About 35 people showed up on a cloudy Sunday afternoon at the Bearsville Center last week to hear Lucy Sante talk about her new book tracing the evolution of New York City’s upstate water system.
Nineteen Reservoirs, it’s called.
The event was presented by the Woodstock bookstore The Golden Notebook, which took over the coffee-house space except for a mirror whose etched writing announced Nancy’s Artisanal Creamery, the usual tenant.
“My purpose is not to condemn the reservoir system, without which New York City might have faded into insignificance over the course of the twentieth century, not only squelching its vast financial power but aborting its function as shelter for millions of people displaced from elsewhere,” Sante writes in her introduction. “I would simply like to give an account of the human cost, an overview of the tradeoffs, a summary of unintended consequences.”
The 198-page book, issued by a modestly sized New York City publishing house called The Experiment, contains lavish illustration, some historical in nature and some contemporary photography taken in 2020 by Tim Davis. Both Ulster County resident Sante and Dutchess County resident Davis teach photography at Bard College, Sante specializing on the history of photography.
Unfortunately, the high-quality book production leaves by my count only 70 pages for the writing. Each of the six chapters (the Croton system, the Ashokan, Gilboa, Rondout and Neversink, Pepacton and Cannonsville) presents a time line and basic data.
This organization of the book leaves only limited space for what Sante does best, weaving in the thoughts and plaints of those displaced from their homes, businesses and landscapes — the Catskillian human fabric whose displacement plays so important a role in the discussion of unintended consequence.
Sante is noted for digging through newspaper reports, archives, letters and folk tales to present the anguish of plain folks. She announced at the beginning of the Bearsville program that it was her custom to read a chapter first, and she did so. The presentation was rhythmic, punctuated by brief pauses by Sante to dramatize what was coming, which when it did come ions drew an appreciative murmur on all occasions from the Woodstock audience.
Sante, who moved to Delaware County in 1994 and has been an Ulster County resident since 2000, is a stylist, an expert juggler of words.
Just as Nineteen Reservoirs contrasts historic and contemporary visual images, so it might have contrasted the brutal history of their construction with their present management. New York City consumes a billion gallons of clean water a day. Despite the decline in total water usage in recent years, the city has spent huge amounts of money to maintain and improve its water supply. It has greatly improved leak detection. It’s spending a half-billion dollars on a new leak-proof tunnel to carry water from the western shore side to the east side of the Hudson River. It’s spending billions on detecting, studying and eliminating microscopic parasites that carry disease. These measures are essential if New York City is to avoid or at least delay federal-government-mandated filtration, which would cost it more than $10 billion.
New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) laboratory and offices on Smith Avenue in Kingston may be that city’s biggest employer. Most get New York City salaries. Though the DEP may be accused of being bureaucratic, impersonal, insolent and exploitative, it has rarely been accused of unwillingness to spend money to protect its water supply. The city water supply is sacred. Any politico who dared suggest cutting back on protecting it courts danger.
For decades, I have been reading Luc Sante’s incisive and intelligent work in The New York Review of Books. Recently I read a piece in the February issue of Vanity Fair headlined “On Becoming Lucy Sante.” The subhead read: “For the first time, the renowned writer, culture critic, and scholar of the demimonde discusses her transition — and finding herself.”
I read the Vanity Fair story. It contained the usual Sante honesty of expression and reflectiveness. Perhaps a little more.
“Changing genders was a strange and electric idea that had lived somewhere in the recesses of my mind for the better part of my 67 years,” it declared.
I couldn’t do the article the justice it deserves. It’s available on the Internet as
https://www.vanityfair.com/style/2022/01/on-becoming-lucy-sante. You should read it for yourself.