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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 August 2006, 11:28 GMT 12:28 UK
Why New York is losing its cool
By Stephen Evans
BBC News, New York

A heatwave has been hitting New York and other parts of the eastern US in recent weeks. Demand for air-conditioning has soared, but huge power demands have prompted calls for New Yorkers to find alternative ways to cope with the summer.

A New York City police officer wipes his face during the city's heatwave
New York last saw a heatwave of a similar intensity in July 1999
It has been 90F - just over 30C - this week in New York, humid and sweaty.

But it could have been worse.

After all, 90F is not the 102F (39C) recorded the week before at the city's La Guardia airport.

All the same, walking the streets this past week has been like walking through a sauna, but still better than the peak of the heatwave the week before, when walking the streets was like walking through a sauna wrapped in a plastic mac.

The city was to realise too how precariously we are kept in a comfortable civilisation by technology.

As air-conditioning units went on, power cut out. Lights went off.

Previous generations opened windows and sweated, future generations will demand a chill indoors
The Brooklyn Bridge was dark. Times Square was dimmed.

The electricity company, Consolidated Edison - Con Ed - calculated that on one of the days of the heatwave, 13,141 megawatts were consumed, more than on any other day in New York's history.

Society transformed

Normally, air-conditioning is so brutal in New York that you need a sweater to alternate between the sauna of the street and the chill cabinet that department stores become, but even that has been tempered this year - perhaps because of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plea to live with the heat.

A boy plays in water spraying out of a fire hydrant in New York (Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Some chose to adopt a more natural way to keep cool
People did find less sophisticated ways of keeping cool too.

In some parts of Upper Manhattan, they managed to remove the caps on fire hydrants so water gushed over the street.

Officials were then abused when they tried to turn the impromptu fountains off.

In one neighbourhood, they found themselves doused, aptly enough, by buckets of water thrown from upstairs windows.

Washington DC became the first American city to consume more electricity in summer than in winter
It is a taste of the future everywhere as incomes rise and the demand for air-conditioning soars.

Previous generations opened windows and sweated. Future generations will demand a chill indoors.

The Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (no less) reckons that 87% of American homes now have air-conditioning, compared with only a third of them 30 years ago.

Presidential doubts

The big turning point came in the middle of the last century, when Washington DC became the first American city to consume more electricity in summer than in winter.

Former US President Roosevelt
FDR was among those unconvinced by the virtues of air-conditioning
There had been a big debate about air-conditioning.

America was split, with what you might call the stoical camp arguing that it would weaken the American character.

This suspicion of air-conditioning was held by the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no less, who sweated his way through the summer in the White House.

Not that he was alone.

The acknowledged chronicler of air-conditioning, Marsha Ackerman, told me that when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stayed with him, they out-did him by insisting on extra blankets in the saturated humidity - true British grit or simple eccentricity, who knows?

Calming effect

It was not a universal view though. There was a counter argument with a racist undertone.

Barbarism and hot climates, it was said, went together. Spread air-conditioning, this argument went, and you spread civilisation.

Air-conditioning in the US today is essential, or so it seems to me
In the end though, it was not this ideology that triumphed but simple technology and price.

According to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning, the Frigidaire division of General Motors brought out its first room cooler in 1929. From then on, air-conditioning units became smaller and cheaper and society was transformed.

And perhaps politics too.

Since 1940, eight of the 10 fastest growing states have been in the south, the conservative south, prompting the question of whether there would be a Republican in the White House today had air-conditioning not permitted economic and population expansion in Republican areas.

Whatever the politics, air-conditioning in the US today is essential, or so it seems to me, albeit with a down-side when everyone switches the thermostats down to Arctic temperatures.

Water 'torture'

In old tenement blocks, the air-conditioning unit is a great metal box which extends a few feet out of the window, held in place by screws into the frame.

Manhattan skyline
Buildings in New York are being urged to conserve power

As each unit sucks water out of the atmosphere at night, that water drips on to the unit below.

A relentless American torture of drip, drip, drip on to the metal casing outside your bedroom window.

I found this so painful one night that I wrenched open the window to try to pull my unit in, only to find it sliding out towards the street four floors below.

I wrestled with the box, teetering on the sill, and finally managed to drag it back in, so, I like to think, saving the lives of passers-by on 11th Street.

But then what would be worse: causing death by falling air-conditioner, or having to sweat it out in the unbearable heatwave of a New York summer?

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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