In 1945, when I was two, my parents moved
to a walkup four-room apartment on Underwood Street in Vailsburg.
Then the area was mostly blue collar. Four-family, two story apartments
lined my side of the street. Nicer two-family apartments lined the
other side. Remarkably large oak trees shaded the street. We lived
there until 1957 when our family moved to Springfield.
Looking back on it, I never lived in a better neighborhood. For
sure, there wasn’t a better place for kids to grow up. There were
many good parks within walking or biking distance: Vailsburg, Ivy,
Orange, Irvington. There were four movie theaters within walking
distance. But Underwood Street also dead-ended on an open concrete
walled storm sewer, or trunk sewer that, I believe, eventually flows
into the Elizabeth River in Elizabeth many miles away. It was place
of endless adventure for us. Most of the time water flowed about
a foot or so deep along the concrete bottom of the sewer which was
about 8 feet below ground level. Usually there was a dry path about
18 inches wide between the water line and the concrete wall. Wrought
iron access ladders were placed at intervals in the walls. This
was an irresistible set-up for young boys.
On a regular basis during the summers someone would say ‘Let’s
go down the sewer!” The incongruity of the phrase escaped us. We
didn’t even have to sneak down there behind our parents’ backs.
If they asked us where we were going we’d say “…down the sewer!”
Translated, this meant that we were going to climb down the ladders
and walk along the edge of the water to someplace else. If we had
the time, we walked several miles over to Irvington Center or beyond.
The walk was not without risks. Sometimes the path would disappear
and we would climb up the wall and shuffle along a narrow ledge
between the top of the wall and the backs of garages that abutted
the sewer. Sometimes we’d shuffle along with our backs to the wall
and faces looking down 10 feet or so to the sewer and sometimes
the other way around. Either way was scary. Sometimes slippery wet
moss covered the path. If we lost our footing we would slide into
the water up to our calves or worse. Once someone started sliding
into the center of the sewer he couldn’t stop because of the moss.
The unfortunate would be the butt of jokes until we got home. We
really feared catching polio from contact with the water. When you
were sliding in you could almost feel the polio germs working into
your legs. Fortunately, no one caught polio. The more significant
danger was the wrath of our mothers when we showed up home with
wet shoes and pants.
In any event we would eventually climb out of the sewer anywhere
from behind Irvington High School near Clinton Avenue to a small
park on the edge of Irvington Center and Springfield Avenue. We’d
then spend a few hours and 25 cents or so going through the three
five and ten cents stores in the Center. If we had the money we
would take the green No. 94 Trackless Transit Bus back to Underwood
Street. If not we’d walk back like normal people on the sidewalks
or, maybe head back down the sewer.
I lived in Maryland outside of DC for more than 35 years. Several
months ago I drove down Underwood Street and was saddened by what
I saw. The apartments are all in bad shape or poorly repaired. A
cyclone fence at the end of the street keeps kids out of the sewer.
They will never have the innocent adventures and memories we had
“down the sewer!”