Trodden beneath our feet, rolled over by cars, obscured by new concrete, and inevitably replaced, New York City’s manhole covers are ephemeral things to love. Yet I am fascinated by how they recall the defunct metal foundries that once operated within New York City, and how they map the spread of utilities in the developing city, whether sewer, water, telegraph, electricity, or internet. Some are stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful, like the 19th-century floral coal hole covers or those embedded with colored glass; many modern examples are almost invisible in their mundane design. All are reminders of the ever-evolving infrastructure under our feet.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when one disappeared, but it was still a shock. The well-worn “Croton Aqueduct DPT” cover on Jersey Street in Nolita, behind the red-brick Puck Building, had long been a favorite survivor. Marked with the year “1866,” it was surely one of the oldest examples in the city. Some citations even declare it the oldest, including its Yelp page, which had a reviewer on October 19 reporting that it was gone.
On an early November morning, I walked down the one-lane alleyway, and confirmed its absence for myself. In place of the old ironwork was a square of asphalt with a new “NYC SEWER / MADE IN INDIA” cover in its place. The Jersey Street cover had been on my mind, as a photograph of it is installed by the drinking fountains at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), part of their To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers: The Croton Aqueduct at 175.
The exhibition recalls the 19th-century engineering feat of the Croton Aqueduct, which supplied clean water to the increasingly crowded city. As author Lydia Maria Child, who attended an 1842 parade celebrating its completion, declared: “Oh, who that has not been shut up in the great prison-cell of a city, and made to drink of its brackish springs, can estimate the blessings of the Croton Aqueduct? Clean, sweet, abundant, water!”
“The manhole cover is an example of the Aqueduct’s use after it opened in 1842,” Susan Johnson, curator of To Quench the Thirst of New Yorkers, told Hyperallergic. “The Croton Aqueduct Department was formed in 1849 by New York State. It oversaw maintenance and improvements to the Croton Aqueduct and its structures, the pipes that brought water from the reservoirs for public use, and the construction and maintenance of sewers. In 1866 — the year marked on the manhole cover — the department spent $934.81 on new iron manholes and stone covers for sewer basins.”
Without landmarking, these quotidian, yet historic, objects can disappear. In the 2003 Designs Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City (truly the bible of such exploration), Diana Stuart affirms that the “historical record they offer is irretrievable once gone.” Stuart’s book lists another 1866 Croton Aqueduct example at Broadway between West 47th and 48th streets, and Ephemeral New York, in a 2010 post, shared a Croton Aqueduct cover marked “1862” in Jefferson Park at First Avenue and 112th Street. I have not recently been to either of those locations to know if they are extant. (Queries to DEP about the removal of the Jersey Street cover were not returned by the time of this article’s publishing.)
There remain numerous 19th-century covers and unique designs embedded in the asphalt, concrete, granite, and Belgian blocks that make up our city thoroughfares. Forgotten New York has an extensive round-up; I tracked down a cross-section of covers for a 2016 Hyperallergic post. Without attention, though, these are the types of things that can quietly vanish. And with their loss, a bit of our historic heritage becomes harder to access in the everyday experience of walking the city’s streets.