What does New York City mean to you? New York City could be a city once visited during a school field trip to the Statue of Liberty. New York City could be the pinnacle of financial success and productivity. New York City could be salvation for European immigrants embarking on a Trans-Atlantic journey. New York City could be a chaotic movie script littered with yellow taxis, pizza slices and subway rats. New York City could even be a place called home to eight million people. There are multiple ways to define the metropolitan enigma that is New York City. In any case, every interpretation of New York City’s image has changed with time and, subsequently, the medium used to capture its meaning. Thousands of artists have painted murals in Central Park. Hundreds of directors have shot movies in Times Square. Dozens of award winning performances have been sung on Broadway. But only two companies have continued to provide New York City with its most historic and prevalent iconic image – the rooftop water tank.
Why do water tanks matter to New York City? Seemingly obsolete and prehistoric, more than 15,000 water tanks have been constructed in New York City since the advent of the elevator and continue to be constructed to this day. Weathered and aged, New York City’s wooden water tanks protect the city’s municipal water supply from harsh winters and brutal summers. Dotting the city skyline, water tanks proudly stand upon their pedestals as independent structures while at the same time being connected to an invisible system of aqueducts and watersheds. They are the lynchpin of New York City’s mountainous municipal water system which is revered as having one of the freshest sources of tap water in the nation. Underappreciated and undeniably necessary, the construction of water tanks helps provide New York City with its most primitive yet most consumed resource – water is life.
How do water tanks operate in New York City? In our post-industrial age of automation and innovation, it may seem superfluous to perpetuate construction methods from over 130 years past. Water tanks were created in response to the skyscraper and the ability to construct residential and office units further and further away from congested city streets. However, water tanks are still necessary since municipal pump stations are only able to provide adequate water pressure to buildings which are constructed at or under six stories. By constructing the tanks at such a height, buildings taller than six stories use gravity to distribute municipal water to faucets and fire suppression systems on floors below. The physics of the tanks are identical to the ballcock of a toilet which slowly refills water once it has reached an inadequately low level. When needed, the City gradually pumps municipal water to the roof where it is stored in a tank made of either wood or metal. Wooden water tanks are more efficient than their metal counterparts which require an interior cement lining and epoxy coating. The wooden tanks allow the water to breath in the summer, prevent large amounts of frost in the winter and allow for expansion and contraction once filled. The Rosenwach Group and Isseks Brothers Inc are the only two remaining companies who construct water tanks in New York City. Andrew Rosenwach states that, “my father always said [water tank companies] are a dying business – that’s why we have no competition.”
What do New York City’s water tanks mean to you? Probably nothing to most. If you live in New York City, you might gaze at water tanks outside your office or bedroom window and admire their materiality, shape and mystique. If you live in the suburbs or countryside, you might have your own water (septic) tank which you see as a symbol of independence and freedom from urban life. If you enjoy comics, you might admire water tanks as the backdrop for Batman’s floodlight or the foundation for Spiderman’s web. If you are Mary Jordan, you might start The Water Tank Project and use New York City water tanks as billboards in order to display artwork and raise awareness regarding water conservation and sustainable education. If you work for the Rosenwach Group or Isseks Brothers Inc, you might depend upon the construction and maintenance of water tanks as a source of income for your family. We all have a subjective idea of what we understand to be meaningful to us – what we appreciate to be iconic.
What does an icon mean to you? Religious icons, cultural icons and spiritual icons are all examples of ideas, people or objects which society has either consciously or subconsciously decided to give meaning. Each person attributes characteristics and values to things they come across in their everyday life. A fish hung upon a wall could represent a favorite outdoor hobby, one’s horoscope, or the Catholic savior Jesus of Nazareth. The meaning manifested in the inanimate is constructed within each individual. Specific to New York City’s water tanks, these inanimate icons have been utilized for still photography, raising environmental awareness, advertisements, art installations, education and calculating water consumption. Their iconic appeal is not bound by their urban environment and can transcend beyond their geographically fixed location. As an icon, New York City’s water tanks are more than simply a collection of pipes and wooden structures. They represent an ideology which is currently at threat and they protect a sacred resource many local and international communities are fighting to protect – water is life.
News stations and media outlets allow us to critique iconic figures and discuss social norms on an amplified scale. With so much collective knowledge and so many overarching opinions, it can be hard to realize the importance one voice has among the crowd. While icons, logos and symbols are constantly produced in entertainment, finance and governance, successful icons are often appreciated because of individual expressions of genuine emotion rather than manufactured opinions. Impassioned determination can create value and purpose out of something which may have previously been disregarded as mundane and worthless. I personally believe that the rooftop water tank is the most effective icon to encompass the history and grandeur of New York City. They are a historical testament defining New York City’s verticality and a necessary component of New York City’s longevity. Each city has an iconic image, person or monument which defines the history and possibly the future of that city. My icon is not Rockefeller Center, Frank Sinatra, or The Statue of Liberty. Forget Hollywood and Broadway. What does your city mean to you?
Harris, E. A. “Getting Water to New Yorkers Is a Family Business”, The New York Times. December 17, 2012.
Barnes, Jonathan. “Roof Tanks 101”, The Cooperator. March 2016.
Quintana, Mariela. “Up on the Roof: NYC’s Water Tanks Are Here to Stay”, StreetEasy. April 13, 2015.
Joseph, Sean. “Water Towers: NYC’s Misunderstood Icons”, AM New York. April 7, 2009