On a sunny August Friday, people stream past the ornate, Art Deco US Post Office building in Manhattan’s East Village, where its forlorn and faded “Fallout Shelter” plaque is an ominous reminder, however distant, of today’s nuclear threat.
The yellow and white metal sign on the Cooper Station Post Office is one of perhaps thousands that can be found scattered throughout the city — largely forgotten relics of the days when the threat of annihilation via a Soviet nuclear attack seemed like a very real and terrifying proposition.
On top of the plaque drilled into the wall of the US Post Office building, someone has affixed the word “Trump”.
Cold War relics
At one time, there may have been as many as 18,000 nuclear fallout shelters dotted around New York, according to Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
New York has more than many other cities, he says, largely because of one man, Nelson Rockefeller, who served as the city’s governor from 1959 to 1973, before becoming vice president under Gerald Ford.
Although the Kennedy administration had instigated a nationwide shelter programme in the early 60s, Rockefeller was more paranoid than most when it came to the threat of nuclear armageddon and so pushed for the installation of fallout shelters across the state. He even reportedly had them installed at the governor’s mansion and in his own private residences.
Another yellow plaque can be found on the side of a building that now serves as a Chase Bank in lower Manhattan. Local resident Isabel, who gave her age as “in the very late 70s”, is old enough to remember the days when the shelters were first springing up across the five boroughs at the height of the Cold War.
Back then, she says, people preferred not to think about whether they might have to actually use one.
“My parents didn’t even talk about the shelters or nuclear attacks, which was the smart thing to do,” she says.
The shelters were mostly repurposed rooms in existing buildings.
“The criteria were to find an existing structure that could serve as a fallout shelter then make a couple of changes to it, put some supplies in there and put a sign outside the building to let you know they are there,” says Schlegelmilch.
“You’re looking for something that is surrounded by thick layers of concrete that radiation can’t easily penetrate. So a basement in the centre of a building, something without windows.”
However, even from their conception, authorities were divided over just how much use a shelter would be in the event of an all-out Soviet attack and these doubts grew as the Cold War’s arms race accelerated.
“As nuclear weapons became larger and larger it became less and less likely you would even survive the initial blast, let alone the fallout,” says Schlegelmilch.
‘If they drop the bomb we’re all dead’
The shelter programme in New York and elsewhere had more or less fallen by the wayside by the late ’70s. Now few, if any, of the shelters exist in their original state — though one was reportedly discovered back in 2006 under the Brooklyn Bridge complete with medical, food and water supplies, and a stack of vintage posters promoting New York. In a city where real estate comes at a premium, most of the shelters have now been reclaimed for other uses such as storage or laundry rooms. Many have had windows put in, their supplies long ago removed.
“It is really important for people to know that if you see those signs outside the building, it shouldn’t bear any relation to your disaster plans,” says Schlegelmilch.
The old shelter under the US Post Office building is now used for storage, while a few blocks away another former shelter in a basement shared by a gym and a swanky apartment block is also no longer fit for purpose, according to the building’s superintendent.
“There’s nothing down there now,” says the super, declining to give his name. “It’s just a basement.”
Not that he thinks it would have been of much use even if it was still a functioning shelter.
“If they drop the bomb we’re all dead. It’s not going to help you,” he says.
Back in the Cold War days, he would probably have been right. But what about now with the main threat not coming from Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal but Pyongyang’s comparatively limited capabilities? Could these long-forgotten relics still serve a purpose?
Possibly, according to Schlegelmilch, who says the irony is that these structures would have been far more suited to withstanding a small-scale nuclear bomb of the kind North Korea would be likely to use, than the megatonne Soviet hydrogen bombs they were originally built to protect against.
“Theoretically some could still be leveraged as fallout shelters, that’s if they still exist, they haven’t been torn down or had big glass windows put in or something like that.
“The trouble is you would have to be down there for a few days with a couple of dozen or even a couple of hundred other New Yorkers with no ventilation, food or water and then other kinds of threats that can emerge.”