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The Evening of the Alligator

Rick Adams


We live to scare ourselves with stories that are dubiously true or so only by wild exaggeration. In New York City this is the reason that we have daily tabloid newspapers such as the New York Post and the Daily News, which revel in the scare story. Whether it concerns a shooting, a falling scaffold or a baby found in a dumpster, the tabloids highlight the threat and the peril that urban living holds for our unrepentant lives.

New Yorkers are not the only ones who read tabloids, of course. Londoners, the most literary users of the English language, have more tabloids by ten than New Yorkers. Almost every supermarket in America has at least a few tabloids in a ceremonial place of honor near the cash register, and here the scare story reaches exalted proportions. In any Wal-Mart, Shop and Save or Safeway it is not unusual to see tabloid size pictures of monsters or horribly disfigured personages staring menacingly from metal racks at the checkout stand. The fantastical tales that accompany these images tell of demons that we ignore only at our peril. When it comes to unreality and exaggeration the tabloids of supermarket America might actually outdo New York’s daily tabloids. But New York is not outdone when it comes to alligators.

New York has the number one scare story of all big cities. It is the story of the alligators in the sewers, a well known urban myth. It tells us everything we need to know about our attitudes toward cities. The premise is based on fact: in the early 1950s carnivals in Florida sold baby alligators as novelties in small boxes with cellophane windows and air holes. The boxes with the novel prize inside were highly prized by the children who possessed them. At least until they returned home and eventually grew disenchanted with the growing creatures. For city children, like those from New York who vacationed in Florida, this provided a special predicament. Ultimately, they disposed of them in traditional New York City fashion, flushing them down the toilet. What happened, naturally, or at least according to myth, was that the alligators took to the dark and dank of New York’s underworld in a way that could never have been foreseen, growing in size to monstrous proportion as they stalked the depths of the city’s water system, serpentine tails flapping mightily, eyes peering prehistorically through the gathering gloom.

The alligator is a proper New York City demon. A kind of underworld monster that might have been envisioned by Bosh or Goya or a less artistic tormented schizophrenic soul. The most detailed mythologizing of the beast in his domain was presented in Thomas Pynchon’s 1962 novel, V, in which Benny Profane found himself beneath the streets of New York with a group of alligator hunters, who were New York City Department of Environmental Protection employees whose job it was to keep the numbers of the bothersome pests under control. In Pynchon, the alligators actually welcome their death, as an end to their preternatural lives. It is a good myth. A good urban story that is as fanciful as it is fearsome. It is a story that we enjoy telling ourselves whether we believe it is true or not. We take pleasure from it because it expresses our attitude about New York, about big cities in general. More than an urban myth, it is a fable that resonates with the force of a proverb, a classic tale of a decent into the underworld that, like the Divine Comedy, instructs us about good and evil.

Ground Zero For Sudden Inexplicable Death
The alligator story relies on the conjecture that to live in a big city is to be subject to the unintentional acts of others. This may be a foundational fear of big cities, particularly to those who do not reside there, that so many people in a small area leads to chaos, to unpredictable dangers that cannot be controlled or prevented. The city is thus imagined to occasion a state of personal vulnerability. Our fears are countenanced by the hustle and bustle: the city of teeming masses is a cauldron of unpredictable dangers. So many people all crammed together that a few are just bound to do something stupid that threatens the rest of us. It is not too much to say that we are sometimes afraid of cities because we are afraid of people, particularly groups and individuals different from ourselves (or who we imagine ourselves to be), who are everywhere evident in the city. We seldom acknowledge the degree to which differences pose a threat or face the extent to which we fear those differences, although our anxieties may go deep down, distorting our perception of urban crime and animating our terrors of boogie men from Jack the Ripper to Richard Speck to the Zodiac Killer (urbanites all).

Many of our attitudes toward big cities are rooted in the past, from the middle of the nineteenth century on, when millions of streaming immigrants transformed our cities from small settlements of people with relatively similar backgrounds to huge population centers that supplied workers to dark mean factories. Frequently exploited, the new arrivals were mistrusted for their differences, even as they came to mistrust each other according to nationality and ethnic group. Without proper housing and services, unimaginable problems arose, crime and disease ran rampant, and big cities became ground zero for sudden inexplicable death.


