Save Teh Sewers

Consider, if you would, the humble sewer. It’s small (generally), dark (mostly), and damp (usually). Unless you’re an urban explorer, a wastewater-management engineer, or a student of urban planning, you probably rarely give sewers a second thought. They’re there, they serve a valuable purpose, and they’re pretty often overlooked and unloved.

That, however, could change.

See, the State of Iowa thinks some sewers might qualify as historic structures which not only deserve but require preservation.

Yes, you read that right – it appears that federal law about historic preservation requirements might very well apply to sewers – meaning that hundred-year-old sewer tunnels qualify for federal protection. How cool – albeit bizarre – is that?

Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great that some state and city governments are at least considering the possibility that some of their subterranean wonders might be worthy of preservation. I’m really pissed, though, at the craptacular fearmongering bullshit various people in the linked article from Iowa are spewing, though.

“Many sewers contain death-causing gases and bacteria, and collapses or flash floods could kill visitors, they say.” Please! Deadly gases and bacteria? Ever heard of air-quality meters and respirators? Collapse? Don’t be an idiot.

“Sometimes you just need common sense,” (Keokuk Public Works Director Gerald Mougler) said. “You’re not going to have a family picnic down there.”

Those who forget history are doomed.

“Sanitary runoff contains human fecal matter and can produce gases and bacteria harmful to sewer spectators. That difference in design means sewer tours in many of Iowa cities are unlikely, the public works directors said.

“It’s so dangerous to be down in there that I’ve made an edict that I don’t want my own people in there,? said Keokuk Public Works Director Gerald Mougler.”

Automobile emissions contain carcinogens and can produce gases and chemicals harmful to pedestrians. That difference in design means foot traffic in urban areas of Iowa are unlikely, a random and fictitious electric-car advocate said. “It’s so dangerous to be out on the streets that I’ve made an edict that I don’t want my own people out there,” said Political Flack Director Gerry Manderer.”

I completely agree with the suggestion that some sewer systems – in Iowa and elsewhere in this country – are historical and worthy of preservation. I can understand that this poses an apparently insurmountable financial burden, but… tough. Work around it.

I don’t get too emotional about much, but I have to say that merely documenting sewers prior to destruction seems fantastically inadequate – not only because I’m incredibly cynical about the quality of the documentation.

To me, a huge part of the inherent interest and appeal of these old sewers is the overall experience of being in them; of understanding that modern society doesn’t stop at ground level, and of experiencing first-hand both the size and scale of these largely hand-made marvels, and – to a fairly real extent – the conditions under which the people who built them did so. Photos and video can’t convey the full sensory experience of being in a sewer, twenty feet underground; they can’t convey the sheer scale and extent of what are often really quite amazing engineering marvels, nor can they convey the amazing sense of isolation you can get – you might be twenty feet under the busiest intersection in a major city, but it seems a couple miles further. (Seriously; if you crave quiet and solitude in the big city, a sewer is often the closest place to find it.)

If these various Public Works guys can’t appreciate that, then I can only guess that – like some urban explorers – they’ve become jaded and immune to the charms of a good sewer through over-exposure, and need to stop and take a good look at their environment with open eyes.

So, please, Iowa – and Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and Illinois, and Texas, and California… Make sewer-visitor centers. Charge admission. Host sewer tours for schoolkids. Have kitshy fundraising events. Host “underground” poetry recitals or something, har, har. Sell season passes to urban explorers, and just generally capitalize on and exploit the urban exploration fad. Let people develop a better understanding of just what it takes to keep modern society ticking (and gurgling) smoothly. Let people get married in the sewer, if they want.

Just save the damned sewers, please.


Published in: General, History, Urban Exploration | on July 30th, 2009| Comments Off on Save Teh Sewers

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