A New Yorker’s Geopolitical Water and Strategic Infrastructure Investigation for Post-Pandemic.

Water is the next world oil, and the tank is the beacon of the current situation. Rooftop view near Hell’s kitchen area, Resource: Scott B. Smith.

The intention of this project is to investigate the stake of public health and the history of the NYC water supply system in order to better understand our city in the post-pandemic period. The research takes the water tank as a medium to explore, and inquires about the most fundamental need in the city. Mapping, questioning, and revealing our current water supply system, it responds to today’s critical challenge. The research speculates the city landmark and architectural typology for our urban skyline. This will serve as the base to further assist building environmental justice and adjustment to extreme climate change

The drinking water supply for offices of the New York City Department of Sanitation doesn’t even have a roof – just a tattered tarp. ( Frank G. Runyeon )

Drinking-Water & City Law

In Manhattan, there are approximately 20,000 tanks existing, both for new-build luxury apartments and pre-war commercial buildings. Nine millions New Yorkers rely on the tanks daily. From morning coffee to home-cooked dinner, we might picture that this vital human needs to be monitored and well-maintained. Tanks are normally exposed on the rooftop, which is easily neglected, and vulnerable to contamination by animals and insects carrying pathogens. Further research indicates the handwritten reports of pollutants inside the damaged tanks, yet such conditions were omitted from inspection filings to the authorities. Another finds Ecoli, coliform, and viruses at the bottom sediment, it was then certified as being in perfect condition by an authorized inspector. Ironically, the water quality monitoring mechanism includes monitoring reports of illnesses at hospitals and sales of antidiarrheal drugs at pharmacies. The city has little knowledge of the current condition, and do not inspect test nor study drinking water. In April 2019, the Water Tank Law eventually passed, but it’s based on tampered documents, false inspection agency, and the punishment to the landlord was barely executed. This urgent issue evidently requires more pressing attention in such unforeseen pandemic times.

Left: Draining the water from the tank, Resources: nytimes
Right: Dead mouse found inside the tank, Resource: nytimes
The current condition near 55th street and 5th avenue.
Profile and Ground Plan of the Lower Part of the Old Croton Aqueduct, by John B. Jervis (1843), From the collection of John B. Jervis drawings at the Jervis Public Library.

Wood & Croton Aqueduct

Although the authority fails to govern our basic needs, Company Rosenwach and Isseks Brothers surely know how to maintain a tank to last 35 years. These two companies are responsible for 20,000 tanks across 5 boroughs. In the early 20th century, as buildings grew taller, this gravity-driven infrastructure would need an upgrade, hence the building higher than 7th floor would require installing a rooftop water tank and a pump. (6 floors is the same level to the  source reservoir) The tank is made with yellow cedar and redwood sourced from nearby logging camps, as the nature of wood would better fit the environment at a similar latitude. To fulfill a 10,000-gallon tank would need 3 hours, but it would take 48 hours to transport the water from 200 miles distant Catskill and Delaware watersheds. These unfiltered surface water are collected from a total of 1,972 square miles, including 22 reservoirs. The tanks are the agency of water resources, significantly extended from mountains and hills, they reflect the environment status faraway.

Map of the route of the New Croton Aqueduct, present aqueduct and Bronx River pipe line also the watersheds of the Croton, Bronx and Byram rivers, by Benjamin Silliman Church (1887)
Section of the New Croton Aqueduct, which buried under 625 feet (190 Meters) lower than the ground surface, gravity-driven system level the water from Croton Lake to Wallstreet.

The system is extremely vulnerable, the water storage facility is widely neglected. After Covid-19, how to best engage these delicate and political issues? What have we learned from waterborne disease outbreaks in Gideon, Missouri, and Alamosa? To what extent could typologies of the tank and iconic architecture can be reimaging social participation? Each of the tanks reveals and map out the original topography hundreds ago, that geography and political struggle when the first western immigrant arrived. 

This initiative began in 2018, I interviewed Ronnie Farley when I was a freelance journalist at the World Architecture. She published a book, which thoroughly documented the tanks over the years. Between 2018 – 2020, I also conducted research field trips of the Croton Facilities; Keeper’s House, Croton Dam, Harlem Gatehouse, Croton Gatehouse, Croton Point Nature Center. The project will begin with a series of mappings to disclose current material and political conditions. It will then piece together the research outcome through documentation and drawing. Through the juxtaposition and synthesis of scientific data, observational analysis, and geographical research, the project aims to curate an online exhibition to raise public voice, potentially parallel to an installation project.