The Secret Infrastructure Beneath NYC

September 17, 2019

Above ground, it's a concrete jungle - centuries of buildings of all different shapes and kinds. But what about underground? We take you on a journey deep under the island of Manhattan to explore what lies below the biggest city in America.


FEMALE_1: New York's legendary skyline

FEMALE_1: gets its fair share of attention,

FEMALE_1: but what happens if you go 600 feet underground?


FEMALE_1: Let's start digging. In your first scoop,

FEMALE_1: you'll cut through three inches of asphalt.

FEMALE_1: Then you'd hit 10 inches, of course, concrete.

FEMALE_1: Out a foot, you'll see a thin layer of

FEMALE_1: absorbent soil that catches

FEMALE_1: all the stuff that runs off the street.

FEMALE_1: At 15 inches are all the wires;

FEMALE_1: telephone, electric, cable TV,

FEMALE_1: etc, all covered in casing and

FEMALE_1: buried underneath or close to street curbs.

FEMALE_1: At two feet, gas lines,

FEMALE_1: funnel fuel across the city.

FEMALE_1: They're all kept track of by

FEMALE_1: Con Ed with very detailed maps.

FEMALE_1: At four feet deep,

FEMALE_1: water mains bring in water from

FEMALE_1: the Catskill and Delaware watersheds

FEMALE_1: and the Croton Reservoir in upstate New York.

FEMALE_1: Sharing terrain with the water mains are

FEMALE_1: the first of the oddities under New York.

FEMALE_1: There are a series of pneumonic mail tubes,

FEMALE_1: criscrossing the city from Bowling Green to Harlem.

FEMALE_1: First bill in 1897,

FEMALE_1: each tube could transport letters 35 miles an hour.

FEMALE_1: And they shot letters into

FEMALE_1: post offices and office buildings.

FEMALE_1: For some reason, its inventor

FEMALE_1: decided to test it by shooting

FEMALE_1: a black cat in a carrier through

FEMALE_1: its tubes, for reasons unknown.

FEMALE_1: At its height, the pneumonic tubes

FEMALE_1: covered a 27 mile route,

FEMALE_1: connecting 23 post offices.

FEMALE_1: It was at least semi operational until

FEMALE_1: 1953. A quick note.

FEMALE_1: New York City consists of five boroughs,

FEMALE_1: totaling around 300 square miles

FEMALE_1: with varying population densities.

FEMALE_1: So what's underneath them varies a lot.

FEMALE_1: So in this scenario,

FEMALE_1: we're going to be talking about what's

FEMALE_1: underneath the island of Manhattan.

FEMALE_1: Six feet deep are

FEMALE_1: the steam pipes used to heat and cool buildings.

FEMALE_1: Qana didn't stop covering them and asbestos until 1975.

FEMALE_1: It was the most effective insulant of the day.

FEMALE_1: And all that asbestos is

FEMALE_1: still there on the outside of the pipes.

FEMALE_1: Officials think that removing it would cause

FEMALE_1: a huge release of asbestos into the air.

FEMALE_1: So it's only removed if

FEMALE_1: that part of the steam pipe needs to be replaced.

FEMALE_1: It's not leaching into the steam.

FEMALE_1: So Qana is in no rush.

FEMALE_1: Also, at six feet deep at

FEMALE_1: the intersection of Bowery and Canal Street,

FEMALE_1: engineers stumbled across a small,

FEMALE_1: boarded up room with its walls

FEMALE_1: and ceiling covered in mirrors.

FEMALE_1: No explanation has ever been found.

FEMALE_1: At seven feet deep,

FEMALE_1: you'll start to find the sewage pipes.

FEMALE_1: They're generally installed around

FEMALE_1: the vaults of subway tunnels.

FEMALE_1: Both the sewage pipes and

FEMALE_1: the subway vaults vary in depth around the city.

FEMALE_1: But seven feet is an average depth.

FEMALE_1: The depth of subway tunnels varies

FEMALE_1: around the city from a few feet deep around

FEMALE_1: the Lexington Avenue stops to

FEMALE_1: 180 feet below ground at the 191st street station.

FEMALE_1: There are 840 miles of track in

FEMALE_1: the whole system and 472 subway stations.

FEMALE_1: That's not even including all the

FEMALE_1: abandoned and forgotten subway platforms,

FEMALE_1: which you can take a tour of with the MTA.

FEMALE_1: At 15 feet deep,

FEMALE_1: archaeologists found a shipwrecked boat

FEMALE_1: in the mud under Broad Street,

FEMALE_1: which used to be shallow water.

FEMALE_1: It's been dated to the late 1600s and is

FEMALE_1: 92 feet long and 25 feet wide.

