Nov 2, 2010

Cities

In this hour of Radiolab, we take to the street to ask what makes cities tick.

There's no scientific metric for measuring a city's personality. But step out on the sidewalk, and you can see and feel it. Two physicists explain one tidy mathematical formula that they believe holds the key to what drives a city. Yet math can't explain most of the human-scale details that make urban life unique. So we head out in search of what the numbers miss, and meet a reluctant city dweller, a man who's walked 700 feet below Manhattan, and a once-thriving community that's slipping away.

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this program indicated that the Dow Jones Industrial Average originated in the 1920’s.  In fact, it originated in the 1890’s; during the 1920’s it was expanded to include 30 companies, the number it includes today.  The audio has been adjusted in consideration of this fact.

In the first segment of this episode, we listed a German census as one of West and Bettencourt’s sources. This was incorrect, a German census did not appear in their data set, and the audio has been updated to reflect this correction. 

In the second segment, we used the term “watts” incorrectly. The audio has been updated to recognize this error. 

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

Intro Speaker:

Listener-supported WNYC Studios.

Intro Speaker:

Wait, you're listening.

Intro Speaker:

Okay.

Intro Speaker:

All right.

Intro Speaker:

Okay.

Intro Speaker:

All right.

Intro Speaker:

You're.

Intro Speaker:

Listening.

Intro Speaker:

To RadioLab.

Intro Speaker:

Radiolab.

Intro Speaker:

From...

Intro Speaker:

WYNC.

Intro Speaker:

C?

Intro Speaker:

Yeah.

Skip Sherry:

Hey man, how are you?

Aaron Scott:

Doing very well, yourself?

Skip Sherry:

Good.

Jad Abumrad:

So Aaron, set this up. Who are we about to meet?

Aaron Scott:

So this is [Skip Sherry 00:00:33]. He lives in Brooklyn.

Jad Abumrad:

And that is, we should say, Aaron Scott. He's a reporter who turned us onto Skip and Aaron met up with Skip because he had this experience.

Aaron Scott:

That's common to a lot of people who move to New York City. Just tell us where you grew up.

Skip Sherry:

I grew up in the country, outside of Athens, Ohio, on 54 acres of wooded land and I would work all day as a kid in heat.

Aaron Scott:

Hoeing and picking strawberries-

Skip Sherry:

Hauling water.

Aaron Scott:

Planting trees. He'd play in the woods.

Skip Sherry:

I love the woods.

Aaron Scott:

But as he got older, he knew he couldn't stay in Athens.

Jad Abumrad:

Why not?

Aaron Scott:

Well, he's a musician. He wanted to make a living at it, so he bounced around for a bit.

Skip Sherry:

So I finally-

Aaron Scott:

And then finally, at age 30...

Skip Sherry:

There was no place to go, except for New York.

Aaron Scott:

Wait, so it wasn't a matter that you wanted to live in New York-

Skip Sherry:

No, I didn't want to live in New York.

Aaron Scott:

... it was more so New York was your last option?

Skip Sherry:

It was my last option.

Aaron Scott:

And he hated it.

Skip Sherry:

Because it was ugly to me. Too many humans, too much concrete.

Aaron Scott:

Yeah.

Skip Sherry:

One theory about autism is that the things that come into an autistic kid's brain all have equal value. They don't know how to sort through it. When I first came to New York, it was really... It was pretty overwhelming. I had decided to leave, for sure.

Aaron Scott:

But then, take us to the roof.

Skip Sherry:

I was lucky when I first moved here.

Aaron Scott:

So he's staying with a friend who lives in this big building in Brooklyn Heights.

Skip Sherry:

Right across from the Twin Towers and it's 36 stories high.

Aaron Scott:

And he decides one lonely night to go up onto the roof.

Skip Sherry:

And there's this intense fog. The Twin Towers, the bottom of them was covered in the fog, but not the top, so it was like they were floating and there's a little cuticle, sliver of moon in the sky, and the foghorns are going and the boats are slowly moving. There's this breeze. I had this brass penny whistle that my father had given me, and I was standing there and I was playing it and suddenly something clicked. I was like, "Oh, those are all the bridges. That's the Williamsburg Bridge, that's the Manhattan Bridge, there's the Brooklyn Bridge. That's New York. It's small now."

Skip Sherry:

I'm looking at the Statue of Liberty and my grandmother Anastasia Panny came from Albania and they went to Ellis Island. I could see my history there too and it suddenly hit me, like, "Oh my goodness. This is like a coral reef. You can't see the people, but look at this beautiful structure they have created."

Skip Sherry:

That fog and that air, it was just the whole city was breathing. Nature was breathing. Everything was breathing and I felt connected on a spiritual level to the city for the first time.

Jad Abumrad:

And so, Skip decided to stay.

Skip Sherry:

For a while.

Jad Abumrad:

For a while.

Robert Krulwich:

All over the world people are now moving, of course. We know this from the country to the city. At this point...

Jeff West:

The world, two years ago crossed this extraordinary benchmark...

Jad Abumrad:

That's physicist Jeff West.

Jeff West:

... where more than half the planet is now urbanized.

Robert Krulwich:

51%.

Jad Abumrad:

And that made us wonder, how do cities work?

Robert Krulwich:

Is there some deep, organic logic that holds all these people together?

Jad Abumrad:

Or, as writer [Joe Nalara 00:04:10] puts it-

Robert Krulwich:

Are cities just...

Joe Nalara:

These tumors of people on the landscape?

Jad Abumrad:

I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:

This is Radiolab, and our topic today...

Robert Krulwich:

Cities.

Jad Abumrad:

Cities.

Robert Krulwich:

I love them but I don't know why.

Jad Abumrad:

All right. So, in talking about cities, it was kind of hard to know where to start, because every city has its own...

Robert Krulwich:

DNA, kind of.

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, its own unique feel.

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:

For instance, let me just give you my own stupid example here. Every time I go to St. Louis to visit my mom-

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah?

Jad Abumrad:

...I'm on the plane, I'm in my own kind of groove and I step off the plane into the airport and it's just like, with the first step, just hit this wall of... Something is different. You feel the difference in your bones.

Robert Krulwich:

Because?

Jad Abumrad:

Well, that's the question. Is he there?

Bob Levine:

I'm here.

Jad Abumrad:

What gives a city its feel? Oh, is this Mr. Bob Levine?

Bob Levine:

This is Mr. Bob Levine.

Jad Abumrad:

Mr. Bob Levine is a professor of psychology.

Bob Levine:

California State University.

Jad Abumrad:

And he thinks the answer to that question is time.

Bob Levine:

Time.

Jad Abumrad:

That each city warps time in its own unique way.

Bob Levine:

My cities are my subjects.

Jad Abumrad:

He studied this idea for the past 30 years in all kinds of different ways.

Bob Levine:

We looked at things like percentage of people wearing watches.

Jad Abumrad:

How long does it take bank tellers in each city to change a $20 bill.

Robert Krulwich:

Really?

Bob Levine:

Yeah, and then we looked at talking speed.

Jad Abumrad:

Really?

Robert Krulwich:

Talking speed.

Bob Levine:

Yeah, we'd get on the phone and call post offices, since that seemed like something that would be available every place and make a standard request. Would you tell me the difference between regular mail, certified mail, and insured mail?

Postal Worker 1:

Okay, certified is when you just need someone to sign for it.

Jad Abumrad:

Then he says they'd calculate...

Bob Levine:

The number of syllables per second.

Postal Worker 1:

Regular mail just goes air mail, if it's out of Utah.

Jad Abumrad:

Salt Lake City, Utah.

Automated Voice:

2.73 syllables per second.

Postal Worker 2:

Then if you want the return receipt card to come back to your house...

Jad Abumrad:

Springfield, Mass.

Postal Worker 2:

You pay an extra 70 cents. You understand?

Bob Levine:

Yes.

Automated Voice:

3.45 syllables per second.

Jad Abumrad:

And this one?

Postal Worker 3:

Certified is when you want...

Jad Abumrad:

Not really sure where it's from because the tape lost the ID, but it could be Nashville.

Postal Worker 3:

... proof of mailing and then you want to know who... You want a return receipt.

Jad Abumrad:

And if it is Nashville...

Automated Voice:

2.65 syllables per second.

Bob Levine:

Slow.

Jad Abumrad:

Well Springfield is like [inaudible 00:06:40]. But the whole talking thing was just really a prelude for Bob. It got him into what I think he's most known for.

Robert Krulwich:

And what we find most fascinating.

