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Why so many water towers in New York City?

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Why so many water towers in New York City? They look out of place, throwbacks on a modern skyline, even after you’ve grown used to them. Scattered throughout the streets and avenues, especially in Manhattan, they’re critical the city’s existence.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

By David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

It’s ironic that a city made by water can’t survive without towers storing fresh water piped in from 19 upstate lakes. Blame it on the subways.

On weekdays, subways carry hundreds of thousands into Manhattan for work. Manhattan grew taller because businesses needed space for the daily influx.

Why Water Towers in New York City?
Typical skyline on the Upper East Side filled with water towers, some disguised behind brick walls.
Water Towers Fine Art Photography by Deborah Julian

Real estate values increased, and apartment buildings shot up higher. Architects designed passenger elevators to go higher and faster, but you can forget about the whole thing without water towers.

Why do we have water towers in New York City?

Answer: Because no local water is drinkable, we import it from upstate.

Our rivers aren’t really rivers. They’re tidal straits, ice age carved basins flooded with salt water from the Atlantic. Fresh water streams in all five boroughs were hopelessly polluted or paved over, long ago.

To make New York City’s density possible, Albany lawmakers passed legislation allowing the metropolis to siphon off huge volumes of water from 19 protected upstate lakes, mostly in the Catskills.

Now, we’re addicted. We can’t live without it.

Water Towers, Upper East Side Manhattan skyline.
Water towers, a few naked, most disguised, form a significant part of the skyline on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. First Avenue between 61st and 62nd Streets, seen from the Roosevelt Island Tram.

Why Water Towers in New York City?

The reason is simple. Water taken away from clean upstate lakes flows by gravity into a network of tunnels and pipes that distribute it citywide.

Gravity keeps water flowing and us from flying off the planet, but its power is limited.

More New York City…

Pressure as it arrives in the city is only strong enough to push water up six stories, maximum. So, managers of taller buildings pump it into towers perched on rooftops. From there, gravity goes to work again, dropping the precious flood down into shower heads and spigots on command.

They look quaint and old against the modernist image of New York City, but look closer. Newer, wealthier buildings hide their towers, another sign of rampant class structure in the city that never sleeps.

Showing your water towers is like having your underwear sticking out.

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