cellar door tells me that the basement wall is five feet out from the building face, and is obviously supporting the first row of flags. Which means that whatever is causing the sidewalk settlement isn’t settling the basement wall. Therefore, the cause of the sink hole must be above the foundation of that wall. Checking Water Supply maps, I find that this “sink hole” sits directly over and in line with the water main running down the sidewalk. The protecting bollards next to the hydrant look drunk, and even the roadway in front of the hydrant is cracking up.

Case solved. Water leaking from the hydrant (the area where the pavement is most distressed), is settling the soil under the sidewalk. As the water and soil flows away from the hydrant, the effects are less pronounced. It may even be that this action has caused the main itself to settle and leak, which might also explain why the sidewalk is collapsing in line with the pipe. Hydrant water, probably in conjunction with rain or drainage water, flows down slope through the void, and when the sidewalk finally buckles, the underground stream is witnessed. The guilty party? Maybe a truck backed into the hydrant, not so hard that it started a geyser, but hard enough to start the leak.

By the way, this stream flows down slope south to north. The stream on Vee-lay’s map flows east to west, toward the East River.

Without a formal soils investigation or maybe tearing out the sidewalk, I can’t prove my findings at this stage. It may yet come to that. But I’m satisfied that, despite the historical geography of the Circle, we won’t be seeing any trout fishing in Manhattan. Not any time soon. Yeah, I know. So maybe badgering the witnesses in the office didn’t exactly identify the culprit. But that’s the problem with maps, and sometimes with the manhole peepers like me who use them: seductively full of history, detail and promise, maps can mislead you. In my line of work, I’ve got to take what they tell me and match it to the hard evidence. Just to keep them – and me – on the up and up.