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Buried Alive

That’s a small piece of an old industrial building – my guess is 1870s or 80s – that’s been recently altered, in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. New storefronts, new sidewalk, and three arches at an odd location, half underground.

There’s no great mystery: the cellar level used to have windows here, facing either window wells or some kind of areaway. That may all have been removed decades ago, or it may have been removed just now for the new sidewalk. Modern lighting and ventilation make windows like that unnecessary, as does modern zoning that severely limits the use of occupied cellars. And widows at grade have always been a waterproofing problem.

What comes to mind looking at that is how dependent everyone was on natural light until well into the twentieth century. The elementary-school history of technology has a story that goes something like this: Edison worked very hard and invented the electric light, and then everything changed. The first four words of that are true, the rest is not, really. Electric lights, including filament light bulbs, existed before Edison; what he and his employees worked out was a beginning-to-end system of lighting, including power plants, transmission wires, transformers, and better bulbs. But his better bulbs were, by our standards, not very good. Into the 1930s, the light from electric light was generally at low levels that made supplementing it with daylight a good idea. This building was likely constructed before Edison’s first power plant came on line, and it’s in a neighborhood that would have waited some time after that to be wired.

In 1870, the realistic choices for lighting were gas lamps, oil lamps, candles, fireplaces, and daylight. Electric light existed, but arc lamps were too expensive, too big, too bright, too noisy, and too irregular in output to be used indoors. To use one of the great titles of a non-fiction book, it was a world lit only by fire. Artificial light was low, flickering, and always carried with it the risk of fire. So the cost to build and maintain windows wells to light a cellar, or cast-iron and glass sidewalks to light a vault, made sense.