Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition

The first fire hydrant in New York was installed in 1808 at William and Liberty Streets downtown.

By the end of the 19th century, city streets were dotted with iron hydrants, the kind we’re used to seeing today.

The hydrants were certainly important when it came to fighting the deadly fires that beset the city in those days.

But it didn’t take long for residents of the tenement districts to start wrenching open hydrants during heat waves and using the high-pressure spray for cooling off in blistering heat.

Who led these activities? New York kids, of course.

“One matter that caused police and firemen in the city much annoyance was the opening up of fire hydrants,” reported the New York Times in June 1925.

“Small groups of children in bathing suits would gather about a hydrant. Then some one would get a wrench and open the hydrant and a stick would be placed in the nozzle to cause the water to spurt skyward and the children would jump under the shower.”

In this particular case, the police were ordered to guard the hydrants—but they were no match for crafty tenement kids.

“In most cases, after opening the hydrants, the children could not close them again and let them run until gutters were filled and the water flowed over into cellars.”

In 1933, a mob of kids even held a protest in front of a West 47th Street police station, after cops went around shutting off hydrants they had opened.

“The trouble arose late in the afternoon when residents along streets in the West 40s and 50s telephoned the station house to complain that their cellars were being flooded by water from nearby fire hydrants,” wrote the Times in June 1933.

“The complainants declared that the streams had been released by groups of children roaming the streets in bathing suits, trunks, and underclothes improvised for the occasion.”

Shutting fire hydrants that had been opened during heat waves became more dangerous in the 1960s.

A 1961 Times article explained that police now wore helmets when they went to close a hydrant (opened by children and parents, the paper pointed out), or else they risked getting pelted with bricks.

Officials had good reason to close hydrants; all the water flowing into the street meant there may not be enough to put out a fire.

And having so many children playing in the street posed a danger as well.

But instead of fighting residents who had no other way of cooling off, city officials eventually came up with a cap that could be fitted over hydrants and turn the spray into a sprinkler.

That didn’t end the practice of cracking open a hydrant and reveling in the powerful spray of cool water, of course. It’s less common to see kids playing in water in gutters these days, but this summer tradition still lives on.

[Top photo: Lothar Stelter, 1952; second image: Harper’s, 1917, NYPL; third photo: NYPL, 1930s; fourth photo: Life Magazine, 1953; fifth and sixth photos: unknown; seventh photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon, MCNY, 1977:2013.3.2.2202]

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14 Responses to “Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition”

  1. Opening a fire hydrant is a city summer tradition ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] [Top photo: Lothar Stelter, 1952; second image: Harper’s, 1917, NYPL; third photo: NYPL, 1930s; fourth photo: Life Magazine, 1953; fifth and sixth photos: unknown; seventh photo: Edmund Vincent Gillon, MCNY, 1977:2013.3.2.2202] Source link […]

  2. Peter Bennett Says:

    My take in it circa 1982–&GI_ID=

  3. Ty Says:

    They still do it here in upper Manhattan. The little kids like the sprinkler caps. But the older kids want the full on torrent usually controlled by someone’s dad with a coffee can.

  4. Gail Fanelli Says:

    We used to use a metal garbage pail cover
    in the 60’s.

  5. Ty Says:

    This ritual brings out the neighborhood in a way no officially sanctioned block party can. Parents bring down the lawn chairs to make sure no one gets hurt. They’re followed by grandparents who come down to watch the kids just for the joy that’s in it. Someone on the first floor may open the window and boost up some music. Someone else will bring down a cooler full of ice to keep the beer cold. Mr. Softee comes round to sell some ice cream. People drive their cars through for a free car wash. And much further downstream pigeons squat down and flap their wings for a bird bath.

  6. NYCHA's staggering repair bill; CitiBike's new owner • Gotham | Trend Says:

    […] Opening a fire hydrant is a long city summer tradition (Ephemeral New York) […]

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    The Fire Department is not happy with that…it’s one of the reasons playground renovations include fountains that kids can play in.

  8. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    In the 1950s & 60s I was tossed in at every fire hydrant that was open on the Lower East Side. It was fun, and I think I would go out looking for a dowsing no matter how my mother and father would give it to me afterwards. Ah, those were the days…

  9. Otto Huegel Says:

    A problem was low water pressure if there was a fire

  10. Food Cart Black Market, the Statue of Liberty Protester ID'd, and More - The Briefly Says:

    […] Opening a fire hydrant to cool off is a tradition that goes back over a century. Reminder: you can request a spray cap from the city. […]

  11. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    But a few times firetrucks drove past as a fire hydrant was open, the kids scattered, but the fire truck drove past. And one time a fire truck drove past an open hydrant with a dalmatian fire dog up on top, I’ll never forget it. that was a sight to see.

  12. Ty Says:

    People (some people) celebrate NYC’s mind boggling diversity without ever examining why it works. Why do so-and-so kill each other at home and yet get along here?

    These open hydrants are a perfect example. The FDNY does show up. And the FDNY installs sprinkler caps. And the FDNY asks “How did you open these hydrants? They need a special tool.”

    Of course some will remove the caps the minute they leave but most are content to let the kids continue playing in the restricted water flow. The kids don’t care.

    Urban planners have a beautiful phrase for this: “desire lines.”

    A desire line is a path pedestrians take that doesn’t match the government sanctioned path. For example people will walk an angle across and empty lot on grid if they can, rather than the up two and one over as the grid dictates. They understand the hypotenuse equals the whatever without a single day in math class since seventh grade.

    NYC says, “OK, until someone builds something here we designate this an official path named after whatever local hero,” It acknowledges reality, it promotes local control, it is reasonable so people will be reasonable later.

    So the ritual of an open hydrant is actually a prompt for the FDNY to show up and say we care about you but we need to cap this now. That resonates for people who felt no one cares about them either in their home country or here in this foreign land.

    Some people may see this as a weakness but we in NYC keep stealing your young so we must be doing something right.

  13. Opal S. Says:

    I shared the hydrant story with my wonderful friend, Anne, a true “South Bronx girl.”

    Here are some of her reminiscences about playing in the hydrants, or as she calls them, “Johnny pumps.”

    “That was our swimming pool…we lived in the streets.”

    Just like the kids in the story, Anne, her brothers, and their neighbors had tricks for keeping the water on: “We also put a bottomless garbage can over the pump so the H2O would shoot straight up and the cops would have to get wet in order to shut off.”

    Anne had a crucial role: “I was a bit of a hero because I brought the wrench and then hid it. I used to take piano lessons in the Convent with the nuns, that was a few doors down from my tenement bldg…and I would hide the wrench in their garden…probably going to hell for that one…”

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