Yes, they really have found alligators in the New York sewer system

An American alligator, presumably planning its next descent into the nation’s sewers. Image: Matthew Field, republished under creative commons.

Urban legends are the modern world’s answer to fairy tales. Both tell of dark and mysterious forces, always inexplicable, always lurking just out of sight. Satanic rituals. Aquatic monsters.  Ships lost at sea in a specific, conveniently geometric area.


And, of course, the New York sewer alligators.

These beasts, so the stories go, were brought back to the city by rich New York families who’d made some poor buying decisions while on vacation in Florida. Once they tired of their new pets – or at least, realised quite how big and hungry they were going to get – the owners would flush them down the toilet. This, at least, is the main explanation given for how so many people claim to have spotted the beasts in New York, a city whose climate is far, far too cold for them.

As with many urban legends, the story persists because it actually seems to have a grain of truth to it. We can’t verify the tales of posh brats flushing innocent baby gators down toilets – but sightings, some verified, some probably made up, have been a feature of the city’s newspapers since the 1930s.

According to the New York Times’ archives, the first sighting of a suspected sewer alligator was in 1932, when one was found lounging on the banks of the Bronx River. The next, and most famous, came three years later, when two teenagers shovelling snow in East Harlem came across one nosing its way out of a manhole. The Times ran an appropriately penny dreadful-esque headline the next day:

"ALLIGATOR FOUND IN UPTOWN SEWER: Youths Shovelling Snow into Manhole See the Animal Churning in Icy Water. SNARE IT AND DRAG IT OUT: Reptile Slain by Rescuers When It Gets Vicious – Whence It Came Is Mystery."

(Yes, that is just the headline.)

Since then, there have been regular stories (how reliable is not entirely clear) of alligators spotted in lakes, reservoirs and rivers near the city. None of them, alas, have matched the high drama of the manhole alligator of ‘35.

A sculpture in a downtown subway station commemorating the emergence of the East Harlem alligator. Image: More than Midtown.

Rather than fearing them, New Yorkers seem to view the city’s phantom alligators as a source of pride. For the past four years, every 9th February has seen the celebration of the city’s annual "Alligators in the Sewers Day". Manhattan Borough historian Michael Miscione, who launched the event on the 75th anniversary of the 1935 sighting, claims he created it not to poke fun at the story, but to emphasise its veracity: “The concept of alligators in city sewers is a great myth, and, having done a little research on it, I found that it has a strong basis in reality. I felt people should know that.” At this year’s event, there were speakers and a quiz, and the first 100 guests received a free plastic baby alligator.

The New York obsession with alligators seems all the stranger when you consider the fact that smaller reptiles very definitely are swimming around beneath the city’s streets, and no one seems very concerned about them. Snapping turtles are regularly spotted in sewage treatment systems but, for Miscione, they simply don’t have the same appeal. “They’re not nearly as exotic or dangerous as alligators, and they’re native to this area, so what’s the big deal?” he asks. “No one cares about snapping turtles.” The state's lawmakers don't agree - in 2006 they designated the snapping turtle the official state animal. 

The alligator story has also imprinted itself, albeit less deeply, on Paris. In 1984, sewer workers under the Pont Neuf Bridge found a Nile alligator, which had supposedly been eating rubbish and rats to survive. It was christened Eleanore and still resides in an aquarium in the city of Vannes. (In true Parisian style, the city has yet to celebrate anything as undignified as an Alligators in the Sewers Day.)

In London, there are no alligators that we know of, and fears instead tend to focus on giant rats – perhaps not surprisingly, since they carried the Bubonic Plague that managed to wipe out half the city’s population in the 14th century.

Modern stories about rats, however, have tended to eschew the threat of a new plague, and focus instead on the risk of them growing to giant proportions before emerging from the sewers to wreak havoc. The most recent prediction of a mutant rat invasion from below the city’s streets came in February, when Rentokil, the aptly named pest control company, told the London Metro that 10 inch-long sewer rats, able to spawn 200 young in a single year, would soon take over the capital.

You’ll be pleased to hear that these reports proved unfounded (so far, at least). But there are reasons to believe that sewer rats are getting bigger, thanks, perhaps unexpectedly, to an increase in recycling. We now rinse packaging out, rather than letting food scraps go to landfill: that gives sewer rats a more plentiful food supply.

As with New York’s alligators, this problem is apparently the fault of a particular class. In Elton’s Ecologists, a history of the now-defunct Oxford Bureau of Animal Population, author Peter Crowcroft blames the apartment-dwelling middle classes for feeding the sewer rats:

“Sewer rats do well in areas which are thickly populated by humans who are neither very rich nor very poor. Such people, especially apartment dwellers, tend to waste food, often flushing it into the drains in useful fragments, instead of converting it into an unavailable sludge with grinding machines installed in sinks.” 

So, when the mutant rats really do take over, we’ll know who to blame.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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