'The Works' of New York City: Past and Present New York has long been one of the most fully wrought of America's cities. A new book sheds light on how the Big Apple supports millions of people. From the number of the city's pay phones to how many buildings have their own zip code, The Works: Anatomy of a City has the answers.
NPR logo

'The Works' of New York City: Past and Present

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5021551/5021554" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'The Works' of New York City: Past and Present

'The Works' of New York City: Past and Present

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5021551/5021554" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.


And I'm Liane Hansen.

The images of New York City that most people see are above ground: the striking skyline, scenes from Central Park, Times Square on New Year's Eve. But what's underneath all that? Well, if you pull back the pavement, you'd seen an intricate web of pipes and cables and tunnels. There are countless small systems that combine to provide the city's eight million people with power, water and transportation. Above ground, there's also a complicated network that supplies the city with food and gets rid of garbage. Author Kate Ascher writes about the finer details of how these systems work in her new book called "The Works: Anatomy of a City." Today we'll talk to her about her book and all the quirky things she's learned about the Big Apple.

If you live in a city--New York, Miami, or elsewhere-what have you always wanted to know about your city? Have you visited New York and wondered about things you saw there? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

CONAN: Later in the program, we'll talk about the recent layoffs by General Motors that were announced today and how factory workers will be affected. We'll also read from your letters about lobotomy.

HANSEN: But first, the inner workings of New York City. Joining us now to talk about her new book is Kate Ascher. She's the executive vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, and she's with us from NPR's New York bureau.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. KATE ASCHER (Author, "The Works: Anatomy of a City"; Vice President, New York City Economic Development Corporation): Thanks very much. I'm glad to be here.

HANSEN: Well, you know, we see the streets of New York when we drive them or we walk the, but you--there's a word you use to describe them: platform. What takes place, first of all, at the street level that we often don't notice, that we don't know about?

Ms. ASCHER: Well, if you just think about how many things are standing on that platform in just one city block, you see things like pay phones, you see stop signs, see parking meters, you see streetlights, you might see mailboxes, you might see bus shelters, you might see free magazine stands all within the space of one city block. And that's not to mention things that are on the ground like manhole covers and things like that.

HANSEN: At water-testing stations. What--describe those.

Ms. ASCHER: Well, there's about 800 of those in New York City. The are actually above-ground little sinks that are in small boxes with doors where the city tests the quality of the water at various intervals throughout the five boroughs to make sure that it's up to drinking quality.

HANSEN: Really? These are just little, like, steel-looking boxes and they're just on poles?

Ms. ASCHER: They're about--I would say they're probably about chest-height. They're green boxes made of some kind of metal and if you open them up, there's a little kind of copper spigot that pours water into a small sink. And the Department of Environmental Protection goes around and tests about 500 locations each month to make sure the water is good quality.

HANSEN: Let's talk about the streets themselves just for a second. I mean, Manhattan itself is a grid. It goes north and south and east and west. Who sets the timers on the traffic lights? How is the traffic controlled?

Ms. ASCHER: There's something called the Traffic Management Center which is run by the New York City Department of Transportation. It's actually located out in Long Island City, which is in Queens. And they basically control all the traffic lights either directly from there or some of the traffic lights actually have to be adjusted at source. But most of them, the great majority of them, somewhere around 6,000 of them, actually can be adjusted remotely. They monitor them through sensors at the intersection and if they see that traffic is piling up too much in one direction, they can actually adjust the timing of the light remotely by cable from their location in Queens.

CONAN: It's fascinating. I mean, when you describe the streets as a platform--we think of it as the ground or ground level. By calling it a plat--it's almost arbitrary. It could be anywhere.

Ms. ASCHER: That's right. I mean, it's not just the streets. If you think about it, it's the streets and the sidewalks. It's everything that's located essentially between the buildings in New York and in other major cities. It's all tied together in a set of different systems that are going round the clock.

CONAN: There's also a set of governmental systems. I mean, New York City--just, again, talking about the roads, there've got to be a dozen different agencies responsible for different roads, tunnels, bridges, that sort of thing.