Bob Levine:

We actually looked at walking speed.

Jad Abumrad:

Walking!

Robert Krulwich:

Walking.

Bob Levine:

Yeah. Well, what I would do is I would get into a new city.

Listener 1 - Mumbai:

And I'm in Mumbai, India.

Listener 2 - Jerusalem:

Jerusalem.

Listener 3 - Buenos Aries:

Buenos Aires City.

Listener 4 - Chiang Mai:

Ching Mai, Thailand.

Jad Abumrad:

We actually put out a call to Radiolab listeners everywhere...

Listener 5 - Liberia:

We're in Buchanan in Liberia.

Jad Abumrad:

...to help us repeat the study.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

Okay, good morning Radiolab. I'm recording from Dublin, in Ireland.

Listener 7 - Oslo:

Downtown Oslo.

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

Copenhagen.

Bob Levine:

I would get into a new city and-

Jad Abumrad:

Step one.

Bob Levine:

... I would scope out main business and shopping areas.

Listener 9:

I'm in [inaudible 00:07:18].

Listener 10:

[inaudible 00:07:18].

Listener 11:

[inaudible 00:07:18] Street.

Jad Abumrad:

Step two, get out some string.

Bob Levine:

A roll of string?

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

My red string.

Bob Levine:

60 feet long.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

20 meters we use over here, we wouldn't say feet really.

Jad Abumrad:

Step three, use that string to measure out the distance.

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

Now I just have to roll out the string.

Robert Krulwich:

Now do you tape the one end to the sidewalk?

Listener 11:

I would just make more.

Jad Abumrad:

Step four, go under cover.

Bob Levine:

Get in a corridor and-

Jad Abumrad:

Be cool. Act like you're reading a paper.

Bob Levine:

... or waiting for somebody.

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

All right. Found myself a discrete place.

Listener 10:

I think I found a pretty nice spot here.

Robert Krulwich:

Do you use a stopwatch?

Bob Levine:

I would use a stopwatch.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

The stopwatch, with its trusty beep. Watch is working.

Jad Abumrad:

Ready? (singing)

Listener 10:

Okay, I'm ready now.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

And go. (singing) And it all goes quiet the minute I want to start. Brilliant, thanks Dublin.

Jad Abumrad:

This experiment was actually harder than you would think.

Robert Krulwich:

Much harder.

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

Radiolab people, this is not very easy to do.

Jad Abumrad:

Timing was an issue. People trying to sell you stuff.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

No, no, no. I don't need a shoe shine.

Shoe Shiner:

Very good shine. Look at my color.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

No. Pigeons don't count. No, pigeons don't count.

Jad Abumrad:

Okay. All together now.

Robert Krulwich:

All together now. (singing).

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.

Listener 11:

Step. Step.

Jad Abumrad:

Actually, it didn't sound like that at all. They weren't in sync, as you can imagine. Every city had its own beat.

Listener 11:

Start. [crosstalk 00:08:39] Step, step, step, step, step, step, step.

Jad Abumrad:

Which on some level we knew. But still the range was pretty amazing.

Listener 7 - Oslo:

Stop. 12.2.

Automated Voice:

Oslo.

Listener 1 - Mumbai:

14.4 second.

Automated Voice:

Mumbai.

Listener 5 - Liberia:

27 seconds.

Automated Voice:

Buchanan, Liberia.

Listener 5 - Liberia:

Wow.

Listener 3 - Buenos Aries:

13.8.

Automated Voice:

Buenos Aries.

Listener 11:

12.13.

Automated Voice:

Mexico City.

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

10.1 seconds.

Automated Voice:

Copenhagen.

Listener 4 - Chiang Mai:

21.5 seconds.

Automated Voice:

Chiang Mai.

Listener 10:

11.57

Automated Voice:

Portland.

Listener 2 - Jerusalem:

15 and a half seconds.

Automated Voice:

Jerusalem.

Jad Abumrad:

Just to break it down. On the high end you've got...

Listener 6 - Dublin:

Step. Steps. You're on it. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.

Jad Abumrad:

The Dubliners.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

Okay, she was 9.5. And that's 10.4

Jad Abumrad:

Who take, on average, 10.76 seconds to cover 60 feet.

Robert Krulwich:

Compare that to Buchanan, Liberia.

Listener 5 - Liberia:

Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Looking around, something actually on the head. She got a tiny pink blouse.

Robert Krulwich:

Whose walkers covered the same distance in about...

Listener 5 - Liberia:

21 seconds.

Jad Abumrad:

21 seconds. So if you want to think about it in football terms, by the time the Dubliner has scored a touchdown...

Robert Krulwich:

The guy from Buchanan, Liberia is somewhere I guess around midfield. Oh my god.

Jad Abumrad:

And the spooky thing, according to Bob Levine, if you do these under the same conditions, same place, you will get the same time. These times don't change. Dublin is always about this.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

Step. Step. You're on it. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.

Robert Krulwich:

And Buchanan, Liberia is always around this.

Listener 5 - Liberia:

Step. Step. Step. Step.

Jad Abumrad:

Manhattan, as we found, is right about here usually. Step. Step. Step. With thunder. Step. Step. Step in pink. No Dublin, but not bad.

Robert Krulwich:

But why the consistency? What is it that makes that walking speed? Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:

Where does it come from?

Robert Krulwich:

I mean, is anybody beating the drum? How well can you change the walking speed? Say a bunch of us got together and decided we were just going to up it my five percent on a given day. Would we get everybody to do it and would they even notice the difference?

Jad Abumrad:

Do we make the city? Or does the city make us?

Automated Voice:

Thank you to our walkers.

Listener 3 - Buenos Aries:

Milena in Buenos Aires.

Listener 5 - Liberia:

Mustafa [inaudible 00:10:46], Liberia.

Listener 2 - Jerusalem:

[inaudible 00:10:47], Jerusalem.

Listener 8 - Copenhagen:

Mira Killaman in Copenhagen.

Listener 7 - Oslo:

Marta, Oslo.

Listener 9:

Aaron Scott. Portland, Oregon.

Listener 10:

[Perry Santanatcho 00:10:53], Thailand.

Listener 11:

Grant Fuller, Mexico City. [crosstalk 00:10:57]

Listener 1 - Mumbai:

[inaudible 00:10:57] in Mumbai.

Listener 6 - Dublin:

[Markham 00:10:58] Nolan. I'm Dublin, in Ireland.

Automated Voice:

Props also to Daniel [Estring 00:11:02] and Anna Sussman.

Robert Krulwich:

Why?

Jad Abumrad:

I don't know, because they didn't say their name so we put them in there. Okay, so getting back to that question I asked a second ago.

Robert Krulwich:

Why is it that cities develop particular beats?

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

Robert Krulwich:

I mean, is it because the city does it to the people?

Jad Abumrad:

Or the people do it to the city?

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah. We ran into a couple of guys who may at least have the start of an answer.

Jeff West:

Yes.

Robert Krulwich:

A couple of physicists, oddly enough, named Jeffrey West and Luis Betancourt.

Jeff West:

This is Jeffrey and there's Luis on the other side of the table.

Luis B.:

I'm here as well.

Jad Abumrad:

Cool.

Robert Krulwich:

They're at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.

Jeff West:

Lots of mesas and so on.

Robert Krulwich:

Nothing like the cities we just visited.

Jeff West:

It's almost biblical in its expanse.

Luis B.:

Yeah, the blue skies just kind of make you brave and contemplative and all those good things.

Robert Krulwich:

Brave enough in fact to claim from their high desert perch that these beats, the meter of every city that we've just been to actually has underneath it a kind of logic.

Jeff West:

If you tell me the average speed of walking in some City X.

Robert Krulwich:

Take Rochester, New York where people walk at about this beat.

Automated Voice:

60 feet in 12.67 seconds.

Robert Krulwich:

If you don't tell them Rochester, you just tell him the number of beats, he will tell you...

Jeff West:

The population is maybe one and a quarter million people.

Automated Voice:

Actual population, 1.03 million people.

Jeff West:

And the average wage, about $60,000 a year.

Automated Voice:

Actual average wage, [$50,588 [00:12:36].

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

Robert Krulwich:

Let me ask you a precise question. Are you 100% correct? Are you 80% correct?

Jeff West:

No, of course some things you will score close to 100%, other things 80%.

Robert Krulwich:

But if you start with just the number of footfalls per unit of time, they can tell you all kinds of other things about the same place.

Jeff West:

I can tell you how much crime there is in the city.

