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.

UPDATE, February 2018: A concerned elementary school teacher has been in touch from Maryland, worrying that this article might give impressionable students the wrong idea. So, to clarify: while alligators have often been found in and around New York, it seems unlikely that they lived in the sewers – or at least, not for long, since they'd probably die of cold and disease down there. So, to be clear, when we say a grain of truth, we mean just that. There are not thriving colonies of gators down there, and we never meant to imply that there were. 

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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.