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These 9 Disasters Forever Changed New York's Infrastructure

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The 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks occurred last week; the two-year mark post-Hurricane Sandy looms up ahead. Both disasters dramatically altered New York City's infrastructure and day-to-day functioning. Historically speaking, there are seven other unfortunate catastrophes that had parallel significant impacts on the way the metropolis functions, from eliminating wooden building parts to prevent fire to implementing precautions that would reduce the risk of another subway wreck like 1918's. Here now, dive into the sad chain of these nine urban accidents and loss of life—and learn how New York is safer because of them.
—Hannah Frishberg

1) The Great Fire of 1776
September 21, 1776
In the heat of the Revolutionary War, a devastating fire broke out, raging through lower Manhattan and destroying over 500 buildings, nearly a third of the city. Aided by strong winds and tightly packed homes, the fire crossed Broadway and burned west to the Hudson River, stopping only when it hit the undeveloped King's College campus, and British marines were dispatched to fight it. As a result, 25 percent of the city needed to be rebuilt, including Trinity Church and the commons area that is today City Hall Park, the street grid becoming rearranged in the process. Loyalist refugees flooded the city and the occupying British decided, as a result of the fire, to govern the city under martial law instead of returning it to civilian authorities, thus intensifying the poor quality of sanitation until the British evacuated in November 1783. The Brits also built their own fire department to prevent future blazes. Much of the damage, however, would go unrepaired for years to come, and many homeless began living in tents and shanties made of old ships' canvas among the rubble. This fire also undoubtedly expedited the eventual restriction, levied in 1815, that put the kabosh on the construction of wood frame doors, shutters, and structures. That ensured no future fire could spread quite so far or quickly as the Great Fire of 1776.

2) The Great Fire of 1835
December 16, 1835
To date, the Great Fire of 1835 was the most destructive in New York City's history (at the time, the worst fire in American history). Beginning on a freezing December night and raging for over 15 hours, the fire decimated the financial district, turning all of Manhattan below Wall Street to rubble, consuming some 600 buildings, and causing more damage than it cost to build the Erie Canal. The blaze could be seen as far away as Philadelphia. As a result of the flames, lower Manhattan has barely any pre-19th-century landmarks, the Merchant's Exchange was rebuilt on Wall Street, and many streets were widened in the wake of the flames. Most importantly, the Great Fire of 1835 brought about great changes for the fire department, which had previously been volunteer based and quite disorganized. As a result, the department installed different fire-fighting codes as well as building codes and practices regarding fire-insurance (the fire put 23 of New York's 26 fire companies out of business). Lastly, the fire instigated the removal of New York's outmoded water system, replacing it with the Croton Water system, ensuring NYC would never be short of water in a disaster again.

3) The New York City Draft Riots
July 13-16, 1863
For three days in July of 1863, New Yorkers demonstrated how not OK they were with the new military draft lottery, an act which proved the final straw for the city's Irish immigrants. (It called all young men to fight for the Union Army, unless you had $300 to pay for your own substitute.) The working-class mob set fire to and looted wealthy Fifth Avenue homes, brutally beat police superintendent John Kennedy, lynched African American men in the streets, burned black orphanages, and caused what remains to be the largest civil insurrection in American history (second only to the Civil War itself) until 6,000 troops, fresh from Gettysburg, were able to calm the rioters. Following what's come to be known as Draft Week, at least 120 were dead, hundreds of blacks fled New York, decreasing the African American population by 20 percent for the duration of the Civil War, and there was $95.8 million worth of property damage. Additionally, the Tenement House Law was passed in 1867 as a result of the riots, a law limiting the occupancy numbers of tenements, requiring fire escape access and proper ventilation for occupants. Although filled with loopholes and largely ignored by landlords, the Tenement House Law evidenced a shifting in legislation toward reform, convincing many private businessmen to support government-led reform in fear of more such riots.

4) The General Slocum Disaster
June 15, 1904
On that June morning,1,358 German-American members of the St. Marks Lutheran Church, mainly women and children, boarded the paddle boat General Slocum, bound for an excursion in Locust Point, in the Bronx. What began as a community outing ended in what would be the largest American death toll till 9/11, after a fire started in the ship's lower decks and more than 1,000 lives were lost—either burned, or drowned on the boat and in the rough waters of the Hell Gate after the ship sunk off North Brother Island. Bodies from the tragedy continued to wash ashore for days afterwards. The tragedy had a deep impact on the German community, previously centered on the Lower East Side, which had been nicknamed Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany. Following the tragedy, so many families were affected the German settlement moved up the East Side as many fought with suicide and depression after losing their entire families, essentially creating Yorkville. The General Slocum disaster accelerated New York's lack of German culture, and thus forever altered the German ethnic makeup and cultural influences of this city. Many synagogues in the area today, including 325 East 6th Street, were previously German churches, but have since been converted to reflect the neighborhood's Jewish presence. In terms of infrastructure, Slocum had a huge impact on steamboat safety precautions and changes in regulations when it came to public safety and the East River.