Luis B.:

Income, wages, GDP.

Jeff West:

Number of colleges.

Luis B.:

Restaurants.

Automated Voice:

Fancy restaurants.

Jeff West:

Number of theaters for lease. The number of patents being produced there. Cultural events per capita. Number of theaters, libraries. The number of AIDS cases it's going to have this year.

Jad Abumrad:

Really?

Automated Voice:

Really.

Jeff West:

All of these things are correlated in a quantitative, and I use the word predictive, fashion.

Jad Abumrad:

Wait, are you saying that just from the number of footsteps per given time that you can tell... Can you tell me how many libraries there are?

Jeff West:

Yeah.

Luis B.:

Yes, we can tell you how many you should expect.

Jad Abumrad:

Wow.

Robert Krulwich:

How many things can you count when you're-

Luis B.:

Oh, presumably an infinite number but it's limited by the things for which there are data.

Jonah Lehrer:

They've got data from the US Census.

Robert Krulwich:

That's Jonah Lehrer. He's written about Luis and Jeff and he's the one who kind of got us thinking about all this.

Jonah Lehrer:

Japan.

Jeff West:

In China.

Jonah Lehrer:

Data from-

Luis B.:

Sociological surveys. Some data on cell phones.

Robert Krulwich:

And when they put all these numbers together, they discovered a deep pattern.

Jad Abumrad:

Call comes from the footsteps.

Robert Krulwich:

No, not the footsteps. Even the footsteps are a reflection of this deep and fundamental pattern that governs everything. Just one fact.

Jad Abumrad:

What is it?

Robert Krulwich:

You really want to know?

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, what is it?

Robert Krulwich:

Size.

Jeff West:

The size.

Robert Krulwich:

How many people live there.

Jeff West:

Size matters. Size is the largest determinant of all characteristics of the city.

Jad Abumrad:

They would say, "Tell me the size of the city and I can explain the vast majority of all these different variables that we can measure."

Jeff West:

Right.

Robert Krulwich:

As a city scales up, they say...

Jeff West:

From 100,000 to 200,000, one million to two million, from five million to ten million...

Robert Krulwich:

Everything about it, all those things that they've been measuring, they scale up too but they scale up-

Jeff West:

According to a very simple mathematical formula. It does not matter that New York has big skyscrapers and is on the ocean and that Boise is in the Rocky Mountains, that San Francisco is on San Francisco Bay.

Jad Abumrad:

Wait a second. Wait, wait, wait, wait. That can't be. That can't be. No, I was with you right up to that last point. I mean, you go to the Midwest and it's landlocked and then you go to a port city and it's on a port. That's got to matter.

Jeff West:

It matters, but these actually are superficial effects and account for only 10, 20 percent of their variation.

Jonah Lehrer:

What they're saying is that those specificities, the local history is in large part insignificant and it is completely overwhelmed by these generic laws of urban scaling. That to me is a very interesting and surprising idea, simply because we don't think of cities like that at all.

Jad Abumrad:

No, we certainly do not.

Robert Krulwich:

That's because you're not a physicist, so you don't think abstractly in that regard.

Jad Abumrad:

Well, why should I?

Robert Krulwich:

Because sometimes it can be very useful. Remember, what these guys have done is they've just created an average profile for every size city. If you're one million or seven million or twelve million, here's how many things you should have.

Jeff West:

Now you can ask, "Okay, let's look specifically at that city and ask, is it over-performing or under-performing?"

Luis B.:

Right.

Jad Abumrad:

So, what are some cities that are over-performing for their size?

Luis B.:

Of the large cities, San Francisco is quite an innovative city. New York's about average.

Jad Abumrad:

About average?

Luis B.:

In terms of patents. [crosstalk 00:16:11]

Robert Krulwich:

New York's below average? Did you just say that?

Jeff West:

New York produces, roughly speaking, the number of patents it should for a size.

Luis B.:

You produce, for example, twice as many patents as Boston.

Robert Krulwich:

We do?

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, that's something. That's something. [crosstalk 00:16:26].

Luis B.:

You should've produced many more given the size difference of about-

Robert Krulwich:

We're just average because they're counting patents. We don't have-

Jonah Lehrer:

This is one of the problems with their larger theory, which is that-

Robert Krulwich:

Pay no attention to that.

Jonah Lehrer:

... they're relying on data that the US Census collected, so that's a real blind spot.

Robert Krulwich:

If you're counting fabulous, if we ever can figure out a way to count fabulous.

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, because he has a point. You're not taking into account the experience of living in a place.

Jeff West:

Well, what a theory cannot do is tell you about the essence of New York, the New Yorkness of New York. So to speak, the soul of the city.

Jad Abumrad:

Where does that come from?

Jonah Lehrer:

Who knows? I mean, I think that's such a broad question.

Jad Abumrad:

Obviously it has something to do with lots of people being jammed into a tight space, bumping into each other.

Jonah Lehrer:

The kind of people who move there.

Jad Abumrad:

What the physicists would call human friction. That's a story you can't really tell in math, but you can hear it. Take Skip. He gave producer Aaron Scott a tour of his block in Brooklyn. Listen to who he bumps into everyday.

Aaron Scott:

He took us on this tour. First place we went was this Jamaican body shop.

Jad Abumrad:

Body shop, as in cars?

Aaron Scott:

Yeah.

Skip Sherry:

Collision specialists.

Aaron Scott:

I mean, it's basically these West Indies, Jamaican guys listening to Reggaeton and hip hop, reggae.

Body Shop Worker:

No, I like our kind of music. It's like...

Skip Sherry:

All right, that's one place.

Aaron Scott:

And across the street from this is Kinderspiel.

Skip Sherry:

A hidden Orthodox Jewish cookie bakery. Around the corner from that...

Aaron Scott:

It's a butcher that sells live goats and chickens.

Skip Sherry:

And here are the goats.

Aaron Scott:

On the the corner, the Hispanic Pentecostal Church.

Skip Sherry:

And every Sunday, they give it up to God with this exceedingly enthusiastic band. I huddle at the window and I think, "This is the best music in the world." I feel that deeply.

Aaron Scott:

Then across the street from that one is a mosque.

Skip Sherry:

It's beautiful on the inside. Across the street...

Aaron Scott:

There's this big building.

Skip Sherry:

And the proprietor of this space is a gay foot fetish film producer.

Speaker 34:

Show me your feet! Show me your feet!

Jad Abumrad:

Wait a second, you've got Jamaicans, Orthodox Jews with the cookies, Hispanics, Jesus, Allah, goats, and gay porn?

Speaker 34:

Show me your feet.

Jad Abumrad:

All on the same block?

Skip Sherry:

Absolutely. For me, that's the hammer and the nails. That's the raw ingredients. Now, I'm going to take that home and I'm going to assemble it into a song.

Jad Abumrad:

When you heard his music, could you hear all that stuff?

Aaron Scott:

Some of it is clearer than others. The sounds of the neighborhood, like the Reggaeton music of the West Indies auto body shops, he kind of takes them and then filters it through some device that makes it sound like bells.

Jad Abumrad:

Oddly enough, the day that Aaron spoke with Skip was the day Skip decided...

Aaron Scott:

He's leaving New York City and he put in his notice.

Jad Abumrad:

Which I guess makes his latest album, Sonic New York, kind of a Dear John letter to the city. You can hear it on our website, radiolab.org.

Robert Krulwich:

And Robert Levine's book, the one about walking and time stuff, is called A Geography of Time.

Jad Abumrad:

More information about that too on our website, radiolab.org. Also, you can subscribe to our podcast there.

Bob Levine:

This is Robert Levine. I've been told that...

Jad Abumrad:

RadioLab is funded in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Bob Levine:

And...

Jad Abumrad:

Produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Hey, it's Jad. RadioLab is supported by Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. Home today is so much more than it was yesterday, but at Rocket Mortgage, home is still all about you. During these challenging times, the top priority at Rocket Mortgage is the health and safety of the communities they serve.

Jad Abumrad:

If you need mortgage assistance, their team is available 24/7 to answer questions and offer solutions, whether that means saving money on your mortgage or finding a new way to navigate payments, from their home to yours, the team at Rocket Mortgage is with you. Visit rocketmortgage.com/radiolab to learn more. Call for cost information and conditions. Equal housing lender, licensed in all 50 states, and MLSconsumeraccess.org number 3030.

