Williams Tower, Houston, Texas
Williams Tower, Houston, Texas














by JOHN H. LIENHARD
CITIES AND THEIR SECRETS


A steel ape taunts passers-by in an art park near Houston A steel ape taunts passers-by in an art park near Houston



Do you have any secrets you donít want me to know? Silly I should even ask; of course you do. That goes with having a history. And, since cities are living sentient creatures that have histories, they too harbor secrets.

Years ago I read about Brasilia, the planned capital city of Brazil, built in the late 1950s. In its early days, Brazilians didn't want to move there, because it was all clean and out in the open — no dark corners, no secret places, no surprises.

After 174 years, Houston teems with surprises. Now and then we go out just to turn over stones. We find parks we'd never seen, the downtown underground, industrial back lots, wild ostentation almost hidden from view, abandoned factories ... A city is no city without those places.

Few cities have accumulated as many secrets as New York. Stanley Greenberg's book, Invisible New York, provides a stunning look at its hidden warrens. He takes us into dank underground chambers we never knew were there. We see great rooms with bundles of cables being split off from a huge main bundle. These are where suspension cables of the Brooklyn or Verrazano-Narrows Bridges are grasped and held within the earth. They are unwound, and small clumps of cables are anchored separately, distributing the enormous tension of the cable into the ground.

Here's a forgotten catacomb that provided access while the Brooklyn Bridge was being built. Then it served for years as a wine-merchant's storage vault. An old subway tunnel couldn't accommodate newer trains, so it was abandoned. Now its mosaic ceiling looks like Neolithic cave painting.

We enter the hidden catwalk above the Grand Central Station gallery, the attic over the roof of St. John The Divine Cathedral. In Con Edison's huge main turbine bay, one turbine generates a full gigawatt — power enough to supply ten million light bulbs.

A statue in Houston, Texas Finally we see what Shakespeare called "this muddy vesture of decay" — the city's worn-out clothing. Roosevelt Island Lunatic Asylum, built in 1839, is a mad multistoried octagonal building, falling into disrepair. Old wreckage lines New York's waterfront: tangled metal of piers destroyed by fire, an abandoned dry dock, remains of an old barge terminal. It is a Mad Hatter's tea party of a place — elements left behind as they're replaced.

And we realize that we aren't really part of a place until we know its secret places. Each is a mystic nexus where the seam between present and history, for a moment, becomes visible to us.

By the way, every city has one secret place thatís a surprise because it lies right under our feet. Do you know David Macaulay's picture books on technology? The books Castle and Cathedral show us how those two great glories of medieval architecture were made. The fine pictures in How Things Work explain everything from pumps to radios. Then thereís his book Underground.

Here he invents a typical urban street corner and asks what lies below. To find out, we go down a hundred feet and gaze up through transparent dirt at every man-made thing above us. What we see is astonishing. Just under the surface, run telephone conduits and electric power ducts. Further down are gas lines, low-pressure domestic water, high-pressure water for fire-fighting. Further down yet are sewage lines, then storm drains.

A cooling system creates an unexpected space A cooling system creates an unexpected space in Houston, Texas

Macaulay shows us the ideal layout of all those lines. Then he shows the ugly tangle that usually builds up as real cities grow. Deeper still, are the big building foundations. And, below foundations, mains, piling, and all else run subway tunnels, linked to the surface only by long ventilation shafts.

So to create a shining city above, weíve had to shape a second invisible city below. Without it, the city above simply could not be. This second city under the earth is astonishing. And most of us don't even know it's there.

In the words of our favorite sleuth, Guy Noir, every city is ďa city that knows how to keep its secrets.Ē Well, those secrets are just one more of the many exquisitely human facets of any city we live in.


Sources:

S. Greenberg, Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.)

D. Macaulay, Underground. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1976).

D. Macaulay, Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1973).

D. Macaulay, Castle, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977).

D. Macaulay, The Way Things Work. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1988).

D. Macaulay, City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974).

Images: All photos taken by John H. Lienhard.

Also see Episodes 1441 and 850.





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