3 min read

A Brigade of Precarious ACs Plays Its Droning Song

The heartbeat of the city is the steady drip-drip drip-drip of air conditioners.
Window air conditioning units jut out in perpendicular cubes from the floors of a brownstone.

When the thermometer explodes to the melting point of human flesh, when the horizon of heat waves shudders with each bass thump of a passing sound system, when the air is a swimming pool, the heartbeat of the city is the steady drip-drip drip-drip drip-drip drip-drip of air conditioners.

Humidity clings to the skin like the juice of an orange you have just peeled and eaten. You must soon retreat indoors. A wet splash lands on the back of your neck… The harbinger of a heat-breaking summer storm? Alas, no, ‘tis but the passing drizzle of condensate, for above you towers a ziggurat of window units, temples to temperature technology. To glide between their drops, to waltz to the thrum of their compressors’ hum, to skirt their puddles of urban precipitate in open-toed shoes is to navigate the summer like a true New Yorker.

The dripping water is all part of the plan. The ubiquitous miracle that “conditions” our air, not only cools, but circulates and dehumidifies. Our units suck the hot, stuffy air of our walk-up apartments into their maw, drawing water vapor into their coils and spitting it back out onto the street. They are gargoyles fit for our Gotham.

Some are balanced on brackets. Some on precarious piles of bricks. Some seem completely unsupported—defying gravity in a foreboding, cantilevered abandon. Birds will stuff twigs and shredded paper just below their overhang, sheltering their nests under the protection of cubic wings. You will only discover the detritus in late fall, when you retract the protruding box back inside and convert it over to its cold weather role of a platform for your shoes at the bottom of the closet.

Our hubris in manipulating the very atmosphere around us, shaping the air to our whims, may cool our sweltering studio, but flies us dangerously closer to the sun—the aggregation of AC emissions conspiring to raise global temperatures by deadly fractions of degree. For now, count your blessings as you throw your bag upon the bed, press power, and let the cold air evaporate the sweat off your skin.

Vintage advertisement for the Rivoli Theatre depicts people marveling at a giant cooling machine and the text "Keep Cool at the Rivoli"
In the history of great moments in air conditioning innovation, Willis Carrier installed what's considered the first cinema AC in New York's Rivoli Theatre in 1925. Carrier stated: “Yes, the people are going to like it,” and indeed the theater banked $100,000 more than the previous summer. (image via @WillisCarrier)
  • Give your AC a rest and find a local park: the difference between a city street and a greenspace can be up to 16 degrees! Which means the disparity of park access in different neighborhoods can significantly contribute to inequality in who can escape the summer heat.
  • When there isn’t room for a park, a green roof can combat the heat island effect. While not all of NYC’s green roofs are open to the public—sorry if you want to try and scale the 135,000-square-foot sedum green roof on Brooklyn’s Barclays Center—NYC Parks, which has 250,000 square feet of green roofs around the city, offers tours highlighting their benefits.
  • You may have been walking by one of NYC’s gloriously inviting fountains with their cascades of cooling water and wondered… can I jump in? It turns out it is not against the rules to go into the park fountains, although beware that the water is not treated like in a swimming pool. Popular fountain oases include Washington Square Park and the Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Refresh without fear!