Air conditioning has brought us in from the fire escape

By Kenneth Kowald

Readers know I was born before some of the technological wonders of today’s world, including the computer.

In my childhood in Borough Park, Brooklyn, I remember that on hot days some of us stood in front of the open doors of the Loews Borough Park movie theater, enjoying the air-conditioned breezes blowing out. In many Broadway theaters in those days, “air cooled” meant they opened the doors during intermissions and turned on big fans. I think they may have blown air over large blocks of ice.

Fans were around, but a luxury for most. If you lived in an apartment building, you — illegally — slept on a fire escape or the roof. When we lived in two-family, semi-attached houses on 54th Street between 12th and New Utrecht avenues in Borough Park, we slept on the open porches. Our neighbors did, too. It was almost like a slumber party.

In our attached bungalow home on 57th Avenue in Elmhurst, we frequently camped out on cots in the finished basement, which led to the backyard, with the door and windows open. After a time we got a fan or two.

At some point, my sister and I convinced our widowed mother to get an air conditioner, which was installed through the wall in the entrance area and cooled the living room and eating areas. She complained about the noise, but in time all was well.

If I remember correctly, the first time Con Edison noted its electric usage was higher in the warmer than the colder months was in 1960. It has been the same ever since.

When I worked for the city government in offices which were not air conditioned, at least the union workers got to leave early if heat and humidity hit a certain point. There were fans in those offices.

I thought about all this when I saw a story in The New York Times about part of a school in Brooklyn having no air conditioning. Most of this was due to a bureaucratic mess-up, with purchased machines sitting in a basement and no one sure about the wiring in the building or seemingly knowing anything else going on there. I learned that about 64 percent of city classrooms have air conditioning. In my day, we helped the teachers open windows and did the best we could.

I am in favor of using air conditioning. We try to use it wisely in our condominium, where we are all-electric and control our own climates. I think we do a pretty good job of conservation without having to suffer when things get too hot or too cold.

How city agencies do the job may be a subject for an investigative report or two.

Case in point: Some years ago, I worked with the American Lung Association of Queens to set up a program to see if use of lighting in schoolrooms could be diminished without any harm to the learning situation. We found that most classrooms had three banks of fluorescent lights, parallel to the windows. If you kept the shades up most of the time on all the windows, you could turn off the set of lights nearest the windows and save one-third of the cost.

Some of this worked, at the time. I hope it may be part of city Department of Education energy conservation today.

Students in my day in school survived without classroom air conditioning. I would be delighted if all classrooms had it as well as adequate lighting.

I would be more delighted to know that all educators and students understood that conservation of using these energies is in their hands.

That includes the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street, right behind City Hall, now the hallowed halls of the DOE.

Read my blog, No Holds Barred, on timesledger.com.

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