Ms. ASCHER: There's probably about a dozen of them in the region as a whole if you think about it as a tristate region--New York, New Jersey and Connecticut--which is often how we think about it. Jersey state Department of Transportation, New York state Department of Transportation, Connecticut Department of Transportation, then there's the New York City agencies, then there's the Port Authority, which is bistate, then you have highway authorities for particular roads. So you have quite a network of them, but the actually are all tied together in trying to manage the traffic collectively, believe it or not.

HANSEN: I have a question, as someone who's spent a lot of time as a pedestrian in New York and, you know, sometimes those lights--they're timed, they're not timed to try and get across the street at a certain time or when the light is not in your favor, you've got this little button that's on the side and you push it to walk. Do those things work?

Ms. ASCHER: You know, there's a lot of them in the city. Some of them work and most of them don't. I think at last count there were about 3,200 of them that are still on the poles and only about a quarter of them actually work. The rest of them are there purely for show. They once worked and they don't anymore.

CONAN: So there's just enough there so that they work just enough of the time so like one of Pavlov's rats, you keep pushing the button.

Ms. ASCHER: That's exactly right. And you keep hoping that you've hit the jackpot with one that actually works.

CONAN: If you'd like to join our conversation about how cities work--and again what we're talking about is what's been described by some people as the most boring word in the English language, `infrastructure.' Well, you look at Kate Ascher's book "The Works: Anatomy of a City" and you realize this is endlessly fascinating. Our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And again, if you're a city planner or involved in a city agency like this--doesn't have to be in New York City--give us a call. (800) 989-8255.

HANSEN: I have a question for you, having lived in New York. Neal and I had an apartment on 101st Street and we had steam heat. And as you write in your book, many buildings have steam heat in New York. And what I want to know is why do the radiators bang when the heat comes on?

Ms. ASCHER: You know, it's very interesting. That was one of the top 10 questions that I had when I set out to write this book. And it's very interesting. To get up to the various floors and tall buildings, the steam pipes have to do a series of turns and bends to come up through the various floors. And while gas can move through curvy pipes without any noise or any aftereffect, as steam moves through it can occasionally collect into water droplets, and the banging that you hear is often those water droplets, which are not able to gracefully make the curve in a pipe.

CONAN: Those are noisy droplets.

Ms. ASCHER: The are indeed, particularly about 5 in the morning, which is when you usually hear them.

HANSEN: How much steam heat is actually used in the city? How many buildings get their heat from steam heat?

Ms. ASCHER: There's a lot. A lot of the biggest complexes in New York--the Metropolitan Museum, Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, big complexes--tend to draw on the aggregated steam system provided by Con Edison. Some smaller buildings tie into it as well. A number of apartment buildings do; a number of dry cleaners do. But again, it's not available everywhere. It's primarily available in Manhattan below 96th Street.

HANSEN: In those buildings that have their own ZIP codes?

Ms. ASCHER: In many of those buildings, not all, but many of those buildings that have their own ZIP codes, that's right.

CONAN: It's such a mind-blowing--there are, by your count, I think, 44 buildings that have their own ZIP code in New York.

Ms. ASCHER: That's correct, which--you can imagine how many people must be located in that building to be able to sustain their own five digits.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. Again, if you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255. And the e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And we'll go to Carter. Carter's calling from Sacramento, California.

CARTER (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Carter, you're on the air. Hello, Carter?

CARTER: Hi. I'm from Sacramento, California, and I've got a question. What has changed in the infrastructure of New York City since 9/11?

Ms. ASCHER: What has changed since 9/11? Well, some things have been rebuilt. As you probably are aware, we had some telecommunications problems, we had some power problems and we had some subway problems. Most of that has been rebuilt. I wouldn't say that it's fundamentally changed in terms of the technology that underpins it. Some of it's been rebuilt with slightly greater security, the ability to withstand, you know, terrorist attacks in a more robust way. But the fundamental technology has remained the same.

