Sewer alligator sculpture in Union Square channels century-old New York City myth
All photos courtesy of Jane Kratochvil
A new sculpture in Union Square Park plays on the century-old myth that alligators live in New York City’s sewer system. Created by Swedish artist Alexander Klingspor in collaboration with Mollbrinks Gallery, “NYC Legend” is a bronze sculpture depicting a life-sized alligator sitting atop a manhole cover. The artwork is inspired by an urban legend that originated 100 years ago claiming New Yorkers set pet baby alligators loose in the sewers after they grew too large to handle. The installation is on display through June 2024.
The sculpture blends the themes of ancient mythological symbolism and modern urban folklore, honoring NYC’s signature resilience and enduring nature, also qualities of alligators.
“Stories are the very backbone of human civilization giving shape to our shared consciousness through sculptures, paintings, and architecture,” Klingspor said. “This piece is a testament to our timeless drive to find icons in nature, and to the bridge that myth builds between the ancient and modern that still echoes today.”
While tales of large sewer alligators feeding on unsuspecting animals and sanitation workers are myths, there is some truth to the urban legend.
On February 9, 1935, later celebrated by some as “Alligators in the Sewers Day,” a group of teenagers reportedly caught and killed an eight-foot, 125-pound alligator through a manhole on East 123rd Street while shoveling snow on a winter day, according to the New York Times.
The next day, the newspapers were full of stories about the event, giving way to a widespread urban legend about scores of alligators infesting the sewer system. So much so that February 9, 1935, has become a sort of unofficial holiday among certain New Yorkers.
There have been alligator sightings across the city in recent history. In 1995, a four-foot alligator was taken from Kissena Lake in Queens; in 2001, a two-foot caiman was caught in Central Park; and in 2003, an American alligator was seen in Alley Pond Park. This past February, a five-foot alligator was rescued in Prospect Park after being abandoned by their owner. It died a few weeks later despite extensive medical treatment at the Bronx Zoo.
A sewer alligator can also be found on the 14th Street/ Eighth Avenue subway platform, but this one poses no danger. The bronze underground gator is a sculpture created by Tom Otterness as just one piece of a series titled “Life Underground.”
“NYC Legend” is presented in partnership with the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation and Union Square Partnership, and funded by Mollbrinks Gallery. The sculpture was cast by Switzerland’s Perseo Foundry, which is highly regarded for its world-class materials and casting techniques.
“This sculpture is a beautiful representation of our enduring resilience as New Yorkers, and embodies one of the most famous urban legends about our city,” Anthony Perez, NYC Parks Manhattan Borough Commissioner, said.
“Public art installations like this are one of the many ways we use our public parks to celebrate the stories and spirit that make our city so unique. I’m so excited to see this sculpture take its place in iconic Union Square Park, where I’m sure it will surprise and delight both New Yorkers and visitors.”