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, this is Jad. RadioLab is supported by Honey. We all shop online a lot and finding promo codes that work isn't easy, unless you use Honey, the free browser extension backed by Paypal that scans the internet for the best promo code and automatically adds it to your cart. Just download Honey to your computer, shop like normal, click the Apply Coupons button and watch the prices drop.

Jad Abumrad:

It is 100% free to use and installs in just a few seconds. Get Honey for free at joinhoney.com/radiolab. That's joinhoney.com/radiolab.

Intro Speaker:

I feel like I am looking at a future that is just dark.

Anna Sale:

There's so much that feels scary right now, including our finances. I'm Anna Sale, host of the podcast Death, Sex, and Money from WNYC Studios.

Amanda Clayman:

And I'm financial therapist Amanda Clayman. Yes, financial therapy is a thing and right now, we could all use it.

Intro Speaker:

There's a lot of fear.

Intro Speaker:

I'm furloughed.

Intro Speaker:

What happens next?

Anna Sale:

Listen to our new financial therapy series on the Death, Sex, and Money podcast.

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, I'm Jad Adumbrad.

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:

This is RadioLab.

Robert Krulwich:

And our subject right now is...

Jad Abumrad:

Cities.

Robert Krulwich:

So far, we've tried to pin down the character of a place with math or with a story or with some music. But it's like trying to take a snapshot of something that's growing and...

Jad Abumrad:

Changing.

Robert Krulwich:

All the time.

Jad Abumrad:

That feeling that Skip had on the rooftop, like the city was breathing, maybe the city really is.

Robert Krulwich:

Like a living thing.

Jeff West:

Well, yes, in some ways, that's exactly right. They evolve, they grow.

Robert Krulwich:

Think about it, says Jeff West, everyday, every minute becomes energy and...

Jad Abumrad:

Food.

Robert Krulwich:

Trucks.

Jad Abumrad:

Water.

Jeff West:

People. Out goes...

Jad Abumrad:

Garbage.

Robert Krulwich:

Ideas, songs.

Jad Abumrad:

Stories, people.

Robert Krulwich:

Energy in, energy out. Energy in, energy out.

Jad Abumrad:

That's just what a city needs to do, says Jeff.

Jeff West:

Metabolize food, so to speak, because without that, organisms and cities and so on will simply decay.

Robert Krulwich:

So, how does a city stay alive? What does it really take for a city to grow?

Jad Abumrad:

Well, that question got me thinking about New York and led me to a place I'd been wanting to go for awhile.

Speaker 37:

[inaudible 00:23:51]

Jad Abumrad:

I'm starting to hear the reverb a little bit.

Robert Krulwich:

Where are you?

Jad Abumrad:

Underground. 100 feet underground. This is the sound of one of New York City's water tunnels. I'm standing in it. It's exactly what you would imagine. A big tube that's about nine feet wide, nine feet up, perfectly polished cement and it seems to just go forever.

Jad Abumrad:

This is basically, you might call it a smaller artery inside the city's circulatory system. When this is online in a couple of months, it will pump up to 290 million gallons a day. Something like that, which is an awesome thought in the literal sense of the word.

Catherine Mallen:

When you walk through the streets of Manhattan...

Jad Abumrad:

This is Catherine Mallen from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Catherine Mallen:

These water tunnels are anywhere from 200 to 800 feet below your feet. They're silently there and when you turn on your tap...

Jad Abumrad:

When you take a drink, you are basking in a daily convenience that is born from blood, sweat, and death. To explain, you really have to go back to a time when there were no tunnels.

Diane G.:

This would be 1790, 1800 or so.

Jad Abumrad:

Around that time, says historian Diane [Galusha 00:25:22], New York's population...

Diane G.:

Was booming. It tripled in 20 years.

Jad Abumrad:

And you suddenly had 100,000 people all getting their water from the same spot.

Diane G.:

A large freshwater pond called The Collect and they had pigs running around by the hundreds and the chamber pots on the streets. There were livestock in Lower Manhattan at the time. People had cows for milk and so, when they died, they had to do something with them, so...

Jad Abumrad:

Often, she says, they'd throw their dead cows and everything else...

Diane G.:

In the pond.

Jad Abumrad:

The same pond that they were drinking from?

Diane G.:

Right.

Jad Abumrad:

No way. Not surprisingly...

Diane G.:

As the city grew...

Jad Abumrad:

People got sick.

Diane G.:

In 1798, there was a yellow fever epidemic. Killed a couple of thousand people and cholera and typhoid.

Jad Abumrad:

City officials were like, "This has to change."

Diane G.:

As if to accentuate the point in 1835, there was this huge fire.

Jad Abumrad:

The fire department rushes out to put out the fire, but they can't.

Diane G.:

It was in December and the rivers froze and they couldn't get water to the fires.

John C-D:

If you don't have water to fight the fire, the city burns down.

Jad Abumrad:

It's pretty simple.

Diane G.:

Yeah, 700 buildings.

Jad Abumrad:

That's our starting point. A New York City that could not grow. By the way, the guy we just heard...

John C-D:

John [Chick-Dunahew 00:26:32].

Jad Abumrad:

He's a Sand Hog, part of the long line of guys who blasted New York out of its poopy pond phase and into its future. Can I ask you a question? Why are you guys called Sand Hogs? Why wouldn't you be called tunnel blasters or earth movers or something that's more... Do you have any idea where that name come from?

John C-D:

Yeah, it comes from the dictionary. Really, and I love the look on people's faces when they ask me that and that's the answer. It's described in Webster's Dictionary as-

Automated Voice:

A laborer who digs or works in sand.

John C-D:

The original Sand Hogs were the soft ground guys, compressed air, that's where you-

Jad Abumrad:

To back up for a second, when the city decided to scrap the pond in favor of clean water from upstate, it faced a couple of challenges and this was also true when they designed-

John C-D:

The subway system.

Jad Abumrad:

Namely, nature. How do you, for example, build a tunnel under a river?

John C-D:

Well, they were Sand Hogs. Send them down, they dug. Literally dug with what we call mucksticks, shovels, [inaudible 00:27:31] 60, 50, 100 feet under the bottom of the river.

Nick S.:

Men with shovels, excavating ground.

Jad Abumrad:

That's Nick [Sokol 00:27:40].

Nick S.:

I'm a tunneling engineer. Generally, it's a dark, dank place.

Jad Abumrad:

Now, the obvious engineering problems at the river bottom, which is now above their heads, is soft.

Nick S.:

Sands and silts and gravels.

Jad Abumrad:

How do you keep that from not falling on your head?

Nick S.:

That's when compressed air started being used.

Jad Abumrad:

The basic idea, says Nick, is that these huge pumps would basically pump air into the tunnels at such pressure that it would basically push the ceiling up.

Nick S.:

Exactly, so the mud doesn't cave in on you.

John C-D:

The compressed air holds that thing from collapsing in on you.

Jad Abumrad:

Usually. The engineers on the shore had to get the pressure just right, says Chick, because if they didn't, you'd get this absolutely terrifying situation that is maybe the best cocktail party story ever.

John C-D:

We used to give an award. We haven't given it in many years. We call it the Marshall Maybe award. They were doing one of those tunnels to Brooklyn. The men were up in the face of the tunnel, they're digging away.

Nick S.:

And then very suddenly...

John C-D:

There's a blow out.

Jad Abumrad:

In the face of the wall, a puncture hole develops. Tiny at first but it quickly becomes-

John C-D:

Bigger and bigger.

Jad Abumrad:

Until it's the size of-

Nick S.:

Sort of an eye.

Jad Abumrad:

Then a whole head and all the compressed air rushes into that hole.

John C-D:

It would be like if you shot a hole through an airplane. All the air would...

Jad Abumrad:

Hats are flying into this whole, lanterns, shovels, then a guy goes into the whole.

Robert Krulwich:

A guy?

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, a human being into the whole and another guy, then a third.

John C-D:

The third guy must have been the luckiest Sand Hog in the world.

Nick S.:

This is an article from The New York Times. "As I struck the mud, it felt as if something was squeezing me tighter than I'd ever been squeezed before."

John C-D:

He blew through all that 60 feet of muck, then through the river, up to the surface. The pressure blew him right up into the air.

Nick S.:

"They tell me I was thrown about 25 feet above the water when I came out, but I don't remember that." That's remarkable.

John C-D:

He came back down and landed right alongside a police boat.

Jad Abumrad:

In the water?

John C-D:

In the water. So, they took him, they cleaned him up, he went home, he came to work the next day.

Jad Abumrad:

What?

