Why a Sculptor Was Drawn to Sewer Alligators

A Swedish artist’s creation, to be unveiled today, shows a creature that has mythic status in New York City.

Good morning. It’s Tuesday. Today we’ll find out about the latest take on the myth about alligators in the sewers — a statue in Union Square Park. We’ll also find out about the brothers who led the way across the George Washington Bridge and through the Lincoln Tunnel when they were young.

A man with his arms folded stands next to a statue of an alligator on top of a manhole cover.
via Alexander Klingspor

Mythology has long been immortalized in art. The Swedish artist Alexander Klingspor set out to immortalize something from urban mythology: alligators in the sewers of New York.

The sculpture he made shows a full-size alligator on a manhole cover. It will be unveiled in Union Square today. It has the approval of the Department of Parks & Recreation and the Union Square Partnership, the neighborhood’s nonprofit economic development group. “We love the idea of big ideas,” said Julie Stein, the executive director of the partnership.

Klingspor said he had no real-life experience with his subject. “Alligators, I’ve only seen in the zoo,” he said, though he added that he had once gone swimming with a crocodile in Mexico.

And because the sewer alligator began as a pandemic project, Klingspor had to rely on what he called “online references.” He could not fly to New York from Sweden, climb down into a sewer and hunt hopefully for an alligator that would be a model. There may or may not be alligators down there, but he doubted that it was safe to descend to find out.

“I personally think the sewers might be too toxic,” he said.

Many scientists agree, saying that alligators would not thrive in the sludge, the darkness and the cold of winter. But alligators have had a place in the popular culture and the public imagination, from the novelist Thomas Pynchon’s “V.” in the 1960s to movies like “Alligator” in the 1980s and “Alligator 2: The Mutation” in the 1990s.

“It is a fascinating monster,” Klingspor said. “It is the only one that keeps turning up in the news, and New York has been home to many monsters — Godzilla, King Kong, even Mr. Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the old ‘Ghostbusters’ movie. The alligator is the only one that comes back again and again.”

That, he said, reminded him of New Yorkers’ resilience. Alligators, like New Yorkers, “seem to be adapted to surviving.”

Michael Miscione, the former Manhattan borough historian, said that “the myth endures because it is irresistible.”

“Like all good urban legends,” Miscione said, “it contains a nugget of truth.”

That’s why Miscione celebrates Feb. 9 as Alligator in the Sewers Day, marking the day in 1935 when teenagers in East Harlem lassoed an eight-foot alligator beneath a manhole. There has been speculation ever since that the 125-pound reptile had been brought back from Florida as a souvenir or sent through the mail when it was small. Some accounts suggest that the animal had managed to escape from a passing ship and find its way into the sewer system.

There have also been alligator sightings in New York beyond the sewers: In February, an alligator was pulled from the lake in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. It had swallowed a bathtub stopper. It died in April despite extensive medical treatment at the Bronx Zoo.

Klingspor described his statue as “a stylized version of an alligator, an interpretation.”

“I don’t think alligators bend that much naturally,” he said.


Enjoy sunny skies with highs in the low 60s. In the evening, expect cooler, cloudier weather with temps in the low 50s.


In effect until Nov. 1 (All Saints Day).

Luis Ferré-Sadurní/The New York Times

via HistoryMiami Museum

In death as in life, Mr. First went first and Mr. Second followed.

Mr. First was Omero Catan, a Bronx-born vacuum cleaner salesman. In the days when bridges were being built and subways were being opened and instant landmarks were being dedicated, he managed to position himself at the front of the line. He was the first person to go through the Lincoln Tunnel, in 1937.

Mr. Second — his brother Michael Katen — often went with him. (Katen, who died in 2008, said in 1995 that his brother had changed the spelling of his name when he was a teenager.)

Now Catan, who died in 1996, is the subject of an “Overlooked” obituary, one in The Times’s series about remarkable people whose deaths went unreported.

Catan had an amazing record. He was the first passenger on the Eighth Avenue subway (Sept. 10, 1932), the first to put a coin in a New York City parking meter (Sept. 19, 1951), the first to skate across the rink at Rockefeller Center (Christmas Day, 1936) and the first to drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge (Dec. 15, 1955).

I met Mr. Second when he re-enacted a first of his own. Katen was at the wheel of the first car to drive through the north tube of the Lincoln Tunnel when it opened in 1945, eight years after the two brothers led the way through the center tube, the first to open.

Mr. First, who at the time was recuperating from war injuries in an Army hospital in England, wrote to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the tunnel, and asked if Katen could stand in for him. The answer was yes, and Katen parked his Pontiac — four days early, in midwinter. The macaroni and coffee he had brought along froze.

In 1998, Katen was on hand for another anniversary — the time the brothers set out to be in the first plane to land at what is now Kennedy International Airport.

Once they touched down, their pilot pulled up next to President Harry S. Truman’s plane. The Secret Service agents tried to wave them away “until I told them the tower had told us to go there,” Katen recalled.

Their proximity paid off: “President Truman greeted us and congratulated us for being first.”


Dear Diary:

It was the early 1960s. My older brother was a newly minted ensign in the U.S. Navy stationed aboard the U.S.S. Saratoga at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He invited my parents and me to take a tour of his ship and the shipyard.

We got a full tour of the Saratoga. We saw his quarters, the officers’ mess, the flight deck and more.

When we were done, my brother offered to take us to the officers’ club for dinner. He called for one of the taxis that drove people around the base, and we waited for it to arrive.

A van finally pulled up, and we all climbed in.

“Where to, sir?” the driver asked my brother.

“The officers’ club,” my brother replied.

The driver started the engine and executed an especially skillful U-turn.

“Here we are, sir!” he said.

Janet Barr

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Ashley Shannon Wu and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at nytoday@nytimes.com.

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