Without proper housing and services, unimaginable problems arose, crime and disease ran rampant, and big cities became ground zero for sudden inexplicable death.

For much of its early existence, New York City was the casualty of widespread epidemics that emerged in waves for no apparent reason. After a cholera outbreak caused more than 5,000 deaths in 1848, New York came to be referred to as the "City of Living Death." Other epidemics swept Chicago and New Orleans, where of almost 8,000 people died of yellow fever in 1853.

The occurrence of sudden mysterious death prompted all manner of unreasonable explanations. Superstition supplied the answers that science had not yet found and echoed all that talk about plagues and god’s wrath in the Bible. Commonly, new rural immigrants took these plagues to be a disapproving sign from god that they had transgressed by coming to the city. God was in the country, the devil was in the city.

Middle class contempt for the groups also expressed itself in terms of moral judgment, amplifying the theme of the crowded city as hell. To the largely protestant native residents, the transformation of the city and its new "foreignness" was frightening, and the association of "plagues and people" was irrevocably drawn. In the slums were "concentrated and intensified all those concomitant of poverty which Gothamites found reprehensible: filth, crime, sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, ribaldry, disease and, of course, improvidence and indolence," said Roy Lubov in his classic story of New York slums.

Sin and the city were harmoniously linked ("physical evils produce moral evils" was the common expression), and the prevalence of crime, prostitution and the occasional riot only confirmed the bad things that happened in the city. Never mind the influence of economic dislocation and exploitation, the city was the Devil’s Playground if ever there was one.


Snow’s recognition of the environmental causes of the disease in cities, along with discoveries by Pasteur, Lister and Koch, launched an epidemiological revolution.

These opinions held sway despite the fact that the principal cause of disease, and most causes of sudden death, was lack of proper sanitation. When John Snow made a simple discovery in 1854 that cholera was a water-borne illness, urban threat was liberated from superstition. By mapping the locations of deaths from cholera in London, he showed that the majority of the deaths occurred within 250 yards of the Broad Street water pump. Snow had the water pump handle removed, and ended a cholera epidemic. Snow’s recognition of the environmental causes of the disease in cities, along with discoveries by Pasteur, Lister and Koch, launched an epidemiological revolution.

The effect was profound. The realization that disease was caused by specific pathogens contradicted all the talk of god and damnation. The city of hell had earned a reprieve. As efforts of the public health worker focused on public hygiene, sanitation, sewage, housing, provision of clean water and air and the inspection of meats, death rates fell and epidemics largely ceased. In the course of 40 years, New York City’s death rate fell by more than 50 percent. The falling death rate in New York accorded with the building of a new water system and improved sanitation (catching up with Rome, 2000 years previous), but they were built first for the rich. As the wealthy came to fear the contagion of the under classes, however, sanitation was eventually extended to poor areas.

The fear of contagion held no little threat to the upper classes. It figured in the establishment of New York’s influential 1916 zoning act, which outlawed home manufacturing of garments when the well to do came to fear that their stylish frocks might be contaminated in the houses of the mainly Jewish seamstresses who toiled in squalid tenements.

The alligator story echoes these fears of contamination and threat from others in the crowded city. The reptile in the sewer is an urban sanitation story that scares us with its unclean, unwary dangers and its implicit peril at the hands of distrustful "others." And like the message from a disapproving deity, it also seems to be warning us that we face unnatural dangers in an unnatural environment. What, after all, should we expect, living in such a place. There are no gleaming cities upon the hill, as Blake imagined. What we have, the fable purports, is a sort of urban version of Frankenstein’s monster, our proper reward for transgressing nature, trying to be like god, thumbing our nose at Mother Nature.

The March of the Genetically Advantaged
The roots of the natural world ideal are deep, certainly as deep as Jeane-Jacques "Back to Nature" Rousseau, if not all the way back to the Garden of Eden, the Ur story of Judeo Christian literature, in which the Garden was the was the absolute best most natural spot that ever there was. These stories, however, rely on the aspirational appeal of an imaginary place. No one has yet succeeded at returning to the Garden of Eden, and the appeal of rural living is nowhere as intense as in the imagination of those who maintain its idealistic qualities without actually having to live there. Rousseau, like Thoreau after him, was a city dweller who liked to indulge in rural musings. John McPhee lives in New Jersey, of all places.

