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Journal of Policy History 14.3 (2002) 343-348

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The Peculiar Savagery of the Engineered City

Alan Lessoff

Gerard T. Koeppel. Water for Gotham: A History. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). Pp. xvi, 355. $29.95.
Martin V. Melosi. The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Pp. xiv, 578. $59.95.

"Nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water," recorded diarist Philip Hone of the famous aqueduct's completion, celebrated by an estimated quarter million people on 14 October 1842. The "universal note" of "Water! water!" Hone continued, "infuses joy and exaltation into the masses." To Lydia Maria Child, the fountain constructed for the occasion in Union Square "weeps for joy" (Koeppel, 280-81). New Yorkers had reason for the "joy" described by Child and Hone. The mechanisms of death remained unclear, but residents of Manhattan—bound by saltwater and plagued by epidemics—knew that their fetid outhouses, brackish wells, and feckless private water company killed thousands at regular intervals. Yet even in less desperate cities, nineteenth-century public works history is replete with fountains and towers, fancy ironwork, Latin inscriptions, parades, speeches, and songs. Beyond the period's effusive public style, urban dwellers 150 years ago understood powerfully that clean water, drained streets, and collected garbage would make life better but were difficult to obtain.

Nowadays, urban dwellers treat as unremarkable engineering marvels more astonishing than Croton. These two books, one an accessible account by a journalist of New York's early water supply, [End Page 343] the other a comprehensive overview of sanitary services by a distinguished University of Houston professor, give evidence of the thriving condition of public works history. Nevertheless, titles such as Invisible Networks for a public history text or The Hidden City for a PBS documentary reflect an uneasiness commonly expressed by both academic and nonacademic practitioners of public works history that people in general seem determined to treat the infrastructure that sustains them with complacency, even apathy. 1 Except when a system fails or a natural disaster disrupts it, waterworks, sewerage, and garbage collection now "blend invisibly into the urban landscape," Martin Melosi writes (1). "Water is taken for granted by modern city dwellers," concurs Gerard Koeppel, "who turn on a tap not knowing or caring how the water got there" (xi). French critic Paul Valéry once remarked that by blunting people's sense of precariousness and interdependence, "the smooth functioning of the social mechanism" enables an antisocial "savagery" to thrive in the modern city. 2 The appreciation that Koeppel conveys for a previous generation's struggles and ingenuity might leave present-day city dwellers more appreciative of the cities they abuse. Melosi mobilizes decades' worth of study to explain that engineers such as Croton's designers solved fewer problems than they intended and created new ones along the way. The Sanitary City teaches that a healthful, environmentally sound city is an endless struggle that urbanites cannot take for granted.

Conceived as a commemorative volume for Croton's sesquicentennial, Water for Gotham, while well researched, does not pretend to sustain a scholarly analysis. Koeppel's goal is a meaningful, well-told story. From the time of the Dutch, a shortage of fresh, clean water hampered the island city. After the British destroyed a partly built public supply during the Revolution, New York resorted to the Manhattan Company, Aaron Burr's legendary scheme to exploit New York's desperation for water to obtain a charter for what became Chase Manhattan Bank. After decades more of false starts, New York's Democratic establishment came together behind the ambitious plan for a gravity conduit forty miles from the Croton River in Westchester County. About half of Koeppel's book recounts technical, political, and labor difficulties that beset Croton's construction, which was supervised by John B. Jervis, the renowned canal builder. Technical details come to life in part through deft use of letters and drawings of Jervis's expressive assistant, Fayette Tower. Koeppel understands that in stopping in 1842...


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