Fire Hydrants Have Been New York’s Cool Solution for 100 Years

Aug 19, 2019 · 35 comments
Don (Phoenix, AZ)
This is so nostalgic. I lived in Brooklyn during my childhood (1940s). Well remember this – I can hear the kids shrieking with excitement. But where is the sprinkler truck we used to chase when we got soaked?
Maureen (Rockaway)
In The Bronx in the late 50s and early 60s, many of the apartment buildings were still heated by coal furnaces, so there were "ashcans" - these were much more brittle and battered than garbage cans. The guys we called "the big kids" would invariably get one of these ashcans, grab a monkey wrench from his dad's toolbox, and the adventure would begin. Two guys would keep banging the bottom of the ashcan on the top of the fire hydrant until the bottom had a big hole in it. Another would open the hydrant cap in front and, after pausing to turn the hydrant on full, the first two guys would wedge the can over the hydrant, creating a 4-5 story water geyser. There'd be a small river running down the street, screeching children running in the downpour, and the occasional car getting an impromptu 'wash' on the way through. It was all fun until the police or firemen showed up.
Art Vandelay (New York, NY)
Growing up in the Projects in Brooklyn in the 50's we didn't have to open the fire hydrants. The playground had a sprinkler that would be turned on when the thermometer hit 90. It shot 20 feet straight up into the air attracting every kid in the projects. Recently while walking East on Houston Street I saw one of those very same sprinklers in a city playground putting a smile on every kids face
Andy Deckman (Manhattan)
A fun story until the inevitable non-sequitur that has nothing to do with anything. “At least 1,300 people died in New York City from the heat, many of them immigrants working 60 hours or more a week.” So the heat wave and deaths become more meaningful because some of the victims are immigrants? And less meaningful if they’re not? And the 60-hour work week matters because? Can’t we just have a feel-good, nostalgic story without needing to rehash how decidedly un-woke things were back then?
David (NYC)
@Andy Deckman I see the truths make you uncomfortable.
Andy Deckman (Manhattan)
@david Not at all. It’s also true that millions die every year for lack of access to clean drinking water. I’d argue that fact is more relevant (to a story about fire hydrants as play things) than the fact that there were lots of immigrants in nyc a century ago. The more relevant fact is excluded for a less relevant one - why? Theres clearly an agenda being pushed (even in a story about fire hydrants) - there’s simply no relevance to the story.
Native NYer (NYC)
@Andy Deckman The relevance is the 60-hour workweek. People at work were unable to get outside to find ways to cool down. The more hours they worked, the less time they had to try. The fact that they were immigrants brings into question the motives of the officials who waited 10 days before even addressing the issue. Would they have waited that long if more genteel New Yorkers were suffering?
Pete Puma (NYC)
In the mid seventies to mid 80’s my husband would s)borrow a cap and wrench and open our nearest hydrant (W.73rd off Columbus). Moms would sweep the curb and the kids jumped in. We moms would sit on beach chairs watching as cab drivers would stop, people walking by would get a spritz and dogs would join the kids. We called it 73rd St Beach. At 5:30 or so we would turn it off. Because we were responsible They let us keep it for the summer. Sharon
Eric (new york)
A New York that no longer exists! The city is much poorer today
Josh (Seattle)
Great photos!
Michael Patlin (Thousand Oaks CA)
78th street between 3rd and 2nd- 1960. My friends from the neighborhood were like the “Dead End Kids” . Of course they opened the hydrant only to have the cops from the 19th show up to end our fun ( and save passing cars from being hosed down with a torrent which we thought was hysterical ) . Ah - the good old days...
Linda (Seattle)
In Brooklyn, we called them johnny pumps!
elis (cambridge ma)
Philadelphia in the 1960's. Visiting my grandmother in her West Philly row house. It is beyond hot, and humid. Then the neighborhood kids open the fire hydrant! Thrilling, cooling, exciting. Way more fun than the country club pool that typically cooled us down in the rest of our life. Now we have park sprinklers in the city where I live, kids love them. Freezing, spraying water in the summer, kids screaming with pleasure, cooling down. A necessity.
Patrick (NYC)
I used to love when one of the big kids would open a hydrant growing up in The Bronx. But it was the illegal way like the last photo, not the legal spray caps that the Fire Dept. installs as in the other photos. A piece of plywood and a milk crate would send the water into the air. Great fun. By the way, the water in the Washington Square Park fountain, and all park fountains, is recirculated and probably unsafe to drink as in one of the photos. And it is not even intended to be a wading pool. Lots of folks are completely grossed out learning this, after letting their toddlers splash around in it alongside half the dogs in the Village.