HANSEN: It was actually September 11th and the destruction of the World Trade Center that started you on the process of writing this book, wasn't it? Because you got to see what it looked like inside? You...

Ms. ASCHER: I mean, that's absolutely right. I had worked at the World Trade Center site for about seven years, so I knew a lot of the--what the foundation looked like under the building and the slurry wall and the subways running through it. But what I was surprised by was the fact that nobody else did. So the newspapers were publishing graphic after graphic of what it looked like and what actually happened, and I thought, `Don't people know this?' And then of course I realized that they didn't. And I thought, `Wouldn't it be interesting to share some of what I know, and answer some of the questions that I had, in a very accessible way with a lot of people?'

HANSEN: We have an e-mail from Brian in Ferndale, Michigan. `It's my understanding that there are salt mines 1,200 feet below Detroit. Do you know anything about this or other mines deep below other cities?'

Ms. ASCHER: You know, I'll have to pass. I don't know anything about salt mines. There probably are, but I couldn't tell you much about them at all.

CONAN: In New York, the salt mines are above ground in those big office buildings. Most of us work at them. But there are these vaults just below the street that you write about where people used to store coal.

Ms. ASCHER: That's right. Actually, I lived in London for a while. We called them coal holes. Here they call them vaults. And if you walk along the street occasionally, you can see that sort of opaque glass in a grid form which is letting the light through to the vault below. They're actually under the sidewalk in many cases and they're technically owned by the city. But a lot of private owners who own the adjacent property actually do use them for a variety of things. As long as you can get light down there, they're pretty robust structures.

CONAN: And you get light down there--one way is through those, you know, it almost looks like, you know, a grid of glass prisms on the sidewalk that allow light to shine through.

Ms. ASCHER: That's true. And they actually use prismlike glass because it refracts and bends the light, so it actually can cover quite a distance underground. They have to be pretty robust, though, because people walk on them and stomp on them and drag trollies on them. So they have to meet certain engineering standards.

HANSEN: I want to talk a little bit about the subway in New York City 'cause it is an absolute marvel. I mean, you can get anywhere in the city for one price. We were able to take our kids to Coney Island, you know, for $1.50. Of course this was 20 years ago. But was the system initially designed for that, or was it kind of put together like LEGOs, one section at a time?

Ms. ASCHER: Well, the subway system that we know and love today as the state-run MTA system was actually a series of private railroads that were aggregated at one point in time earlier in the 20th century. The original line ran up Broadway and it was run by a private company. The next one that came along, which was the Brooklyn-Manhattan system, was also run by a private company. Over time, they ran into financial trouble and at some point in the first half of the 20th century, the municipality took them over, in fact, you know, integrated them as one system. And since then, each of the lines has been extended and rebuilt.

HANSEN: There's a fascinating chart in your book about the different letters and numbers that were assigned to these various subway lines at various times, and of course there's one real famous one. We all know to take the A train.

Our guest is Kate Ascher. She's the author of "The Works: Anatomy of a City." We're going to take a short break. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen.

This is the time of year when families get together, so we're following suit. My husband Neal Conan and I will be co-hosting TALK OF THE NATION this week, and we're glad that you can join us.

Today we're talking about the nuts and bolts of cities, literally. Our guest is Kate Ascher, author of "The Works: Anatomy of a City." And you're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

CONAN: And let's get another caller on the line. This is Ozair(ph)--I'm hoping I'm pronouncing that correctly--in San Jose, California.

OZAIR (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Yes...

OZAIR: Hi, Liane...


CONAN: Go ahead.

OZAIR: I have a question about the way they handle traffic lights in big cities.

CONAN: Badly is usually the answer.

OZAIR: Well, I've studied network engineering, so I know that the decisions you make on one thoroughfare are going to affect everything that feeds into it and everything that feeds out of it. So is that true for (technical difficulties)...

CONAN: Hello.

OZAIR: Yes, is that true for traffic also? And how do they make decisions about how to time the traffic lights at different times of day?

CONAN: How do they sync up the lights, Kate?

