Life in the city

NEW YORK – With a blast that made skyscrapers tremble, an 83-year-old steam pipe sent a powerful message that the miles of tubes, wires and iron beneath New York and other U.S. cities are getting older and could become dangerously unstable.

The steam conduit that exploded beneath a Manhattan street at the height of rush hour Wednesday, just a block from Grand Central Terminal, was laid when Calvin Coolidge was president, and was part of a system that began providing energy to city buildings in 1882.

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the explosion, but some experts said the age of the city’s infrastructure was a possible factor. Pipes don’t last forever.

“This may be a warning sign for this very old network of pipe that we have,” said Anil Agrawal, a professor of civil engineering at the City College of New York. “We should not be looking at this incident as an isolated one.”

From Boston to Los Angeles, a number of American cities are entering a middle age of sorts, and the infrastructure propping them up is showing signs of strain.

Story. The real marvel of life in New York City is that streets don’t explode more often, that more people aren’t injured or killed by falling cornices or collapsed scaffolding. Once when I was living on 120th street, I watched flames ten or twenty feet high shoot from an open manhole at the end of my street. And shortly before I moved, a woman stepped on one of those ubiquitious metal covering plates Con Ed leaves strewn about the city, and was electocuted. To death. Just an average New Yorker going about her business, steps on the wrong patch of sidewalk, and bam. Turns out some huge percentage of those things are carrying some measurable amount of live electricity.

Honestly, the astonishing thing about New York is that it works as well as it does, given the density of the population and the age of the infrastructure.