Pulses of Light Beneath the Streets

On a recent Monday night at 8:00pm, a crew of two men from Hugh O’Kane Electric Company parked on the corner of Duane Street and Greenwich Avenue, next to an Empire City Subway manhole. Second and third crews were setting up nearby, one at the corner of Greenwich and Harrison, one at Hudson and Duane. By 11:00pm, the team had completed a thousand-foot pull of fiber optic cable between the three locations, physically knitting together a tiny piece of the Internet underneath the streets of New York City.

A few years ago, author (and Urban Omnibus contributing editorAndrew Blum accompanied another crew from Hugh O’Kane on a similar installation as research for his recently-released book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. Tubes is the result of Blum’s quest to visit, see, smell, listen to and otherwise experience the physical components of the Internet. As our connected lives become increasingly mobile, our perception of the Internet becomes increasingly intangible. Our chosen vocabulary reflects, or perhaps feeds, that belief: wireless connections, cloud computing, even Ethernet. “[W]e treat the Internet as if it were a fantasy,” writes Blum. But, “when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.”

His comparison to telephone systems is apt. As it turns out, the routing of these fibers and cables follows pathways carved out by the telecommunications infrastructure of decades past. Opening the Empire City Subway (ECS) manhole reveals 130 years of subsurface construction. Blum explains:

[T]he “Subway” name wasn’t what you might think. Empire City predated New York’s “subway” transit system. Since 1891 ECS — now a wholly owned subsidiary of Verizon — had owned the franchise to build and maintain an underground system of conduits, which it offered for lease at published rates that haven’t changed in a quarter century: a four-inch-diameter conduit will cost you $0.0924 per foot per month, while a two-inch one can be had for only $0.0578 a foot. Going the length of Manhattan will cost you about $4,000 a month — if there’s space left in the conduits.

I leaned forward and looked inside the hole. There was no visible bottom, only an abyss of twisted cables.
Some holes are so stuffed with cables that the cover pops right up, like snakes coming out of a can.
Peering down an Empire City Subway manhole at Greenwich and Duane. Photo by Will Martin
Peering down an Empire City Subway manhole at Greenwich and Duane. Photo by Will Martin

ECS owns approximately 11,000 manholes and 58 million feet of conduit in New York City, and it is the business of companies like Hugh O’Kane Electric Company to know intimately the vast “outside plant” underground telecom network. Almost every night, electrical workers find room amid the existing lines to meet our ever-increasing demand for digital bandwidth to accommodate our ever-expanding online activity. The video above chronicles just one stitch. Here’s how Blum describes the process:

Two other trucks would work with them, feeding the cable through the conduits, and pulling it out. When they were in position, [Eddie] Diaz hopped into the manhole. He was the “assist,” the middle man in the bucket brigade. On the street, [Brian] Seales wrapped the yellow leader rope around the truck’s winch, and then fed the end down to Diaz. The cable would come out of the manhole, loop around the winch, and then go back in on its way to the next stop, where they would repeat the process.
Up the block, the nose of the cable began to come out of the ground beside the other truck, half pulled and half pushed by Seales’ winch. The guys there walked it into position with steady, rhythmic steps, crossing their legs and hinging their arms like doo-wop singers. As if doing a quarter-time square dance in the street, they laid the cable on top of itself in a figure-eight pattern. It looked like a woven basket the size of a hot tub.

We rode in the truck to the next spot, two blocks away. . . Diaz jumped out, and Seales positioned the truck so that its winch was directly over the manhole, ready to pull the fiber through.

The cable pulled taut. Diaz coiled up an extra sixty feet, lassoed it with electrical tape, and banded it to the wall of the manhole — enough slack for the “splice truck” that would soon come to extract a couple fibers out of the cable and fuse them to another fiber coming out of the adjacent building.
The Hugh O'Kane Electric Company crew at Greenwich and Duane Streets. Photo by Will Martin
The Hugh O'Kane Electric Company crew at Greenwich and Duane Streets. Photo by Will Martin

The connection between the infrastructure of the Internet and telecommunications history is not limited to subsurface lines. Some of most important network meeting points in the city (possibly in the world) exist where dense overlaps of fiber occur, locations facilitated by dense networks of conduits. Two of the most significant meeting points in New York are 60 Hudson Street – which towers above the thousand-foot pull in the video above — and 32 Avenue of the Americas. The operations building at 32 Avenue of the Americas (formerly 24 Walker Street) used to be shared by Western Union and AT&T, and was one of the country’s largest long-distance telephone central offices in 1919. When Western Union moved to their own building in 1928, they built their headquarters at 60 Hudson Street, just three conduit-filled blocks away. “This is your modern marketplace,” says John Gilbert, COO of Rudin Management, the real estate company that now owns 32 Avenue of the Americas, “where handoffs are made, fiber touches fiber, networks touch other networks.”

The Internet is not magic, it’s a physical thing. It has buildings, hubs and infrastructure. Our international connections pass through cables that run across ocean floors. But there is poetry even in its physical components. Inside those conduits and cables, the Internet is, ultimately, pulses of light traveling along strands of glass. Light and glass that is laid down by the workers you pass by every night, that meet in neighborhood buildings, and that line the substratum of our streets. It is both extraordinary and ordinary. As one of the crew in the video above puts it: “You know how fiber works? You know what Morse Code is? It’s kind of the same principal. Except with light; and it’s broadcast nanoseconds apart.”