Ms. ASCHER: Well, the Traffic Management Center that's located out in Queens basically watches traffic patterns, and they'll go out and test it. So they know pretty much how many cars are going to come through various intersections at various times during the day. They have sophisticated models, some of which you may be familiar with, that actually tell them how to program the lights along an avenue or on a street. And if for some reason things are getting out of sync because traffic's building up more than it should, they'll go out and do another traffic count and adjust them accordingly.

CONAN: I was fascinated to read your account of changes on Queens Boulevard, which is a major thoroughfare through that borough, and I used to live there at one time. And it was worth your life to try to cross Queens Boulevard...

Ms. ASCHER: Right.

CONAN: ...as a pedestrian. And there's all kinds of strange technology that they're developing to make those crossings safer.

Ms. ASCHER: That's right. I mean, some of the things are simple, like just better signage, but there are special pedestrian refuge areas now where you can go halfway across the street and you can wait until the light's appropriate for you to cross. There's what they call neck-downs, which are when the sidewalk extends into the street so the cars actually have to slow down at certain intersections so that you have a chance of getting across with your life. There's a whole array of traffic management and traffic-calming, is what they call it, traffic-calming techniques that they can employ.

HANSEN: Do the same people that work on the traffic lights and the flow of traffic also work on the traffic on the bridges and the tunnels?

Ms. ASCHER: Well, in some cases, yes. The Department of Transportation of the city, who monitors the streetlights in the city, does do some of the city's bridges, many of them. The bridges across the East River, for instance, or the Harlem River, are all city bridges. The bridges across the Hudson River, the bridges and tunnels, the Holland, the Lincoln, the George Washington Bridge are actually bistate. So the Port Authority of New York or New Jersey manages those bridges.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the George Washington Bridge. I mean, what we see now is not what was planned. Explain.

Ms. ASCHER: That is one of my favorite stories in the book. And--not because the George Washington Bridge is one of my favorite bridges in the world, but initially the bridge was built to be clad in stone so that the towers that we see, the two towers, were to have an ornate, you know, concrete finish. The skeleton that we see was of course the underbelly of that. And right about Depression time, the skeleton was up, the cladding was off, and the Port Authority decided that they would postpone putting the cladding on to save a little bit of money, and then looked at the bridge and decided that the bridge was absolutely beautiful as it was and that they could bring the project in on budget at $60 million. And so they decided to completely forgo the cladding forever, much to most New Yorkers' great delight.

CONAN: Which is why it still looks like an Erector Set. So...

Ms. ASCHER: That's right.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Maggie. Maggie's calling from Memphis.

MAGGIE (Caller): Hi. Yeah. I had a question about the George Washington Bridge. I'm not sure if that was the question you just answered.

CONAN: Well, go ahead, Maggie.

MAGGIE: We lived there just opposite of George Washington Bridge on Riverside Drive there about seven years ago. And they were doing a lot of work on the bridge then and there was scaffolding, but I was thinking that it was completed. But when we were there just this past July, I noticed that it had scaffolding all over it again, and I was wondering what they were doing.

Ms. ASCHER: Basically, they're repainting the bridge.


Ms. ASCHER: And it is a long, laborious process because they have to blast the paint off and repaint it. And so what you've seen is each of the towers in turn has been wrapped almost surgically so that all the debris from the painting...

MAGGIE: Yeah, that bridge is completely covered. Yeah.

Ms. ASCHER: That's correct. It almost looks like a big bandage. And it went up on one side and now it's gone up on the other side. It's a very long process, repainting a bridge, but it's necessary for maintenance.

MAGGIE: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks, Maggie.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about the tunnels. I was surprised to hear--what is it? The Holland Tunnel, after two days, the walls are black because of truck exhausts and they need to be cleaned? And tell us how they get cleaned.

