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How Did New Yorkers Deal With Heat Waves in Centuries Past? (SLIDESHOW)

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The east coast is stifling through one of the worst heat waves on record. In a city like New York, where concrete ratchets temperatures from hot to hellish, refuge can only be found inside air-conditioned interiors. But how did New Yorkers deal with the heat in the days before A/C?

The first answer: get out.

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The monied have long known the best part of New York is thinking about it from a distance. "In high summer, as everyone knows, aristocratic New York... goes out of town," declared Professor Charles Carroll in Harper's Magazine in 1878. "The 'ribbon of respectability' - the narrow tract from Thirty-Fourth street to Fifty-Seventh street, between Fourth and Sixth Avenues - becomes a sort of brick and cobblestone Sahara." Today's ribbons of respectability - 5th and Park - stand similarly vacant today.

Before the mid-19th century escape wasn't as imperative. During the colonial period, when New York extended only as far north as today's Chambers Street, one might merely climb up the island to escape the crowd. Because of its position - catching the jet stream from the west, surrounded by rivers and oceans that quicken the wind further - Manhattan could itself provide refuge.

Visit Alexander Hamilton's country house, which sits to this day at 140th street. Stand on the veranda. Stare into the garden. Be silent. There was no need to retire to other islands - Long Island, Fire Island, Mount Desert Island - when the isle of Mannahatta stretched its forests and streams for ten miles north.

Until, that is, industry and immigrants converged to transform New York from a backwater to a metropolis.

From the mid-19th century on, as the rich poured out for the summer, crowds of immigrants poured onto the streets. "At night especially, the Teutonic regions of Rivington Street, the Oriental vistas of Avenue B, teem with a multifarious vitality," Professor Carroll tells us. "The sweltering pavements ablaze with the dazzle of countless gaslights and the smoky glare of street vendors' stands. The stifling air is heavier still with the smoke of pipes and cigars." Today Avenue B is no longer "Oriental," but the streets over the tip of 110th teem, while Brooklyn transforms into a summer-long block party.

People took to the streets to escape the unbearable suffocation of their overcrowded tenement housing. Stifling interiors similarly led newspaper man and popular songwriter George Pope Morris to use his office-bound workday to beg the city to speed the opening of the long-awaited Croton Aqueduct system in 1842.

Unseal the city fountains,

And let the waters flow
In coolness from the mountains
Unto the plains below.

I'm weeping like the willow
That droops in leaf and bough--
Let Croton's sparkling billow
Flow through the city now.

Children who prize open fire hydrants, transforming the street into a water park, bask to this day in cool Catskill water carried downstate by Croton.

Makeshift sprinklers serve those who can't visit pools of water. The outer boroughs have always had their Brightons and Rockaways, but Manhattan has had to improvise. Swimming became a popular pastime in the late 19th century in answer to sanitation concerns. Although the first private marine baths had been anchored downtown off the Battery in 1817, between 1890 and 1910 the city funded 15 free-floating pools along the Hudson and East Rivers. Pools remained the most popular form of heat relief for decades.

Until revolution blew through the city in 1925.

The installation of a centrifugal chiller in the Rivoli Theatre in Times Square in 1925 triumphantly heralded the arrival of air-conditioning for a mass consumer market. Modern air-conditioning had been invented in upstate New York by William Carrier some twenty years earlier. The public, however, had yet to experience its powers, because Carrier had yet to find a buyer. He eventually persuaded the Paramount Pictures Corporation that air-conditioning might prove as big a draw as Douglas Fairbanks.

"The opening of the Rivoli and its air conditioning system," remembered Carrier, "were heralded along Broadway. People lined up at the box office, curious about 'cool comfort.'" A glitch almost undid the unveiling. "The doors opened before the air conditioning system was turned on. The people poured in... It takes time to pull down the temperature in a quickly filled theater on a hot day." Gradually, though, "the fans dropped into laps as the effects of the air conditioning system became evident. We had stopped them 'cold.'"

Air-conditioning serves to this day as a crucial marketing tool. The city mandates that every retail space larger than 4,000 square feet be cooled. Some businesses play on the fact. They prop their doors open, sending licks of cold air to the street to lure passers-by inside - so potentially wasteful a practice the city orders the same businesses to seal their doors shut or face a fine.

Some partially blamed such over-use of electricity for the Great Blackout of August 2003.

The black-out became a "where were you when..." moment for many New Yorkers. I Spent My Blackout downing Sancerre, eating imported cheese, and catching tile-shaped chocolate truffles on my tongue before my fingertips melted through them. After trekking back home from Midtown to Brooklyn eight miles in the heat, I had stopped in to say hello to my friends at the local French bistro. The chef had laid all the perishables on bar. "These will just go bad without refrigeration." With the food in our bellies we tipsily shone flashlights down the unusually pitch-black streets of Park Slope, bumping into co-revelers armed with their own flashlights - a 20th century, middle class version of the "countless gaslights" and "oriental crowds" of the Lower East Side. Anything to avoid our sweltering apartments.

The following day at work my boss asked me what I'd done to avoid the heat. I rubbed my eyes, still foggy. Before I could answer he smugly announced his solution. "I rode the city buses all night long!" he announced. As he lorded over my desk, I imagined him: down the island's east side. Then up the west side. Then down again. A single man in his fifties, profile silhouetted against the night like a Hopper, riding the city buses, solitary, all night long. "When all else fails, the A/C will work on a bus," he concluded. "it's not connected to anything!"

New Yorkers, a lesson from recent history. In the midst of the current heat wave - in the absence of a summer house, fire hydrants, pools, movie theaters or home air-con - take to the buses.

What do you do to avoid the heat? For some there is nothing cooler than a New York City bus.