Parker (NYC)
During heatwaves, open hydrants were godsend in the projects. But we never quite shook the idea that we were going to get in trouble.
Jim R. (Philadelphia)
Philly in the 60's. The fireplug was a summer neighborhood treat! No sprinklers, full-force, all fun! Otherwise we were playing on empty, glass-strewn, weedy lots (which was also fun).
halito27 (Brooklyn)
Flatbush, Brooklyn: late 1960s. I was four...five...six... My grandma was the lady that always got the sprinkler cover from the local (fire? police?) station and turned the water on for all us kids. I'm pushing 60 but it's unbelievable how clear those memories are.
Lynn in DC (Here, there, everywhere)
If you live on or near a street with an opened hydrant, count on being drenched at least once during the season. Don’t wear good shoes either, because stepping into the street is like stepping into a shallow river. This is why the outrage over the drenched police officers in Brooklyn came across as fake. Everybody gets wet, a uniform is no shield. The NYPD-created Police Athletic League operates city-wide playstreets that feature opened hydrants.
Mike M. (Indianapolis, IN)
Frolicking in an open hydrant is prepubescent anarchy at its best. All hail innocent fun!
tinabess (Brooklyn, NY)
What was the water sculpture program? I want more info!
Joe Torra (Puerto Rico)
beautiful photos of beautiful people
SP (Philly)
Wow! This takes me back! West Philly and the hydrants! And don’t get me started about the sprinkler attachment! Good times! 😃
MKP (Austin)
I think it's a great idea! It's infrequent but it provides a distraction for children where public pools are infrequent and beaches in accessible. People can fill there mansions' pool, water their green lawns and huge golf courses but grouse about running a bit of water into the streets for kids to play in?
B. (Brooklyn)
In those cases, MKP, where lawns are being watered, homeowners pay the water bills. Or they have dug wells.
Birdygirl (CA)
My mother grew up in Brooklyn in the 1910s, the daughter of immigrant parents, and shared wonderful stories about her neighborhood fire hydrant moments. Thank you for this article.
Bob Castro (NYC)
It brings back memories of being a city kid in the summer, along with swimming off the docks and sleeping on tar beach or the fire escape.
Roy G. Biv (california)
I was 17 in 1963 when I stepped out to the street all spiffed-up for a heavy date. Immediately, I was drenched by a hydrant directed by some kids. Thanks for the memory, kids.
S.J. (Austin)
And the story just STOPS. As a non-New Yorker, I don't understand if it's tolerated now? Is there a schedule? Does anyone do it when they feel like it? Who shuts it off? How long are they allowed to run? What's the city's official position? Does it affect fire safety? Looks like you just wanted an excuse to run photos from your archives.
Salix (Sunset Park, Brooklyn)
@S.J. Yes, we still use the spray caps. We get them at the neighborhood firehouse & the guys there usually come to put them on. The caps g back to the firehouse at nightfall - or the next day. :-) My favorite memory is from only 10 years ago when my Pakistani neighbors were having a large family gathering on a very hot day. By late afternoon all the girl and young women attending moved down the block to the spraying hydrant ,and laughing and shrieking got soaked. A lovely sight!
Dirk (ny)
@S.J. The local fire station turns them on and off and manages them. Calm down.
Johnny Rocket (NYC)
Only one way to find out what the official position is!
KM (Pittsburgh)
Letting the hydrants flow like this is an environmental disaster. Pools lose some water to evaporation, but most of it remains and is recirculated. Every drop of this water is flowing straight down the drains after having been treated to be in a drinkable state. Build some more pools if you want, but stop wasting all that water.
Logan Soin (Kew Gardens)
@KM Seriously in less than 18 months we're going to be rationing this stuff and building barriers and arming guards and civilians to protect what last bits of drinkable water there is, I think people need to get over the momentary discomfort of heat now and realize that we are headed towards our doom much faster than we'd like and that we can just bust open the fire hydrants for pleasure. Sadly the days of smiles and happiness are over. its all over, these pictures are the end of the party.
B. (Brooklyn)
The water in our taps goes brown when hydrants are left to run. Distracted kids go elsewhere anyway and the water is left cooling the pavement and nothing else.
Thomas Murray (NYC)
@KM 'Looks like' someone in or around Pittsburgh has (and had always?) a pool (and a 'lousy' disposition?).
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