Ms. ASCHER: They do. They get black very fast. The tunnel is actually--it's not terribly high, so the ceiling tiles are fairly low. And there's a lot of truck traffic that goes through there. So the fumes really do mount up. They have a toothbrush truck, as some people refer to it, that goes through there generally in the evenings and it does it three or four times a week. And it literally scrubs the tiles. It has a rotating arm, it's a bit like a toothbrush, and it scrubs the tiles primarily with water--it doesn't use a lot of chemicals generally, just with water--to get the grease and the grime off it. And if you're going through the tunnel at midnight sometime, you are generally stuck in traffic because one lane is often closed for the toothbrush truck to be slowly moving through the tunnel.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Boris. Boris--excuse me, Doris. Doris is calling from Denver.

DORIS (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Fine, thanks.

DORIS: Good. I have a question about the address system in Manhattan. If you're looking for a street address--and I lived there 22 years and I never knew how this worked--depending what avenue you're on, you drop the last number of the address and then divide it by two and then add or subtract a number. How did that get--how did they come up with that?

Ms. ASCHER: You know, I don't know. It's actually a brilliant system when you know how it works because you can find a cross street for almost any address if you know it.

DORIS: Right.

Ms. ASCHER: And I'm honestly not sure who came up with that system, but it is quite a clever system. You just have to understand how it works for it to be of any help.

CONAN: You know, there are less clever systems that also work. If you're at 14th Street, it would be the 1400 block.

Ms. ASCHER: That's correct. That's correct.

CONAN: OK. Yeah. OK.

Doris, thanks very much for the call.

DORIS: Thank you. Bye-bye.

HANSEN: We have an e-mail from Paul Tucoshy(ph)--I hope I'm pronouncing your name correctly--in Davis, California. I think is verging on the area of urban myth. `Kate, if you flush an amphibian or a fish down the toilet, is there any chance at all that it will survive and live in the sewer system?'

Ms. ASCHER: Jeez. You know, I don't know. My guess is that some hardier ones maybe could. Up to what point, I don't know. But eventually, they're going to go into a big sewer tank somewhere and probably could not survive the processing of sewage, which is really now what we do. It used to be that got flushed out right into the river, but now we actually process it into sludge. And my guess is that that's not a very pretty process to live through.

HANSEN: Where does the sludge go?

Ms. ASCHER: The sludge itself, once it's produced at the various sludge-processing facilities, goes to a pelletization plant. Most of New York's sludge goes to a pelletization plant in Hunts Point in the Bronx and it actually gets heated up and turned into these pellets that are put into silos, stacked on rail cars, and an awful lot of them go down to fertilize orange groves in Florida.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Terri(ph). And Terri's calling from Spearfish, South Dakota, which is, depending on how you look at it, either a suburb of Deadwood or Deadwood's a suburb of Spearfish, isn't that right, Terri?

TERRI (Caller): That pretty much sums it up.

CONAN: All right.

TERRI: I'm kind of looking at the urban myths of a lot of these things. What I'm interested in, Kate, is how you started your research to find out these things. Deadwood has a lot of myths about what's underneath it, and I've seen a fair amount of that. Another city that I've lived in that I've seen a lot of urban myths about is Idaho Falls, Idaho. How do you research to find out what really is and really isn't real about what's underneath the city? Because I find it fascinating.

Ms. ASCHER: Well, there's two ways to do it. The first way in this day and age is just go on the Internet and read everything you can about whatever myth it is that you're investigating.


Ms. ASCHER: But by far the more reliable method is actually talking to some of the often engineers, sometimes just civil servants who've been working in that field, 'cause these folks, some of whom are still working, some of whom are retired, really know what is and isn't true about what lies under the surface. You can really mine them...

TERRI: Well, I've been underneath Deadwood and it's fascinating what's underneath there.

CONAN: What is underneath there, other than Wild Bill and Calamity Jane?

TERRI: Well, there are fountains. There was a huge spa that has imported Italian marble that is five feet wide by 12 feet high. All of the city is interconnected. Underneath are the Chinese opium dens. I mean, it's fascinating.

CONAN: I was in Deadwood a couple of months ago and it looks like I missed the most interesting parts.

TERRI: Get a hold of the historical preservation people.

CONAN: I'll check it out next time in Deadwood, Terri.

TERRI: Thank you all very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.