Popular culture of the 1960s cultivated the natural world hypothesis for all it was worth. It was a time when the alligator story was most believable, an era when New York City came to represent a new type of Babylonian hell, the reigning capital of the unnatural world, validating the consequences of transgression against natural life styles. This outlook stimulated a new round of anti-urbanism, which protestant America had been holding dear throughout its migration after World War II from racially-mixed cities into the segregated suburbs, where, not incidentally, most of the 1960s neo-Rousseauians grew up.


Haekel was obsessed with providing biological interpretations for all social phenomena, and was comfortably at home with the idea of the city as a malignancy, a notion not without its proponents today.

Although the ideological content of natural world philosophizing is often ignored, it recurrently includes racial implications. The German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term "ecology" in 1867, found no difficulty in aligning a theory of natural purity and ecological holism with views of Nordic racial superiority and racial eugenics ("civilization and the life of nations are governed by the same laws as prevail throughout nature and organic life"). In pre-Hitler Germany, he became one of the major ideologists for racism and nationalism and played a key role in the establishment of the Nazi party. Haekel’s views may have been the consequence of time and history, and his philosophical obsession with "natural" purity may have not led inevitably to a dire racial chauvinism, but the application of his views nonetheless shows the volatility of abstract reasoning about nature’s superiority to humanity, especially when it cloaks itself in dead certainty and imperviousness.

Haekel was obsessed with providing biological interpretations for all social phenomena, and was comfortably at home with the idea of the city as a malignancy, a notion not without its proponents today, despite its anti-humanist presumptions. Dr. Warren M. Hern, a Colorado physician and epidemiologist, observed a few years ago, for instance, that satellite views of urban areas look exactly like cancerous tissue. He claimed that urban centers behave like cancerous tumors invading the healthy surrounding tissue of rural areas.

The natural world hypothesis has a variety of other useful applications, including Clarence Thomas’s defense of natural law, which assumes a morality that must be arbitrated by authorities who speak for God. The natural world is also the center of the universe for socio-biologists like Edward O. Wilson, who posits the idea of "biophiolia," the genetic disposition of humans to live in nature. Once we enter the intellectual world of "genetic disposition" innocence is shed and the image of morally-superior, genetically-advantaged troops marching into big cities to rectify the unnatural lives of its inhabitants becomes hard to erase. The presumptive message of the alligator story is that of repressed nature. What the story tells us is that if we attempt to extinguish the incompatible visitor from the natural world, the alligator, it will some how persist and grow more fearsome. This is a tale that could have been authored by Sigmund Freud, a tale of warning about the consequences of burying our impulses toward nature. We do not have to indulge in psychoanalysis to recognize the similarity of the underground home of the alligator to Freud’s unconscious, the part of the mind containing repressed wishes, memories, fears, feelings, and ideas that are prevented from expression in conscious awareness. Flushing the baby alligator is a lot like repressing desire, which in Freud’s formulation only temporarily submerges its influence, which eventually asserts itself in dreams or, less innocuously, neurotic symptoms. The alligator story, then, is also a parable about mental health in the city. Not only is the urban resident biophilia-deprived and excommunicated from nature, the story implies, but he is forced to shunt the small vestiges of natural life into dark exile, repressing any intrusion as a threat to his false world and making himself neurotic in the bargain.

Aggressive, Passive, Pan-Sexual and, Of Course, Berserk
If the alligator in the sewer is telling us that we are driving ourselves crazy by living in the city, he would not be the first to do so. For as long as we have chosen to view cities as "unnatural," we have linked them to mental pathology. Inceptive in this contention was Georg Simmel, an early sociologist who observed the different way that people behaved in cities and attempted to provide a cause. He concluded that city life was so over stimulating that it transformed people from their natural selves into a strange kind of urban creature that was inattentive, rude and "blasé" to the world around them. "Man's nature, originally good and common to all," he argued, "should develop unhampered."