John C-D:

That's why they gave him the award. That's why the award is-

Jad Abumrad:

You're kidding me.

John C-D:

No, I'm not kidding you.

Jad Abumrad:

[inaudible 00:30:04] In the early days, no one kept track of how many people died building New York's tunnels. The number is probably in the thousands. So wait, this right here, this plaque that we're looking at...

Richie Fitzsimmons:

This plaque was donated.

Jad Abumrad:

This is Richie Fitzsimmons. He's the current head of the Sand Hogs Union and we're standing in front of a big stone plaque with two dozen names on it.

Richie Fitzsimmons:

It's in memory of all the people that we lost in tunnels in New York City since 1970, since we started keeping records. Some more of the photos, come on.

Jad Abumrad:

Later, he showed me a picture which really underlined the point. It's a picture of him on his first compressed air job. Oh wow, look at that.

Richie Fitzsimmons:

This is myself.

Jad Abumrad:

He's 19, he's huddled with five other guys and they're in this crowded tunnel and they're all black with soot and he points to each guy in turn.

Richie Fitzsimmons:

Dead, dead, dead, dead, had cancer, is still alive, still alive.

Jad Abumrad:

If you ask any of the Sand Hogs why they do this, mostly they'll tell you, "We've got to. The city can't grow without its tunnels," but you also get answers like this from Chick. He says, "When you're down there and it's pitch black and you're just walking along..."

John C-D:

You're 600 foot under Manhattan, you're at approximately 30th Street or something, you're in the middle of the greatest city in the world, nobody even knows you exist. Nobody has a clue. It's just beautiful. It's a weird place. It's like being on a planet somewhere.

Jad Abumrad:

He says when he's literally in this rock that is half a billion years old, he sometimes feels very humbled.

John C-D:

You're in the middle of the earth. You want to see nature, here it is.

Richie Fitzsimmons:

That's a romantic way of saying it. The human reality of it is...

John C-D:

Here's Richie's take.

Richie Fitzsimmons:

Remember when you were a kid and they used to give you the ant farms and the ant farms were big. We are ants. The ants, there's so fricking many of them that if you got to squish a few, if they've got to use each other to step over each other to keep that whole thing, that's it.

Jad Abumrad:

That doesn't sound very grand the way you're putting it.

Richie Fitzsimmons:

That's reality.

Jad Abumrad:

Our job is conquer nature, he says, plain and simple.

Richie Fitzsimmons:

We're builders. Human beings are builders and collectively, there's nothing that we can't do. Nothing.

Jad Abumrad:

October 14th, 1842.

Diane G.:

Oh, it was a huge celebration.

Jad Abumrad:

Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers lined Broadway.

Diane G.:

There was firing of cannons and the ringing of church bells. Fireworks even.

Jad Abumrad:

And at the end of it all, says Diane, everybody gathered in City Hall Park.

Diane G.:

They turned a big fountain on and...

Jad Abumrad:

Water shot 50 feet into the air. New York City would never be the same. It could finally be a city. But here's where you start to wonder a little bit about the real legacy of cities. What you see almost immediately after this moment, according to Diane, is that water usage-

Diane G.:

Skyrocketed.

Jad Abumrad:

Suddenly, you had indoor plumbing.

Diane G.:

All the new buildings were being outfitted with water closets and...

Jad Abumrad:

Kids were playing in the hydrants all day long and to make a long story short, just 10 years later, the city is out of water again so they got to build more tunnels and then more and if you follow the water in those tunnels back upstate, you see that the city is gobbling up reservoirs.

Diane G.:

One after another.

Jad Abumrad:

Dozens, which meant it had to kick people off that land.

Diane G.:

A thing called imminent domain.

Jad Abumrad:

Their villages would have to be-

Diane G.:

Bulldozed and burned.

Jad Abumrad:

Cemeteries.

Diane G.:

Uprooted.

Jad Abumrad:

Do you see what's happening? I mean, you could see this city that we live in as a kind of monster. It's just always hungry. Eat, eat, eat. Eat, eat, eat.

Robert Krulwich:

Wait a second, because there is another logic available here. If you took all the people in New York City, all those New Yorkers...

Jonah Lehrer:

If you have every inhabitant of New York City suddenly left New York City and moved to small towns all across America, you would need a ton of resources to make that possible.

Jad Abumrad:

That's Jonah Lehrer again, by the way.

Jonah Lehrer:

In a sense, New York City saves lots of forests.

Robert Krulwich:

Saves lots of water and the reason why, well, that takes us back to Jeff and Luis's ideas about cities.

Jeff West:

Well, I suppose-

Robert Krulwich:

Because it all started years ago. Jeff was studying, this time it was living things.

Jeff West:

Let's go back to biology for a moment.

Robert Krulwich:

He looked at a huge variety of creatures and for each one, he collected data.

Jeff West:

Everything from its metabolic rate to length of its aorta, how quickly it breathes.

Robert Krulwich:

He discovered something kind of fascinating about creatures as they grow bigger and bigger.

Jeff West:

If you double the size of an organism, you double the number of cells that need to be sustained. You would therefore expect that the energy you need to supply would double. You'd double the number of customers, so to speak.

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah.

Jeff West:

No.

Jad Abumrad:

No?

Jeff West:

That is not the case. Instead of doubling, it needs less energy per unit cell to sustain the whole organism. So, there is a kind of-

Robert Krulwich:

Wait a second. That means that the cell is somehow doing more with less?

Jeff West:

Right.

Jad Abumrad:

Does that also mean though that an elephant cell somehow is more efficient than a mouse cell?

Jeff West:

That's correct.

Jad Abumrad:

Huh.

Robert Krulwich:

And Jeff says the way they do that is pretty simple. They just move slower.

Jeff West:

They process energy at a slower rate.

Robert Krulwich:

If you take a mouse cell, cell that lives in a mouse and does its work, brings in resources, spits out the waste, brings in more resources, spits out the waste, it does this to a particular beat. But now, says Jeff, if you listen to an elephant's cell, bringing in stuff and pumping out the waste, it's moving obviously slower. So, it's using less energy in a given moment which makes it more efficient.

Jad Abumrad:

What does that have to do with cities?

Robert Krulwich:

Turns out, cities work kind of the same way.

Jonah Lehrer:

In cities, you see the same kind of efficiency when it comes to infrastructure.

Jeff West:

Electricity.

Luis B.:

Length of roads.

Jeff West:

Water.

Luis B.:

Length of pipes. Length of electrical cables.

Jeff West:

Gasoline.

Luis B.:

How much gas is consumed.

Jeff West:

Here's the point. The bigger the city, the less roads you need per capita.

Jad Abumrad:

What does per capita mean anyways?

Robert Krulwich:

Per person.

Jad Abumrad:

Per person.

Jeff West:

The less electrical cable lines you need per capita, the less gasoline stations you need per capita, et cetera, et cetera.

Robert Krulwich:

Every unit of pipe carries more water or more sewage. Every line of electrical wire carries more-

Jad Abumrad:

Right, right. Jeff, does that mean then that if I move to a bigger and bigger city, do I, in a sense, become greener the bigger the city I live in?

Jeff West:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that's a very interesting-

Luis B.:

Yeah, it's a very good question.

Jad Abumrad:

This is where Luis and Jeff-

Luis B.:

I think the case is still a little bit out-

Jad Abumrad:

And even Jonah.

Jonah Lehrer:

It gets complicated when you ask, "Are people more or less efficient"-

Jad Abumrad:

This is when everybody starts to throw in all these caveats and qualifications.

Jeff West:

All these other variables. [crosstalk 00:37:21]

Jad Abumrad:

Quivocations and ambivalations and prognostications and [dipilations 00:37:24]. Let me just tell you what I think.

Robert Krulwich:

I think you better.

Jad Abumrad:

All right, we all love to talk about how green we are when we live in cities. This is something everybody in the city talks about.

Robert Krulwich:

Because we are. Because we take the subway and the bus. [crosstalk 00:37:35] We don't drive and driving is the most energy consuming thing.

Jad Abumrad:

Right, but listen to me. The analogy that you just gave me, it does not work. Okay, you said that cells as they go from small bodies to big bodies slow down.

Robert Krulwich:

Yep.

Jad Abumrad:

Well...

Jonah Lehrer:

Cities, the opposite happens of course. As cities get bigger, each individual unit in that city moves faster.

Jad Abumrad:

Thank you, Jonah. We speed up.

Robert Krulwich:

That's true.