HANSEN: Kate, I wanted to ask you a little bit--we were talking about sludge, but garbage is obviously a big deal in New York City. And you actually write that there was a system of recycling in the early 20th century. How did it work and what happened to it?

Ms. ASCHER: There was. It was actually operable for about 15 years or more, believe it or not. And there was a fellow named George Waring who was in charge of the sanitation department and he believed that everybody should recycle. He had households source separate organics, which is, you know, animal products. They had to separate out their ash, which went to a landfill. The organics were recycled as fertilizer. And then he had paper and other sorts of goods which were actually burned in a municipal incinerator that actually gave off energy. So it was a very sophisticated system and it operated just up until about the First World War when, for whatever practical reasons, it was done away with, not to reappear for a good 75 or 80 years.

HANSEN: Let's talk to Celeste(ph). Celeste is calling from San Francisco.

CELESTE (Caller): Hi.


CELESTE: My question is similar to Terri's, I think. I'm from San Francisco. We have a lot of landfill that's shipped and things that have been recycled. I wondered about the historical digs that might come up as buildings are being built.

CONAN: Sure. We read a few years about the discovery of the slave cemetery that was discovered downtown when they were excavating for construction.

CELESTE: So I was just wondering whether buildings needed to be stopped, whether there--and what sort of thing--what's the oldest thing that was dug up?

CONAN: Kate, do you know?

Ms. ASCHER: I don't know. I am familiar with the African burial ground, which is the project in Lower Manhattan that actually did discover, you know, a slave burial ground. And when things like that are discovered, work does stop and all the archaeologists are brought in and everybody, except the builder generally, is very pleased, you know, to find these important historical relics. There are still some being found, many in Lower Manhattan, because that was always the heart of, you know, urban civilization for the city. But it doesn't happen all that often.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Bill in Milwaukee--and thanks for the call, Celeste, by the way. This is--`Is the New York City aqueduct system depicted in the third "Die Hard" movie for real, and if so, how big is it and what's its current status? This must be a huge construction project. How come we don't hear more about it?'

Ms. ASCHER: I think there might be a couple of questions in there. I didn't see the third "Die Hard" movie, so I can't speak to...

CONAN: Oh, it's in 3-D. It was good--no, I'm just kidding.

Ms. ASCHER: I was busy writing the book so I didn't get time to see it. There is a massive reservoir and aqueduct system which supplies about 1.3 billion gallons of water to New York City and the surrounding region. It's a century-old system that works primarily on gravity. It was built essentially in three tranches. There's the Catskill area and two other areas that actually supply all of the city's water primarily by rainfall, and it involves dozens of reservoirs, long aqueducts and comes into reservoirs right near the city--one in Yonkers and on in the Bronx. And from there the water comes through a variety of tunnels.

What I think the e-mail might be referring to is the third water tunnel, which is a very big construction project which is under way currently to supplement the two larger water tunnels that actually run under the city to bring this water to the various homes and businesses.

CONAN: We're talking with Kate Ascher. She's the author of "The Works: Anatomy of a City."

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's talk now with Larry. Larry's calling from Memphis.

LARRY (Caller): Yes. I've been fascinated with old movies and things like that. There was a show one time that had a civilization living under New York City. It was myth--you know, a fictional story type stuff. But I was just wondering you didn't see like abandoned railroad stations and natural caves and stuff in these movies. Is any of that true?

Ms. ASCHER: Natural caves are something I'm not that familiar with. You do find a number of abandoned pipes, tunnels--all sorts. In the book we show the location of some of the abandoned subway stations and platforms. There are certainly pipes that have been abandoned that used to carry water and other things and new generations of pipes have been laid and many of the old ones are still there. So it's very possible that there are lots of abandoned sites under New York. How many of them are actual natural I'm not sure. I think an awful lot of them were manmade at one time.

LARRY: I just wonder if anybody's ever thought of making a tour down there.

CONAN: Larry, I think you've figured out a new career for yourself. Thanks very much for the call.

LARRY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And let's go to Annie. Annie's calling from Connecticut.

