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.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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