Jad Abumrad:

We learned this earlier and this is not trivial, okay? Because as we speed up, we bump into more people, we have more ideas, we invent new things, we want more things. We want more.

Jeff West:

More of everything.

Luis B.:

New tastes, new ideas.

Jad Abumrad:

More interactions, more human friction. More!

Robert Krulwich:

More choices.

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah, a better life. That's what a city's all about.

Robert Krulwich:

Is there anything wrong with that?

Jad Abumrad:

No, not at all but all I'm saying is there's a cost to it that we don't acknowledge.

Jonah Lehrer:

West and Betancourt did this back of the envelope calculation where it's long been known that a body at perfect rest, if you lie in your bed all day in a coma, you will consume about 91 watts of electricity.

Jeff West:

That's called your basal metabolic rate.

Jonah Lehrer:

If you're a hunter gatherer living in some tribe in New Zealand, you will consume about 240 watts of electricity everyday.

Jeff West:

The energy just simply to stay alive plus the energy you need to hunt and gather.

Jonah Lehrer:

However, if you are living in America, the wattage required to drive your car, run your computer, make your clothes-

Jeff West:

Heat, air conditioning, being able to go to movies.

Jad Abumrad:

On and on and on.

Jeff West:

All of the various things that constitute our life. If you add all those up...

Jad Abumrad:

Your lifestyle requires about 11,000 watts of electricity everyday.

Robert Krulwich:

Whoa.

Jad Abumrad:

That's more energy than a blue whale requires.

Robert Krulwich:

Some of you listening, particularly if you're an engineer, you may think, "Wait a second, why are you calling these watts when it's power through a system? Power through a human, call them joules. That's the technically correct word," and you'd be right, wouldn't you? But the numbers are the same, so we'll just call them watts.

Jonah Lehrer:

One way to look at what cities have enabled us to do is basically live like 300 million blue whales in America.

Robert Krulwich:

Are you sure that cities are causing this development, that it begins and ends with cities?

Jad Abumrad:

You can't assign it all to cities, but that psychology of wanting more, that's a city psychology. That's why people come to cities and then the lifestyle that grows up around that gets broadcast out on TV and radios and movies, which are city industries, out to the country.

Jad Abumrad:

If you just take a historical look at this, the last 300 years have seen more and more consumption, right? And that trend, says Jonah...

Jonah Lehrer:

It's grown in neat parallel with the growth of cities. Cities have enabled that kind of growth.

Robert Krulwich:

Even if you guys are right, and we know that half the planet already is living in cities-

Jad Abumrad:

80% of America.

Robert Krulwich:

So yes, there are more people. I'll agree with that.

Jad Abumrad:

More choices.

Robert Krulwich:

Asking for-

Jad Abumrad:

More consumption, more energy, more, more, more, more, more.

Robert Krulwich:

Even if that's so, cities, because they also are ingenious and they come up with all these new ideas, maybe cities will solve the problem. Right now, Jad, someone somewhere in Calcutta is about to invent the super light bulb elevator telephone pipe that will make it possible for another 200 [catrillion 00:40:37] people to live together in peace, harmony, and beauty until the next round.

Jad Abumrad:

All right, you go ahead and cling to that optimism.

Robert Krulwich:

And you of course can go hang yourself in the corner. We'll be right back. I'm Robert Krulwich, that's Jad. This is RadioLab.

John:

Hey, this is John calling from the City of Brotherly Love. RadioLab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:

This is RadioLab.

Robert Krulwich:

And our subject today is cities.

Jad Abumrad:

Cities.

Robert Krulwich:

If cities are like organisms, and one thing we should say about every organism that's ever been...

Jad Abumrad:

They die.

Robert Krulwich:

Yeah, they die.

Jad Abumrad:

So you would think cities would die.

Robert Krulwich:

You would.

Jad Abumrad:

But Jonah says no.

Jonah Lehrer:

Cities die very, very rarely and they almost never die if there hasn't been a total, total catastrophe, physical catastrophe.

Jad Abumrad:

Which is weird if you think about it, says Jonah, because take a company.

Robert Krulwich:

Sometimes they can get very big so that they included hundreds of thousands of employees and yet they die all the time.

Jonah Lehrer:

Of the 30 companies in the original Dow Jones, only three are still on the Dow Jones index. If you took 30 cities from the 1920s, I can guarantee you all 30 of those randomly selected cities would still exist on the map and the question is why. Why don't they die like every other social organization?

Robert Krulwich:

What is it about cities that gives them this crazy persistence?

Jad Abumrad:

That question led us to a place that, by all measures, should've died long ago. A place called [Centralia 00:42:16]. Okay, so we begin on the side of... Where are we?

Pat Walters:

We're on Route 61 in eastern Pennsylvania.

Jad Abumrad:

Right. This is Pat, by the way. He's a producer at RadioLab.

Pat Walters:

Hello, hello, hello.

Robert Krulwich:

I know who Pat is, thank you very much.

Jad Abumrad:

Anyhow.

Pat Walters:

We're waiting for this guy named Tom to meet up with us.

Jad Abumrad:

Hey, are you Tom?

Tom:

Yep.

Pat Walters:

Tom [Hynoski 00:42:40].

Jad Abumrad:

How you doing? I'm Jad.

Tom:

[inaudible 00:42:41] When did you get here? Just now?

Jad Abumrad:

Just now.

Pat Walters:

We had asked Tom to show us around his town.

Tom:

Probably the best place to go is up on the hill up there and you can look over everything.

Pat Walters:

Okay, sure.

Jad Abumrad:

So, we go up on the hill with Tom.

Pat Walters:

We actually meet up with another Tom.

Tom D.:

Tom Dempsey. I was the former postmaster here.

Jad Abumrad:

So, we now have two Toms. Tom, Tom.

Pat Walters:

Very confusing.

Jad Abumrad:

Anyhow, the four of us stare down into a valley that used to have a town in it.

Tom:

There was all streets with homes on them all over here.

Jad Abumrad:

Now, Centralia is just trees.

Tom D.:

Right down here was the-

Jad Abumrad:

Tom 2 points to some trees.

Tom D.:

Our high school. Over here...

Jad Abumrad:

More trees.

Tom D.:

Saint Ignatius Church. [crosstalk 00:43:23] There used to be a playground right at the bottom of this little hill right here. You can still see the bars.

Jad Abumrad:

This is where things get a little strange. I mean, right next to the swing set where kids used to laugh their little heads off, there's a hole in the ground.

Pat Walters:

Right there, I can see some steam coming out of the ground.

Jad Abumrad:

Spewing steam. Pat and I would later discover when we got close to it that that steam was really hot.

Pat Walters:

It's hot and wet.

Jad Abumrad:

Oh my god.

Pat Walters:

Motherfucker.

Jad Abumrad:

Where exactly is the fire?

Tom:

Underneath us.

Jad Abumrad:

Like how far?

Tom:

Here? 50 feet maybe.

Jad Abumrad:

So, 50 feet down.

Tom:

If it is.

Jad Abumrad:

Can I ask you if the smell doesn't bother you guys?

Tom:

What smell?

Jad Abumrad:

You can smell it. It smells like burning tires here.

Tom D.:

I don't smell it.

Tom:

That must be from New York that's stuck in your nose or something.

Jad Abumrad:

Come on. It really did smell.

Pat Walters:

But the thing no one can deny is that underneath our feet, there's a web of coal mines that stretches for miles.

Tom:

40 miles in each direction, 30 miles.

Jad Abumrad:

Somewhere in those mines is a fire that's been burning for 40 years and has either destroyed this town...

Pat Walters:

Or not.

Jad Abumrad:

Depending on who you ask. This is Pat right here.

Mary Lou:

My name is Mary Lou [Gone 00:44:34]. I'm 82 years old and I lived in Centralia most of my adult life.

Jad Abumrad:

What year were you born in, if you mind me asking?

Mary Lou:

What year was I born?

Jad Abumrad:

Yeah.

Mary Lou:

1927.

Jad Abumrad:

Mary Lou Gone grew up in a town not too far from Centralia.

Pat Walters:

Tiny little farm town called Burnsville.

Jad Abumrad:

When she got to Centralia, she said...

Mary Lou:

It was like moving to the city. It had a legion, had a truck store, it had...

Jad Abumrad:

Couple thousand people.

Mary Lou:

Lots of bar rooms in Centralia. Somebody told me one time there were 22 bar rooms in Centralia. I don't know if that was true because I didn't frequent bar rooms at that age.