Simmel’s influence stretched through a succession of urban sociologists who took his presumption of urban mental pathology to greater, sometimes more absurd, lengths. By the 1920s, the Chicago school of urban sociologists integrated the idea of pervasive urban pathology with an explanatory scheme of neighborhood sectors in which social and psychological influences are contained in "moral regions" that ring the center of cities. The group, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, Robert McKenzie, whose theories eventually became linked under the heading "urban ecology," set the course of urban social diagnosis for fifty years, locking in the idea that cities essentially make people sick, socially and psychologically. Parks most well known urban inhabitant, for example, was "marginal man," whose arrival in the city produced a "changed type of personality," who was made "unstable" by his unfortunate encounter with urban life.


The unstable urbanite was stereotyped in Faris and Dunham’s 1939 classic, Mental Disorders in Urban Areas, in which the presence of manic depression was found to be ecologically correlated with urban living.

The unstable urbanite became a conventional stereotype that haunted urban research until the 1970s. Its most farcical appearance, however, was in Faris and Dunham’s 1939 classic, Mental Disorders in Urban Areas, in which the presence of manic depression was found to be ecologically correlated with urban living. Faris and Dunham plotted all the reported cases of manic depression in Chicago and found that the closer to the center of the city one went, the more manic depressives there were. Ergo the city, particularly, the crowded city, causes manic depression. The seriousness with which this study was taken shows how influential the urban ecology argument had become. That urban living caused manic depression was seen as entirely plausible, despite the obvious retort—where else are crazy people going to live, on a dude ranch?

Urban ecology as a prevailing outlook lasted throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s, and is still regarded seriously in some quarters today, which leaves to question whether academic research influenced popular opinion or popular opinion influenced urban research. Regardless, it is clear that a long-standing focus of urban sociology reflected popular mistrust of urban living as a legitimate, mentally healthy activity, and frequently made itself look foolish in doing so.

The undying classic of urban social research, accordingly, was John Calhoun’s famous rat in the maze study of 1961 and 1962. So influential was Calhoun’s study that it achieved nearly the popular status of an urban myth itself, escaping sociological textbooks to be discussed on talk shows and in tabloids. Calhoun put a number of white rats in a confined space and provided ample food and water. Over time he increased the number of rats in the environment, imitating, he hypothesized, the crowded living conditions of the city.

As they grew more crowded, the rats started acting strangely. Some of the rats became more aggressive. Some of the rats became more passive. Some of the rats became "pan-sexual." Some of the rats just went berserk. The import of the story, once again, was that city living was plenty unnatural and plenty dangerous to our mental stability. So influential was the study that when the White House Commission on Race, known as the Kern Report, examined the "causes" of the 1968 Detroit riots, it listed the unnaturally crowded conditions of the inner city as a major contributing factor. Some of the inhabitants had just gone berserk.


We still await the urban myth that tells us why we should value our cities, how they reflect our aspirations to civilization as well as our attempts, however feeble, to live together in community.

Over time, the rat and the maze story was discredited because of the inability to replicate its findings with humans. The appeal of the story is at best metaphorical—humans live in figurative mazes not real ones, and cities, even at their most crowded, are different from laboratory cages. The resonant chord that the study struck, and the eager willingness with which its conclusions have sometimes been believed, tells us a truth of another kind, of course. That truth is we are often willing to believe a good story when it seems to prove that cities are harmful places.

So it is with the alligator story, which in fact came to its mythological status almost concurrently with the rat in the maze story and uses larger animals to make essentially the same point, that urban danger lurks in hidden places. We still await the urban myth that tells us why we should value our cities, how they reflect our aspirations to civilization as well as our attempts, however feeble, to live together in community. Perhaps such a myth should feature a coyote instead of an alligator. The coyote knows well how to live in groups as a peaceful productive member, and its present long-term migration appears to be urban bound.

There is a final implicit message that the alligator story imparts, nevertheless, that should not be overlooked. Remembering that even mythical alligators may one day escape, the message pertains to both New York City residents who intend to use their bathroom toilets for purposes other than flushing alligators, as well to seekers of the good life in the rest of the country. And that message is: one should always watch one’s ass.


Copyright © Rick Adams 1999. RUT thanks Rick Adams for permission to publish this article.

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