When you walk around New York and look up, more often than not, you see fire-escapes.
A few weekends back, on a sunny afternoon, I went out for a walk with the specific purpose of finding the oldest building in my neighborhood (yes, I am a crazy person!). My research was going pretty well – think I found something built as far back as 1880 – until I spotted the ‘Fallout Shelter’ sign on a building at a corner along Riverside Drive. And once I started looking for it, I found it EVERYWHERE…almost every second block has a building with a Fallout Shelter sign, at least around Columbia. Isn’t it wonderful when you notice something that has been there all along, for the first time?
I guessed these signs had something to do with nuclear war or a bomb attack, but I wanted to find out more about when they were put up and why there were so many of them around me and if these shelters were functional etc etc. And it’s at precisely such moments when you just HAVE to find out the answers to completely out-of-the-blue-questions that you pat yourself on the back for buying an iphone…ha ha!
So, this is what I found out. During the Cold War, when everyone was obsessed with the threat of a nuclear attack, several governments decided to build dedicated shelters to protect their citizens from radioactive debris in case of a fallout. The basements of many existing residential or commercial buildings were also converted into makeshift shelters and these days that’s where you are most likely to come across the yellow (or black) trefoil sign pictured above.
Other countries like Switzerland, Finland, Norway also undertook similar projects, but American citizens had the most shelter space available per capita. I suppose that explains why every second building around here seems to have that sign! In 1961, President Kennedy wrote a letter in Life magazine “setting off a wave of “shelter mania” which lasted for about a year.” People sang songs about them. Since 1980s most of these shelters have been decommissioned and are no longer active.
What I find amazing is that a small sheet of metal can carry with it so much urban, political and social history and we can pass by it everyday and not even notice. Can you imagine that not so long ago people who lived in our buildings and apartments thought so differently about their future? Of course, we all theoretically know about that time, but picture them living in your apartment and cooking in your kitchen and worrying about buying groceries in case of a nuclear attack. Imagine coming back from the park with your 6-year old and watching the super put up this sign outside your building and answering your child’s questions about it?
But the sad truth is that even though we, who live in these “sheltered” buildings, no longer have to notice these relics from the past, there are people elsewhere who do have to worry about being attacked by bombs every minute. And they do have to explain to their children why it is that they can’t go play outside. And their governments have probably not built any shelters for them.