Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Weegee Summer

I feel like a baked potato today.

It's 6PM and 95F outside. On the way home, I saw at least 8 open fire hydrants in the Bronx. This made me think of Weegee's photos of life in the summer in New York in the 1940s. There's a lot in these photos that has not really changed.

It amazes me that this great prodigy of human artifice named New York still keeps its inhabitants so exposed to the weather. In places with extreme temperature, you can go through a day without ever feeling it. In dear old Dallas, you can go from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car to an air conditioned parking garage to your air-conditioned office and never feel the heat. In San Francisco, no one needs air-conditioning.
New York summers can be fierce, but short. There's nothing here like the days and days of blazing hot weather that is a normal Texas summer. It's nothing like the unrelenting sauna that is a Midwestern summer. Summer heat can be blazing hot, and smelly, but usually lasts only a few days. Rarely does it drag on for weeks.

I don't think this city is nearly as air-conditioned as Dallas or Miami, and yet, hot days really strain our electrical grid. Maybe it's just a matter of sheer volume. Multi-million dollar apartments on Park Avenue with window units makes me smile. Those same apartments on Turtle Creek in Dallas would bask in central AC set on "refrigerate." And if it takes strip mining a whole mountain of coal in West Virginia to keep that Dallas condo cool for one day, so what? This is Texas. No one gives a crap.

AC gets more scarce in some neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. It's fans, and when the few public pools to survive budget cuts get over-crowded, then the fire hydrants come open.

Here is Weegee's photo of kids playing in an open hydrant. This was and still is very illegal, plus it really affects the water pressure in the surrounding buildings. For awhile, there was a generous compromise measure where the Fire Department would put sprinkler attachments on the hydrants and playgrounds installed water sprinklers for kids to cool off. It still doesn't stop them from opening the hydrants on a ferociously hot day.

Weegee's photo of Coney Island in 1940. It's not quite this crowded these days, but almost. If you could get the day off, your best escape from a hot tenement apartment was the beach in those days. I love how so many of these folks are aware that they are being photographed and are waving and posing for Weegee's camera.

Weegee's photo of a "tenement penthouse," bedding placed on a fire escape landing so people could sleep outside when their tiny railroad flats refused to cool off after a hot day.
The Fire Department would never allow this now.

I think I should list my summer heat credentials.
I was raised in the AC in Texas, but got sent to Boy Scout camp near Mineral Wells for 2 weeks every summer. Blazing sun, dust, rattlesnakes, thorns, and 100F were normal there.
I spent the record breaking summer of 1980 in Kansas City MO in a small apartment on Main street with no AC. Some nights it was so hot that my room mate and I stayed up all night playing poker. The water out of the faucet marked "cold" was hot, and we sometimes wrapped ourselves in wet sheets to try to cool off at night.
I spent a number of record summers in Saint Louis without AC. I lived on the south side of town which in those days was mostly poor whites. No one had AC, and on really hot days and nights I could hear the fights breaking out all over the neighborhood.
I spent the first 10 summers in New York without AC in my tiny East Village railroad flat. I finally got a window unit for my bedroom there.

On days like the past few, AC, cool linens, cats, and a nap are my idea of heaven.


JCF said...

Love WeeGee.

That tenement photo is especially amazing: almost feels voyeuristic (that girl in the center, sans top, is pushing it into the "makes me feel dubious looking at it" area. But then she's holding a kitten, and that's too adorable!) Notice yet another pair of feet, bottom left.

I visited the Coney Island beaches several times, when I lived in NYC in the early 90s. They felt almost abandoned then---NOTHING like the mass humanity you see in the WeeGee pic!

I saw a pic of hydrant use (in Philly) in yesterday's paper (Sacramento Bee), that seemed frozen in time. 1940s or 2010s, it's all the same when it's 100F and you're cooling off in an open hydrant!

Counterlight said...

I would imagine that most of those crowds on Coney Island in 1940 can be found out on Jones Beach today.

The Religious Pícaro said...

I saw my first open hydrant yesterday here in Providence, but it was giving forth a pretty weak stream in comparison with the one in the photo.