Jad Abumrad:

And all these places that she just mentioned were right on top of each other.

Pat Walters:

So, when you were walking around, you'd see people all the time.

Mary Lou:

Just take for instance you go to the post office after work-

Tom D.:

I'll show you where the post office was.

Mary Lou:

Tom would be there sometimes.

Tom D.:

I was post master here for a number of years.

Pat Walters:

You're pointing at a forest.

Tom D.:

It's hard to imagine this stuff.

Pat Walters:

It is hard to imagine.

Mary Lou:

Yeah, I walked in the post office because your mail wasn't delivered. So, I'd go up to the post office, I'd get my mail, and you'd meet people in the post office, you'd meet people coming out of the post office.

Tom D.:

This was a good football field here, now it's all growing in, nobody's cutting the grass, there's bushes growing up in it now.

Mary Lou:

Tom Dempsey would have a story. I would be an hour until I got home. A whole hour. This is how Centralia was.

Jad Abumrad:

Okay, fast forward. It's Memorial Day 1962.

Tom:

This is where the bar used to dump all their garbage. Now, the fire started, I'd say just about right here where I'm standing right now.

Jad Abumrad:

Tommy points to a little patch of non-descript yellow grass.

Tom:

Right here.

Jad Abumrad:

How did it start? Do we have any idea?

Tom:

Well, it started-

Jad Abumrad:

The most likely scenario, he says, we also heard this from a writer named Joan Quigley.

Joan Quigley:

I'm the writer of The Day The Earth Caved In.

Jad Abumrad:

Is that people used to heat their homes with coal and maybe somebody threw their ashes into the garbage which then ended up onto the dump.

Pat Walters:

It caught the whole thing on fire.

Joan Quigley:

Furniture, rugs, kerosene cans.

Jad Abumrad:

Which Joan says wasn't that unusual.

Joan Quigley:

Some of the former fire fighters said the dumps caught on fire all the time.

Jad Abumrad:

And usually the fires just fizzled out on their own, but this one, for whatever reason, before it did, wandered a little bit.

Pat Walters:

It found its way over to an old exposed...

Tom D.:

Exposed [coal vein 00:46:41] there.

Jad Abumrad:

Basically an old strip mine that should've been covered but wasn't.

Joan Quigley:

So, there was just a big, open cavity.

Jad Abumrad:

When the fire got in there and-

Tom:

Hit that coal vein.

Jad Abumrad:

Poof.

Tom:

Fire trucks came up here and they hosed down the fire until they thought it was out and they left. Following day, somebody says, "Oh, we see smoke and steam coming out of the ground up there." So, they came back the next day and they tried to get the fire out and they couldn't very well do it. They weren't getting it.

Jad Abumrad:

Because at that point, it was too late.

Mary Lou:

I wouldn't know where to start with this mine fire. I wouldn't know where to start.

Jad Abumrad:

The first place that fire camped out was right underneath Mary Lou's house.

Mary Lou:

I have some [crosstalk 00:47:16].

Pat Walters:

And from that point on, it kind of took over her life.

Jad Abumrad:

My goodness, are these your scrapbooks? When we were there, she pulled out these two-

Pat Walters:

Gigantic scrapbooks. This is going to take four men to lift this book.

Jad Abumrad:

Each book is literally three feet tall and they document in painful detail how that fire split the town in two.

Mary Lou:

This is how intense I was with this mine fire.

Pat Walters:

She heaved open the book and she showed us this picture of three people crouched on the street in front of a hole.

Mary Lou:

This is my husband, my son, and me.

Jad Abumrad:

Husband holding a thermometer.

Mary Lou:

We dropped this down on a fishing pole, down on a-

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, like you're ice fishing.

Mary Lou:

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:

This was their way of measuring the temperature of the fire below. What did it read?

Mary Lou:

It was pretty high.

Jad Abumrad:

100 degrees high.

Mary Lou:

850, something like that.

Jad Abumrad:

What? Under your house?

Mary Lou:

No, this was on the street.

Pat Walters:

But the street right in front of her house.

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, wow.

Mary Lou:

The garage was right... As you can see, the garage here, it was right there.

Jad Abumrad:

She showed us another picture of her standing in her garage in front of a trench that they dug and inside that trench, you see flames.

Mary Lou:

Oh, we used to go out at night and watch the glowing and the embers.

Pat Walters:

Fire up there got so bad that some of Mary Lou's neighbors actually got government money to leave their houses.

Joan Quigley:

They were the first people bought out.

Pat Walters:

Never once at the beginning did you think, "Oh, maybe we should just get out of here"?

Mary Lou:

No.

Pat Walters:

There's a fire under. Never?

Mary Lou:

No. I never [inaudible 00:48:36], no.

Jad Abumrad:

Instead, she did exactly the opposite.

Mary Lou:

This was my husband and this was a big official and this was-

Pat Walters:

She dug in her heels and started writing letters.

Mary Lou:

Congressmen Mulligan, Musto, we wrote letters to him. We talked on the phone with him. I couldn't tell you all the congressmen we talked to. Four governors, all the Harrisburg officials and they were promising everything but the sun, but it never happened.

Joan Quigley:

But other than the people who lived on that street, many, many people in town didn't have to worry or even think about the mine fire.

Mary Lou:

Nobody ever believed that the fire was even serious in Centralia. My husband, myself, and [inaudible 00:49:10].

Pat Walters:

Oh, so everyone else was kind of [crosstalk 00:49:13].

Mary Lou:

It's uptown. The fire's uptown.

Jad Abumrad:

All that changed on Valentine's Day 1981.

Todd D.:

We're up a little bit higher.

Pat Walters:

Because of this guy.

Jad Abumrad:

A fella named Tom Demboski, who at the time was just a boy.

Todd D.:

I was 12.

Joan Quigley:

12 year old boy.

Jad Abumrad:

He's playing outside.

Joan Quigley:

In his grandmother's backyard.

Todd D.:

I noticed some small whisps of smoke coming out of the ground.

Joan Quigley:

So, he went over to take a look.

Todd D.:

As I bent down to investigate, I noticed that my feet were starting to sink in. It was really soft.

Joan Quigley:

It was like quicksand.

Todd D.:

The more I tried to struggle, the more I was just opening the hole larger.

Joan Quigley:

He wound up sliding.

Todd D.:

To my thighs, to my waist.

Joan Quigley:

Until he was...

Todd D.:

I was under.

Joan Quigley:

All the way underground, surrounded by hot steam.

Todd D.:

The smoke was so intense.

Joan Quigley:

Smells like rotten eggs.

Jad Abumrad:

Whoa.

Todd D.:

I was screaming for my cousin.

Joan Quigley:

And his cousin heard him and came running over.

Todd D.:

Plucked me out like a flower.

Joan Quigley:

What happened to him changed everything.

Jad Abumrad:

Because suddenly, reporters were everything.

Todd D.:

Reporters from the Evening Herald.

News Reporter:

This is Night Line.

Joan Quigley:

National news media.

Jad Abumrad:

Everybody pointing their cameras at Todd.

Todd D.:

I seen smoke, so I went over to see if it was the mine fire and when I did, I just fell right through.

Jad Abumrad:

And doing stories about this town that was on fire.

News Reporter:

Beneath Centralia, the underground coal fires still burn hot.

News Reporter:

Centralia is an inferno. Literally.

Joan Quigley:

That attention-

News Reporter:

Parts of Centralia look like the outskirts of hell.

Joan Quigley:

... would focus-

News Reporter:

Toxic fumes.

Joan Quigley:

... on what had to happen for the town.

Pat Walters:

It wasn't long, says Joan, before some of the other residents-

Joan Quigley:

Very small, informal group of young parents.

Pat Walters:

... organized a march.

Joan Quigley:

Down Locust Avenue, down the main street in town.

Pat Walters:

How many people are we talking about here?

Joan Quigley:

Couple dozen with red ribbons around their arms and their wrists. They walked two by two down the main street of Centralia like striking miners.

Jad Abumrad:

Mary Lou glared at them as they passed.

Mary Lou:

I was bitter. I was bitter. They claimed they were for helping the town to be saved, but they weren't.

Jad Abumrad:

What they were really for, she figured, was getting out.

Mary Lou:

They were looking for funds to get relocated.

Jad Abumrad:

She even hated their name.

Joan Quigley:

Concerned Citizens Against the Centralia Mine Fire.

Jad Abumrad:

She thought, how are they the concerned citizens? She's the concerned citizen. She had been fighting the fire for years.

Mary Lou:

Yeah.