ANNIE (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Hi, Annie.


CONAN: Go ahead. You're on the radio.

ANNIE: Why do they have water towers on apartment buildings in New York?

CONAN: Kate Ascher, why do they have water towers on top of the buildings in New York?

Ms. ASCHER: That is such a great question. They're very distinctly New York, and there's a lot of them, about 10 or 15,000 of them. New York City is a gravity-fed system so the water can only naturally rise to about the sixth floor or 60 feet high. The water tunnels--water is pumped up electronically to the tanks on the top of some of these buildings so that if for some reason electricity is lost water pressure can flow naturally down from the top of these buildings and bring water to all the businesses that need it.

CONAN: And that gravity feed is why all those walk-ups in New York City are five or six stories tall.

Ms. ASCHER: That's exactly right.

HANSEN: Annie, how old are you?

ANNIE: Eight.

HANSEN: You're eight. Do you visit New York City often?

ANNIE: I visit out...

HANSEN: You did what?

ANNIE: I visit two, three times a year.

HANSEN: Oh, you visit it three times a year and you've always wondered about the water towers. Well, what a great question. That's a lot, Annie.

ANNIE: Thanks.

HANSEN: OK. Bye-bye. Kate, I wanted to ask you. There are obviously some systems that don't exist anymore, and there was one wonderful one called the pneumatic tube system. I mean, this was a system of mail delivery that ended in 1953, but how nifty is this. It was vacuum tubes, yeah?

Ms. ASCHER: It was vacuum tubes, and it was a network that stretched all the way from basically the Battery up to the northern tip of Manhattan, and about a third of the mail that went through the general post office at Harold Square actually got sent out by pneumatic tube to different post offices all around the city. Took maybe four minutes to get across from Harold Square to Times Square, maybe 10 minutes to get up to the post office at the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. And it was--the letters were put in a small canister. The pipe was greased with oil to let the middle canister flow through. And basically a vacuum sucked the canister through with anywhere up to 500 letters at a time would be moving through the system.

CONAN: One of the weird things about that system, and I love pneumatic tubes, but the first subway system that was tried and built in New York--I did a story about this years and years ago when I was working at NPR's New York bureau--was a pneumatic subway.

Ms. ASCHER: That's exactly right. The first subway, which was actually built in stealth and then unveiled, was actually blown--the subway car was essentially blown or pulled from one station under Broadway from about Warren Street to Cedar Street, and it didn't go very far but there was about 400,000 people that rode that subway in the few years it was in existence. I think that was about 1870.

CONAN: We're going to continue our discussion on the "Anatomy of a City" with Kate Ascher and her book "The Works" after we take a short break. Then we'll talk about the layoffs at General Motors and what they will mean for the workers who will be losing their jobs. And we'll have your letters about the program we did last week with Howard Dully after we broadcast NPR's "All Things Considered" broadcast his radio documentary "My Lobotomy." That's after the break. If you'd like to join the conversation, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

HANSEN: And I'm Liane Hansen.

Tomorrow on this program, singer and storyteller Bill Harley joins us. His unique view of the world speaks to adults and kids and we're going to hear now he does it.

CONAN: And how we're going to continue our conversation with Kate Ascher. She's the author of a new book, "The Works: Anatomy of a City." And let's get another caller on the line. This is Roy. And Roy's calling us from Salt Like City in Utah.

ROY (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Kate. I've got a couple of sort of interrelated questions for you concerning the Brooklyn Bridge. I'm reading David McCullough's book right now and his questions that have popped into my mind are sort of along the lines: How is the city doing long-term monitoring of things like the anchor cables that go into the anchorage? Or actually, the cables themselves, to just check for corrosion and just aging of these things as--I'll leave it at that at the moment.


Ms. ASCHER: Well, there's actually--you'll enjoy--there's at least a two-page section in the book that talks about how you maintain bridges because I was always fascinated by that question too. I, A, wanted to know that somebody was doing it...

ROY: Yeah.

