How New York City Got Its Fresh Water

On Their Creation and the Promise of Water for New York City
By Lucy Sante
With photographs by Tim Davis
Illustrated. 195 pages. The Experiment. $24.95.

Every morning in this newspaper you can, if you dare, check the level of New York City’s reservoir system, which supplies our fresh water, more than a billion gallons a day.

This sprawling upstate network has kept up with the city’s demands for more than a century. This week it’s at about 80 percent of capacity — not bad but below normal. A writer could begin a buzzard-black apocalyptic novel with a scientist noticing levels are falling.

Lucy Sante’s new book, “Nineteen Reservoirs,” is about the construction of this system from 1907 to 1967, an Egyptian task, and about the villages and farms and schools and churches that were demolished and submerged to make way for it.

Sante is the author of many books, notably “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York” (1991) — I don’t think I’ve ever entered the Strand and not seen copies anchoring a display table — in which she commented, in lines that presage her current book, that New Yorkers are “custodians of a history of which they are seldom consciously aware.”

Like Sante, I lived for a long period near one of the vast artificial lakes in the New York City watershed. They are awesome in their beauty but disconcerting. At moments you half-expect a beseeching hand to emerge from the depths, like at the end of John Boorman’s “Deliverance.” Subconsciously, you keep an eye on your dog.

They’re frustrating for the nearby residents, Sante is correct to notice, because they are impossibly inviting “on a hot day in a region with no real lakes, albeit as taboo for swimming or boating as if they were meant for the gods alone.”

I am not uninterested in the reservoir system, but I (probably) would not have picked this book up if someone else had written it. I’ve followed Sante’s work for decades, the way you follow a band, because her writing has an unmistakable and addictive tone.

Greil Marcus has isolated and described that tone as “a quiet, calm, forceful attempt to get inside those people, places, artifacts and memories that attract him” — Sante has recently transitioned genders — “with a commitment to the subject at hand that is as passionate as it is modest.”

Keeping up with Sante has meant attending not just to her books, which include the autobiographical “The Factory of Facts” (1998), but also to her work as an essayist and critic.

Back when magazines had more individual identity than they do now, when they jostled on newsstands, she was, variously, photography critic for The New Republic, film critic for Interview and book critic for New York.

Her stuff appears regularly in The New York Review of Books. Some of the best of this material is collected in a piercing book titled “Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005.”

Lucy Sante, whose new book is “Nineteen Reservoirs.”Credit…Bob Krasner

I’m filibustering, because while “Nineteen Reservoirs” is a beautiful object — the period photographs and postcards are expertly reproduced and glow with feeling, and the book concludes with an apposite photo essay by Tim Davis — that elusive tone only rarely emerges.

This is a static and somewhat repetitive book that lacks a narrative through line. Sante seldom makes the kinds of connections and associations she does in her best work. And yet: Her semi-failures have more going for them than most writer’s successes.

Sante admires the engineering expertise, and the grandeur, of the reservoir system. About the Ashokan Reservoir, completed in 1917, for example, she observes how “the project was rivaled only by the Panama Canal as an achievement of America’s engineering might,” and how the reservoir’s surface area equaled all of Manhattan’s below 110th Street.

It took three days for a theoretical drop of water from the reservoir to reach Staten Island.She totes up all the facts and figures: cubic yards of excavated rock, barrels of cement for the masonry. “That was the poetic language of enterprise in the 20th century,” she writes. “Nothing else conveyed so well the immensity of every new undertaking and its dwarfing of whatever had preceded it.”

A prober of silences, Sante writes about the tens of thousands of anonymous men, many of them immigrants and African Americans, who toiled on these projects, often living in hastily constructed settlements, leaving few traces.

Sante has always had an underdog’s left-of-the-dial feeling for what’s been threatened or lost. The best material in “Nineteen Reservoirs” is about the people who had their land confiscated, in colonial fashion, and submerged. She writes:

Certainties were shattered. There were court cases, and holdouts. Graveyards had to be moved. The citizens of Albany drank filtered water from the Hudson River; some argued New York City should follow their lead. No steeple will ever emerge, spookily, from the waterline because all buildings in the planners’ way were razed. Construction of the reservoirs only worsened political polarization between the city and upstate. There is no broom large enough to sweep up the psychic mess.

New York City continues to grow, but it consumes less reservoir water than it once did, thanks to the omnipresence of bottled water, a decline in manufacturing and, Sante writes, “the cumulative effect of all those years of warnings about wasting water and the gradual installation of dripless faucets and low-flow toilets.”

Manhattan may be surrounded by water, yet none is potable. Most residents have little idea where what flows out of their taps comes from.

They are “only occasionally made aware that it is a precious and very finite resource that will become scarce again one day — perhaps quite soon,” Sante writes. “By then there will be no untapped mountain valleys to draw from.”

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