Joan Quigley:

The media was there taking video.

Jad Abumrad:

Cameras filmed the marchers looping red ribbon over everything and Mary Lou's neighbor Helen...

Joan Quigley:

Cut the red ribbons down.

Mary Lou:

Because we fought so hard to try to save Centralia. Why did they want to do this?

Joan Quigley:

People like Mary Lou and Helen Wilmer...

Jad Abumrad:

They started telling people...

Joan Quigley:

"No, no, no. Here's why it's safe. Here's why you should stay."

Pat Walters:

While parents from the other group were on TV complaining about gases...

Parent:

It's in the home and it could be a death house.

Jad Abumrad:

Mary Lou, Helen and a few others started up their own committee.

News Reporter:

The United Centralia Area Mine Task Force.

Jad Abumrad:

They got on TV themselves and in the community, they started printing out fliers.

Joan Quigley:

Fact sheets.

Jad Abumrad:

And handing them out.

Joan Quigley:

Yep, door-to-door.

David Lam:

Okay, I call this meeting to order.

Jad Abumrad:

At town meetings, the dueling committees would get up there and make their case.

Parent:

But this is a-

Jad Abumrad:

Get yelled down.

Parent:

... will not protect us!

Jad Abumrad:

Would it get-

Mary Lou:

Get rowdy.

Parent:

Absolutely ridiculous.

David Lam:

Families fighting against families, neighbors against neighbors.

Mary Lou:

There's Lammy.

David Lam:

They split the town apart.

Jad Abumrad:

Who's that?

Mary Lou:

David Lam.

Jad Abumrad:

This guy David Lam ran a motorcycle shop in town and he was also a member of this concerned citizens organization. One morning, about 4:00 AM...

Joan Quigley:

He was sleeping in an apartment and someone threw a Molotov cocktail through his plate glass window.

Jad Abumrad:

Mary Lou showed us an article from scrapbook. It was related to Lam's activities as an officer of Concerned Citizens. Wow. This is no joke. This is like the Sopranos, but worse.

Mary Lou:

This was really... It was really bad.

Pat Walters:

In the midst of all this chaos, Congress started considering a bill that would basically let them buy out the town.

News Reporter:

Some observers believe that for about $50 million, Centralia could be totally bought out.

Pat Walters:

Until the mayor decided, let's hold a referendum.

Joan Quigley:

And the issue was stay or go.

Jad Abumrad:

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, Mary Lou and Helen again went door to door talking to people they'd known their whole lives and pretty much everyone they talked to said...

Joan Quigley:

I really want to stay. My mother wants to stay.

Jad Abumrad:

August 11th, 1983.

News Reporter:

Shortly before 10:00 this evening, Centralia's mayor announced the results.

Mayor:

There's 545 votes cast. 200 voted to stay, 345 voted to relocate.

Mary Lou:

I was crying, yes. In my heart, I never thought that would happen ever.

Jad Abumrad:

You thought that everybody would stay.

Mary Lou:

We would stay. Maybe 40 people might decide or maybe 30 but that was devastating to know that so many people wanted to move. It was.

Jad Abumrad:

When you look at her scrapbooks, everything stops after that day.

Mary Lou:

Yeah, this is just thrown in papers.

Pat Walters:

Wow, it just stopped so abruptly.

Mary Lou:

Yep. I was mad and disgusted. I didn't want to do no more about it. That was the end.

Pat Walters:

Almost immediately after that vote, Congress bought out the town, people started packing up and leaving.

Mary Lou:

Let me see where it is. I have some that has the big numbers on it.

Pat Walters:

Mary Lou told us that when you decided to leave, a demolition crew would actually come to your house and paint...

Mary Lou:

Red letters like this.

Pat Walters:

A big number one in front of your house.

Mary Lou:

It looked like blood was dripping off.

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, it's like you were marked.

Mary Lou:

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:

What would happen, she says, when your house was marked is that your neighbors would see it, they'd get nervous, then suddenly their houses would be marked. Then suddenly the whole block would be marked.

Mary Lou:

I know everyone quite well and I think I stopped talking to some of them.

Jad Abumrad:

She'd see them on the street, she says, and look the other way.

Mary Lou:

I didn't like any of them.

Jad Abumrad:

Really?

Mary Lou:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Pat Walters:

Then one day in the fall of 1987, these divisions caused something to happen that is just kind of mythically bad.

Joan Quigley:

Yeah.

Jad Abumrad:

It involved a married couple who'd been in the town. Well, she'd been there her whole life.

Joan Quigley:

As a couple, they were divided. One wanted to stay, one wanted to go. I think it was the wife who didn't want to leave.

Mary Lou:

The husband, he was a shovel runner and he wanted to take the money you get from relocation and get out.

Joan Quigley:

Their neighbors were moving, had moved. The houses around them were being torn down and they had to make a decision.

Pat Walters:

All we really know is that at some point, they started to argue and it escalated.

Joan Quigley:

He stabbed her to death with a kitchen knife and then drove up to an old stripping pit and set himself and his car on fire.

Jad Abumrad:

Wow. This is going to sound like a strange question but is there anything about that that makes sense to you? Why couldn't people let go of this place?

Joan Quigley:

It is very primal.

Jad Abumrad:

Beyond that, she really couldn't say why. We asked Mary Lou, who hung on long after the murder, after that referendum, after the town was basically empty.

Mary Lou:

I have no idea what kept me there. I have no idea.

Jad Abumrad:

You have no idea?

Mary Lou:

Uh-uh (negative). No idea. I just didn't want to move.

Jad Abumrad:

[crosstalk 00:56:18] Yeah. Today, 11 people live in town.

Tom:

His brother and his wife and...

Tom D.:

My mom and them live down in the intersection.

Jad Abumrad:

Tom and Tom pointed them all out from the hill. We knocked on every door, figured we'd ask them what it is that keeps them living literally on top of a fire. Hi, good evening. Wow. That was the shortest...

Pat Walters:

But none of them wanted to talk to us.

Jad Abumrad:

Not even the dogs. Hi. Whoa! Okay, [inaudible 00:56:46], all right. But then Tom 2 took us to one last spot.

Pat Walters:

Where are we right now?

Tom D.:

We're in Saint Ignatius Roman Catholic Cemetery.

Jad Abumrad:

This cemetery is just a few feet away from the hill where we started and it's a really strange contrast. You go from this steamy hell and then suddenly you're in woodsy Vermont.

Tom D.:

There's a lot of people.

Jad Abumrad:

It's beautiful.

Tom D.:

This is my grandfather and my grandmother.

Jad Abumrad:

Tom has four generations buried here.

Pat Walters:

Do you know how many people are here, Tom?

Tom D.:

There's over 3000 burials in this cemetery alone.

Pat Walters:

3000?

Tom D.:

Yes. Plus.

Jad Abumrad:

The thing is, says Tom, even the people that left, fled that fire continue to come back and be buried in this cemetery which means this place, this cemetery is the only thing in Centralia that's still growing. Suddenly, how Joan put it earlier...

Joan Quigley:

It is very primal.

Jad Abumrad:

Made sense.

Joan Quigley:

You can experience your life on a multigenerational plane.

Tom D.:

This is where my great grandparents are buried.

Pat Walters:

Which means, in a sense, this town will never die as long as the cemetery's still here.

Tom D.:

[crosstalk 00:58:00] read their name on here.

Jad Abumrad:

This year?

Tom D.:

Dig it out.

Jad Abumrad:

Oh, it's under the dirt.

Tom D.:

[inaudible 00:58:11] Get this up out of here somehow. It's sinking down into the ground.

Jad Abumrad:

It's in the dirt now.

Tom D.:

Yeah, see it?

Jad Abumrad:

Here we go. I can see it.

Tom D.:

S-E-Y.

Jad Abumrad:

See the S. Y. Thanks to Pat Walters for reporting that with me and also to Chris Perckle and Georgie Roland who directed a great documentary about Centralia called The Town That Was. You can find out more information about that on our website, radiolab.org.

Robert Krulwich:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad Abumrad:

I'm Jad Abumrad. Bye.

Joan Quigley:

Hello, this is Joan Quigley. RadioLab is produced by Jad Abumrad and Brenna Farrell. Our staff includes...

Jad Abumrad:

Ellen Horn, Soren Wheeler, Pat Walters.

Joan Quigley:

Tim Howard and Lynn Levey with help from Nicole Corrie and Sam Rowdman. That's all, folks.

 

Copyright © 2020 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.