On a recent early evening, I came across a small scrimmage in Union Square, not an unusual scene for a warm day. But as I got closer, I noticed that at the center of the huddle of bodies was a bank of water fountains. A large pickup truck awaited nearby and some workers were trying to delicately pry the thirsty New Yorkers away from their water source so they could pack up the fountain. As I got closer, I could see large letters on the side of the troth: “Water-on-the-Go” and the familiar logo of the city of New York. Apparently, the city has been providing these portable fountains around town for free each summer since 2010.But water fountains, mostly the non-portable sort, have only been around NYC since the mid-19th century.
Specifically, since the opening of the Croton Aqueduct which finally brought fresh water to the city in 1842 – 90 millions gallons of it per day. Instead of contaminated well-water, the city’s residence now had consistent access to fresh and clean water for the first time. The effects were transformational to the city and to the health of its residents. Wealthier New Yorkers installed running water in their homes and public bath houses and pools were constructed for everyone else . Cockroach trivia of the day: the horrendous critters became known as Croton bugs because they congregated around the water pipes. To celebrate clean water, lavish fountains were erected in Union Square and City Hall Park and over the next few decades, public drinking fountains were built across the city to quench the thirst of “man and beast.”
Today there are 1,970 water fountains in the city with the most in Brooklyn. Their designs are more functional than the ornamental fountains of the last century, but free and clean water is clearly something that New Yorkers still very much appreciate.