FEMALE_1: You can imagine the archaeologists surprise when they

FEMALE_1: uncovered the massive relatively whole boat.

FEMALE_1: At 20 feet deep,

FEMALE_1: you can find a warren of tunnels under Chinatown.

FEMALE_1: These tunnels were the site of

FEMALE_1: Chinese gang wars in the late 1800s.


FEMALE_2: Herbert Asbury, a journalist and

FEMALE_2: true crime writer who wrote The Gangs of New York,

FEMALE_2: says that Al Capone used these tunnels to transport

FEMALE_2: bootleg liquor and do other more unsavory things.

FEMALE_2: At 50 feet deep on the Lower East Side,

FEMALE_2: you'll find a few hundred feet of

FEMALE_2: highway built in the 1960s.

FEMALE_2: The tunnel is six lanes wide and was the start of

FEMALE_2: the abandoned Lower East Side Express project, or Lomax.

FEMALE_2: Lomax was vastly unpopular and slated to be

FEMALE_2: wildly expensive to the tune of $72 million.

FEMALE_2: It would have fully destroyed a big part of Soho,

FEMALE_2: which at the time was not the luxury area it is now.

FEMALE_2: Bob Dylan wrote a song protesting it.

FEMALE_2: Now it's boarded up and mainly forgotten.

FEMALE_2: At 600 feet deep,

FEMALE_2: going down to 800 feet,

FEMALE_2: you'll find New York's water tunnels.

FEMALE_2: These are the main conduits for clean water to the city.

FEMALE_2: Coming from upstate New York,

FEMALE_2: water tunnels one and two,

FEMALE_2: which were both completed by 1935 are 24 feet across.

FEMALE_2: Water tunnel number three is being built right now and is

FEMALE_2: the largest capital construction project

FEMALE_2: in New York City history.

FEMALE_2: It's being built so that water tunnels one and

FEMALE_2: two can be closed for repairs,

FEMALE_2: something that has essentially never happened.

FEMALE_2: Construction on water tunnel number three began in

FEMALE_2: 1970 and is still going on today.

FEMALE_2: Workers who call themselves

FEMALE_2: sand hogs have been hundreds of feet

FEMALE_2: underground digging this tunnel for the past 50 years.

FEMALE_2: This is just a general outline,

FEMALE_2: and all these things vary in

FEMALE_2: depth depending on where they are in Manhattan.

FEMALE_2: It's somewhat of a mystery as to where things actually

FEMALE_2: are underground and that's a big issue.

FEMALE_2: When construction below ground occurs,

FEMALE_2: city officials have to call in someone from each

FEMALE_2: of the major agencies for electricity,

FEMALE_2: sewage and water to tell

FEMALE_2: them where each different kind of pipe is.

FEMALE_2: There's no consolidated method.

FEMALE_2: It's been called a spaghetti bowl of utilities.

FEMALE_2: That leaves a lot of room for error.

FEMALE_2: And there's so many stories of

FEMALE_2: workers sending a shovel straight through

FEMALE_2: a gas line or jack hammering through a

FEMALE_2: water main because they have no idea it's there.

FEMALE_2: These mistakes cost the city 300 million dollars a year.

FEMALE_2: People like Allan Lightner,

FEMALE_2: a homeland security consultant, and Wendy Dorf,

FEMALE_2: a government worker, have tried to create a map of

FEMALE_2: the New York City underground with

FEMALE_2: all of its pipes and oddities.

FEMALE_2: But their plan hasn't come to fruition.

FEMALE_2: During the 9/11 attacks a

FEMALE_2: Con Ed worker looking at the underground maps

FEMALE_2: noticed there was a 20,000

FEMALE_2: gallon tank of freon under the towers.

FEMALE_2: Not only does freon explode,

FEMALE_2: it also releases highly toxic gas called phosgene.

FEMALE_2: Thankfully, the fires didn't

FEMALE_2: reach the tank and it didn't explode.

FEMALE_2: While Lightner and Dorf thought that this

FEMALE_2: would secure Con Ed support,

FEMALE_2: Con Ed actually pulled funding, citing security concerns.

FEMALE_2: In 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit,

FEMALE_2: the electrical substation at East 13th Street containing

FEMALE_2: the transformers for everything below

FEMALE_2: 34th Street was in flood zone.

FEMALE_2: The aftermath, a three day blackout,

FEMALE_2: including two hospitals

FEMALE_2: whose backup generators failed because,

FEMALE_2: you guessed it, they were in

FEMALE_2: basements that were also in flood zone.

FEMALE_2: So maybe don't just start

FEMALE_2: digging willy nilly on a random sidewalk.

FEMALE_2: You could hit something dangerous.

FEMALE_2: We should leave it to the professionals

FEMALE_2: and maybe start funding that map.