AND THERE THEY ARE: The Water Towers of New York — My Fascination and My Fear

Jonathan Coleman
4 min readJun 22, 2021

For all the years I lived in New York, from my twenties into my mid-thirties, I never paid much attention to them — the controversial, iconic water towers of Manhattan — but this summer I have. This summer, I find myself subletting a room in an apartment at the top of a commercial building, an apartment that opens out onto a roof where, nearly every night, I sit, staring at these odd, mostly wooden, sphinx-like pieces of statuary, almost prehistoric in a way. I can hardly ignore them, and find that I don’t want to; they not only calm me at the end of an anxiety-riddled day, but they make me smile as I think of the scene in Mary Poppins where there is a lot of scampering from roof to roof. At the same time, I am reminded of the immense green water tower that not only dominated the landscape of the overnight camp in the Pocono Mountains where I went for many summers, but which posed a certain, unarticulated threat to me. I would have the occasional nightmare that I, deathly afraid of heights, would be forcibly taken up the steps during the night and dropped in, left to fend for myself in the dark and unimaginably deep water, and that no one would hear my cry.

As I sit and watch the towers now, I think of them as hats, lovingly covering and protecting the buildings they sit upon, knowing as much about the history of these buildings and its inhabitants, perhaps, as do the superintendents and the doormen on the ground. Some of them are hidden, owing to a belief that they are unsightly, but most are there for the world to see, if we happen to look up from our cell phones long enough to take them in. Twenty-five years ago, the artist Rachel Whitread tried to ensure just that, creating a translucent resin cast of one — a beacon of light — and placing it on a building in Soho for two years. And a decade before that, in 1985, another made its presence felt in a different way, collapsing of old age and falling into a Chelsea parking lot, demolishing six cars.

A few nights after I began this evening activity, I was having dinner with friends and I discovered something else that these stolid yet haunting structures also apparently represent: a place to cool off in the midst of a sweltering summer. As the story goes, according to two young men in their twenties, there was a party being held on the roof of a building in Williamsburg, a party to which nearly four hundred people came, and at which a few adventurous souls decided to drop in for a dip. Whether they were responding to a dare or just showing off or just being foolish and young and sporting a hey-you-only-live-once attitude is unclear: it is unclear because, like the Scarlet Pimpernel or Spiderman, which had been filmed nearby, these particular Water Tower Swimmers have been hard to find. No one seems able, or willing, to say who they were. But everyone says they went in and that, somehow, they managed to come back out.

At that same party, though, was an artist named Andy, who lives in the building and has witnessed on a number of occasions a fellow “artist of sorts” who regularly takes his shoes off, undresses, and slips into the water, water he describes as “nice and clean” and where he can see clear to the bottom. And when he is done paddling around and exploring, he simply climbs up the ladder inside the tank and eases himself out. Who needs the Hamptons, one might ask, when you have this sort of privacy?

Curious to find out who else in the New York area engages in this kind of nefarious activity, I posted an ad on Craigslist under “Community” and “Activity Partners,” stating that I wanted to swim in a water tower but wanted to do so with someone who “had experience.” Eventually, “Ken” replied: Answering out of curiosity. Swam in the Triathlon last week, but never swam in a water tower. Never even thought about it…. Do you get pulled down to the sewer if someone flushes a toilet???

The mind races at all the possibilities.