Late one night in London, I climbed down into a rusted hatch in the sidewalk and made my way down two ladders and a set of winding stone stairs. Well below street level, it was utterly silent except for the noises of my two companions behind me and completely dark except for our headlamp beams. We turned into a narrow brick tunnel and followed it to where it opened into a cavernous space. This was a giant sewer tunnel nearly twenty feet in diameter, with a flow of water and sewage about a foot and a half deep. The air in the tunnel was fetid, thick, humid and rank with the smells that came from decomposing organic matter, human waste and the detritus washed from the streets and gutters of the city. Set into the brick wall next to me was a sign, too obscured by muck to be readable; I wiped it clean with my gloved hand and read “Fleet Main Line.” This was where we wanted to be. I tightened the straps holding my chest-high waders tight to my body and then stepped down into the flowing liquid.
Even for the most ardent urban explorer, wading through sewage is a nasty business. The worst part is seeing anything recognizable: tampons, condoms, maxi-pads, streamers of half-disintegrated toilet paper, and, of course, the shit itself. But neither the smell nor the sight of floating shit could detract from the excitement I felt. This was the great Fleet River. Once a natural watercourse, it had been vital in London’s growth over the centuries, like the other streams that once flowed through the city. These watercourses were used as canals to transport goods, provide drinking water and flush away refuse. The Fleet River was the largest of these streams, and cargo ships sailed up it as late as the 18th century. The rapidly flowing water also powered innumerable waterwheels and mills—–something the tidal Thames could not do.
The city grew, but it quickly became so large that the small rivers that had fed it became nothing more than an impediment—–makeshift sewers and barriers to city traffic. The “Fleet Ditch,” as it came to be known, was clogged with sewage and trash as early as the 13th century; the city dredged it back into a navigable channel, and over the following centuries this cycle was repeated many times. Over time, however, the river’s flow lessened—–too much of its water was siphoned off for watermills and for irrigation, and the gradual paving of the urban landscape left it unreplenished by rainfall. Eventually, a tunnel was built around it in the 1860s as part of a massive Victorian sewer-building program, though in dry weather only a tiny fraction of the river’s original flow remains.
As we walked, we saw a palimpsest of London’s history from Victorian times to the present: the remnants of old stone pillars, now integrated into the tunnel walls, showing where a bridge had once spanned the river before it was covered; the amazingly graceful brickwork of the tunnel itself; old flagstone floors; and sewer connections, draining from the buildings above us, that ranged from Victorian brick to modern plastic.
Above ground, there is little trace of the Fleet River today except for a few eponymous streets and alleys. To all appearances, the river is gone. The city has cannibalized its past as it has grown—–except, of course, that the river is still there. Its existence is taken for granted every time someone flushes a toilet in that particular region of London. Both the river and the city itself have changed unrecognizably since the Fleet last flowed aboveground. These changes often imply rupture and destruction of the past, but there is a deep continuity as well in the evolution of the ever-changing relationship between the two.
I entered Rome’s underground through a tunnel no older than the 19th-century Fleet sewer, an overflow channel into the Tiber River from one of the city’s main collectors. What I was looking for, however, was something much older: the Cloaca Maxima sewer of the ancient Roman Empire, constructed about 2,600 years ago by King Tarquin the Proud (or possibly by his predecessor, Tarquin the Elder). Most likely, the original Cloaca Maxima was just a single channel leading to the Tiber River, but over the following centuries it was expanded into a multi-branched system.
In the first century BC, some five-hundred years after the Cloaca had first been dug, the historian Livy described Tarquin’s achievement:
“…faciendos cloacamque maximam, receptaculum omnium purgamentorum urbis, sub terra agendam; quibus duobus operibus vix nova haec magnificentia quicquam adaequare potuit.”
“…and he constructed the Cloaca Maxima, receptacle of all the filth of the city, which is carried underground…the like of which even modern splendor has scarcely been able to reproduce.”
—–Livy’s History of Rome: Books I, XXI, XXII
However, Livy’s statement is misleading. It had not been intended as a sewer in the modern sense of the word; rather, it was primarily meant to drain the Velabrum, the marshy lowland between the Esquiline, Viminal and Quirinal hills. The newly dry land eventually became the Forum Romanum, the iconic center of the rapidly growing metropole of the Roman Empire.
What Livy saw as the cause of the Cloaca’s construction – the filth and excrement of a teeming, populous city – was actually, to some extent, an effect of that construction. It was the newly habitable land that helped the city grow to the size that it was in Livy’s time, with a population dozens of times larger than it had been in the time of the Tarquin kings. As with the Fleet Sewer, what the Cloaca Maxima expresses is not merely the imposition of ordered or finished infrastructure on pre-urban natural topography. Rather, it shows the city’s constantly changing relationship to both natural terrain and to the built environment.
Amazingly, the main tunnel of the Cloaca is still used in Rome’s present-day sewer system, and this is what I had hoped to find in exploring the tunnels. Instead, I found a connection to a smaller, unused branch of the ancient sewer. What a difference in perspective a couple thousand years can make; the Cloaca that Livy lauded as the “receptacle of all filth in the city” now seemed tiny and mundane next to the huge sewer tunnels of the modern era.
In New York City, the first enclosed sewer was constructed around 1812, when a stone-lined drainage ditch running along the course of the present-day Canal Street was covered with a broad, shallow, brick arch. Wading through the sewer today, the brick still arches over the 12-foot-wide channel except where it’s been cut by newer construction. Below the bricks, heavy stone blocks make up the walls and the floor.
The construction of the wide, stone-lined channel occurred in the late 1700s; before that, it had been nothing but a ditch that helped drain the swampy area known then as Lispenard’s Meadows—–a huge expanse of bogs and oversaturated fields that now forms part of SoHo and Tribeca. It also carried the overflow from the Collect Pond, the original source of drinking water in early New York. Before that, when the water was particularly high and the tide was in, it had been possible to paddle a canoe along the route of Canal Street from the Hudson River to the Collect Pond—–almost crossing Manhattan.
A few feet overhead, Canal Street is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, and hundreds of thousands of commuters ride through the subway lines that were rammed through the brick arch of the sewer tunnel. Nonetheless, some of the water that splashes across my boots when I wade through the sewer still comes from the same underground springs that had long ago supplied the Collect Pond. The actual water, of course, is not the same from moment to moment, much less from century to century. The flow itself is the only thing that remains the same, providing a line of continuity between the past and the present and reminding us that, for a living city, the only constance is change.