5) The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
March 25, 1911
At 4:40 p.m., the top floors of the Asch Building on the corner of Greene Street and Washington place: a pile of highly flammable scrap caught fire in a densely packed garment factory and flared itself into a blaze that had 36 workers dead in an elevator shaft, 58 splayed on the sidewalks below, and 49 suffocating on the factory floor within 18 minutes. With all sweatshop exits and stairwells locked to prevent employee theft and the fire escapes broken from the weight of fleeing women, employees (many of whom were teenaged immigrants) were forced to jump or asphyxiate. The fire brought massive change to New York State Labor Law, new mandates being created in its wake to ensure functional fire escapes, sufficient exits and stairwells, and, in 1913, a law requiring factory doors to not just remain unlocked but to swing outwards, as well as mandatory fire drills for workers. Following the fire, sprinklers were also required for all factories over seven stories high. Furthermore, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded as a result of the fire, and the Factory Investigating Commission was invented, writing 60 laws regarding worker rights which were legislated within three years.

6) The Malbone Street Wreck
November 1, 1918
One of the deadliest train crashes in U.S. history, the Malbone Street Wreck occurred November 1, 1918, when barely trained motorman Edward Luciano was assigned to the Brighton Beach Line because of a strike by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Speeding through the newly laid tunnels (which included a very sharp curve) at 30mph on a 6mph track, the first three cars derailed and sheared their own roofs and left-hand sides off, the third car completely dismantling. The incident violently killed over 100 straphangers, halted the transit labor strike, and brought the BRT to bankruptcy, ending one of the last private transit companies in New York. Malbone Street, under which the accident occurred, was mostly renamed Empire Boulevard (except a detached one-block section of the street still named Malbone Street), and the accident further hastened the removal of wooden equipment from the subway. The event further. came to define the political career and administration of then Mayor, John F. Hylan, and his campaign against "green motormen" and wooden cars. More safety devices were installed on both the subway and the elevated system following the incident—including superior dead-man's controls (used to halt runaway trains), signaling, trippers, and train stops (used to limit train speeds). Today, the Malbone Street Tunnel is used on off-peak hours by the Franklin Avenue Shuttle.

7) The 1977 Blackout
July 13-14, 1977
A series of ill-fated lightning bolts tripped the circuit breakers in a Hudson River substation on July 13, 1977, shutting down Con Ed and resulting in two days of turmoil for Gotham—1,616 stores were looted, there was rioting in over 30 neighborhoods, 1,037 fires were set, and the largest mass arrest in city history took place: 3,776 people. Damages amounted to over $300 million, and the only neighborhoods unaffected were those in southern Queens and the Rockaways which used the Long Island Lighting Company system. The much-documented event was a blow for New York economically and emotionally, and resulted in sweeping change to the operating entities of urban electricity to safeguard against future power failures. In addition, many back-up generators were added to systems, and many hospitals updated their emergency room back-up systems and maintenance schedules. The looting, while damaging many small businesses beyond repair, also brought hip hop outside the Bronx, as a number of hopeful DJs were able to steal much desired electronic equipment during the looting.

8) 9/11
September 11, 2001
One of the most notorious days in recent American history, the 9/11 attacks took the lives of 343 New York City firefighters, 3,000 civilians dying in and around the World Trade Center, and nearly 10,000 others requiring treatment for injuries. Occurring at 8:45 A.M. on September 11th, 2001, an American Airlines Boeing 767 with a full engine of jet fuel crashed into the North tower, a second Boeing 767 crashing into the south tower 18 minutes later, causing the buildings to explode, littering the area with debris, and creating plumes of smoke, ash, and billowing paper throughout the five boroughs. The infrastructural changes in New York City caused by 9/11 are more or less all-encompassing: heightened security in not only airports, but schools, businesses, and many other areas of life, even before the Department of Homeland Security was created as a result of the attacks. Lower Manhattan was covered in over 1.5 million tons of toxic debris, causing environmental hazards and long-term health impacts for many residents, in addition to increased anxiety, tension, and the closing of many offices and schools. Furthermore, the addition of the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum and the reconstruction of impacted buildings in Lower Manhattan have significantly changed the layout of the neighborhood. The Freedom Tower, a massive change to the New York City skyline, would be completed over a decade later, but perhaps an even larger change to the fabric of the city would be not the development at Ground Zero but memorials for the fighters and the deceased in every corner of the city.

9) Hurricane Sandy
October 29, 2012
Just before Halloween of 2012, Superstorm Sandy did a number on NYC, flooding the subways, burning Breezy Point, and plunging lower Manhattan into darkness. A number of individuals were killed by falling trees and downed power lines, many schools were forced to relocated for the remainder of the semester, and communities in South Brooklyn and the Rockaways are still recovering from what the hurricane did to their homes and beaches. In the immediate wake of the storm, property damage was enormous, beach boardwalks in the Rockaways gone, likely forever, the City was forced to remove many trees, and the G and R tunnels are still recovering. The Bloomberg administration also came out with a number of innovative waterproofing methods to deal with future storm related threats to infrastructure as a part of the Rebuild by Design competition, including one that involves adding levees on Staten Island, and another that would rebuild Battery Park into a "Seaport City". A levee system was also proposed to protect Manhattan—a "1.3 mile-long living barrier made up of a multi-purpose levee system", extending Manhattan with fill.