Ms. ASCHER: ...and then, B, wanted to know how it was done. And there is a regular program of maintenance of all the bridges, including the Brooklyn Bridge. There are special tools and machines that actually travel the length of the bridge, and then there are special techniques that essentially rely on sound and hammering and, you know, various other things to basically ensure the integrity of the bridge. There's a flag system when there is a defect that's found, so that the important defects are remedied straight away, and the defects that are more roadway and not structural can be dealt with subsequently. So there's a very sophisticated system for ensuring bridge integrity, which I was very happy to find out about.

CONAN: Is there a sell-by date on the Brooklyn Bridge? You know, use before?

Ms. ASCHER: Well, the interesting thing about bridges--and the Brooklyn Bridge isn't different from any others--is the more you maintain them the longer they can live. And one of the questions has always been how do you find the money to maintain city bridges. One of the things the Port Authority's always been to do because of their funding source is spend a lot of money maintaining their bridges, and the city has wanted for years to try to find a dedicated way to support its bridges. But it does the best it can and uses a pretty sophisticated system. The more--the longer you maintain it, the longer it will last.

CONAN: Roy, thanks very much.

ROY: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

HANSEN: Some of the systems are very, very old in the city. Can they sustain?

Ms. ASCHER: You know, the interesting thing that I found in researching this book is that some of the most robust systems in this city are the oldest, so when you look at something like the subway, you look at something like the water system and you realize how far-sighted people were who originally engineered these systems. And even though there's constantly improvements being made to both and new pipes and, you know, holes being plugged and new subway cars and new signals, the basic technology hasn't changed much. And my guess is that these systems will be around pretty much as they are for some time into the future.

CONAN: Yet they're always adding new systems. I mean, in that wild tangle of pipes and conduits beneath the streets of the city, obviously things like, you know, fiber-optic cable had to be added over the past few years.

Ms. ASCHER: That's exactly right, and when you open up a street it's really a scary thing. I don't know how many folks have had a chance to walk through an open cut in a New York City street, and you wonder who really does know where all of these pipes and cables are going. The interesting thing is that some of them are absolutely defunct. Some of them are still working. So it really does layer pipes and cables upon pipes and cables, and there are some new technologies. But the core systems are pretty much there.

CONAN: See if we can get another caller in. This is Patricia. Patricia, calling from Monroe, Michigan.

PATRICIA (Caller): Yes. Here I am. I've never been able to find anybody, even New Yorkers, who can tell me why New York is called The Big Apple.

CONAN: I'm not sure that's an infrastructure question, but, Kate...


CONAN: ...Ascher, do you know?

Ms. ASCHER: I actually don't know, and it didn't come up in my research, I'm sorry to say.

PATRICIA: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the question, Patricia. Maybe we'll get--a listener can e-mail in an answer or maybe make one up. We'll check it out anyway. Thanks very much, Patricia.

Let's see if we can get Ken on the line. Ken's calling from Traverse City in Michigan.

KEN (Caller): Hello. Kate and Liane, I have an answer to your question regarding the salt mines in Detroit.


Ms. ASCHER: Oh, great.

KEN: I've actually been down in those salt mines. They have been there over a hundred years. They were used originally, of course, to produce both table salt and salt for the highways in the wintertime. As the need for that expanded beyond the capacity of that mine, they shut them down and now they use them for storing documents. It's a very safe place, it's very dry and very good to your health to be down there.

Ms. ASCHER: Interesting.

HANSEN: Fascinating.

CONAN: If there's all that salt there, how come the lake nearby is fresh and not salt--well, anyway, I don't know, Ken.

KEN: Actually that is a problem. Salt runoff from the streets of all cities is a problem for pollution. It certainly is in Detroit as well.

CONAN: OK, Ken. Thanks very much for the call.

KEN: You're welcome.

CONAN: And, Kate Ascher, thank you very much for joining us today.

Ms. ASCHER: Oh, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Kate Ascher is author of "The Words: Anatomy of a City." She's executive vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation and she joined us from our bureau in New York.

When we come back, well, more problems for Detroit that don't involve salt mines. They involve layoffs.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.