Urban Uplift

No, not like they did to Galveston Texas after the big hurricane. I’m thinking more along the lines of “Dang it, every time I try to dig a sewer trench I hit old stuff.”

One of the things that took a little getting used to in Europe was how cities climb over time. What had been ground level in the Roman or even pre-Roman eras may be twenty or more feet (six or more meters) under the street level today. Not by deliberate action, in most cases, but because that’s what cities do over time.

Courtyard of the Poor Claires Convent in Krakow. Author Photo.

The cobblestones are the original street level. The gate is the modern street level. Krakow grew over time (since the early 1200s). How? Because people pulled down buildings, or dropped dirt, especially after the Mongol attacks and the great fire in the late 1200s, and built over the remains.

Cities increase in ground elevation over time, if given a long enough span of time. Now, this does not mean that all cities are higher than when founded. Houston, Venice, and others have sunk. Soil compression, when assisted by pumping the water out from under the cities, leads to settling and slumping. But most older cities in Europe are now higher than they were when founded, so what we see as cellars were the original ground floor, or even higher.

A few places, notably on the rivers leading to the North Sea and Baltic (the Hansa cities), were deliberately elevated after major floods. The ground floors became the cellars, or even secondary cellars, so that goods could be stored higher and out of danger of inundation. In some cases, excavators have found the old ground floor only by digging out a yard or so of dirt that centuries of flooding left behind. Streets also rose to match the house doors.

Vienna is another case where the city looks flatter than it really was, at least until you start poking around the really old part of the Altstadt.

You are looking straight, from Salzgasse across MarcusAurelius Strasse. The street is the original ground level, Roman era.

Salzgasse, Judengasse, and the area “behind” them (toward St. Stephan’s Cathedral) seem to have at most a gentle slope, meaning the Danube Canal should be farther away unless there is a drop-off. Above you see the drop-off. You are not standing on a bluff. You are standing on the debris of ages. Roman ruins are under your feet, along with modern city stuff. And below the Roman? Even older, although there’s river sediment as well. And the Romans smoothed things over, literally, in order to have a nice, well-drained military settlement.

How high I aaaaamm, how high I am. Looking down to MarkusAureliusStrasse.

I fiddled with the exposure on the second photo to give a better contrast, but I took the pictures within seconds of each other. Again, you can see the old Roman road below. Far below. Very far below. Two blocks over is Salztorgasse, the northern end of the Roman settlement and where the salt gate was. The Danube Canal is one block to your right.

Rupertskirche seen from the northeast side of the Danube Canal. Note the spire of Stephansdom in the corner.

The church above, tucked in among modern stuff, was behind me in the two photos above. It is the oldest still standing and still used church in Vienna, and is a little unusual in that it is a night church, only open in the evenings and until midnight. St. Rupert is the patron saint of salt workers and salt traders, and the church is on Salzgasse, “Salt Alley.” ‘Salt Gate Street” is to your right, past Marcus Aurelius Street. The trees are growing on the bank of the Danube Canal. St. Rupert’s is about three meters – ten feet – above the FranzJosefKai, the pedestrian and traffic area between Vienna 1 and the canal. It is one of the oldest bits of rampart and wall still standing, and the oldest church still standing.

The view from the Vienna 1 side of the canal, with St. Ruperts. Image used under Fair Use: Creative Commons 2.0: From: https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/10/cd/64/86/st-rupert-s-church-ruprechtski.jpg

How old is the church? It was finished in AD 740 CE, but has been “updated” after fires and usage. There are arguments as to if it really is the oldest, but it is certainly the oldest currently in use with the original footprint. By tradition, it is the oldest. It probably incorporates the remains of a Roman shrine, but then what doesn’t in that part of the city? And you can see how high it sits compared to the old river edge.

There are other places where you can see how cities rise over time, but these are some of the clearest that I have good photos of.

13 thoughts on “Urban Uplift

  1. There’s one location I know of in the USA where something like this happened: Seattle, where an area of something like thirty blocks was covered with new ground and then built over after a huge fire in 1889. Today the covered section is known as the “Seattle Underground.” A few parts of it have been cleaned up and turned into a tourist attraction.

    • Other churches are open during the day, and the neighborhood is very quiet by day. So St. Rupert’s is a night church, with priests on duty until midnight, and a regular schedule of late night masses for working folks.

  2. Quite eye-opening. Boston’s graphics showed how the rivers and fens were filled in, but height didn’t change that much. Fenway Park’s name finally clicked. The change from low filled land to augmented original hills was still a nice 30 ft rise, but over a couple blocks.

    • Yes. It takes a very long time for the urban layers to accumulate into thickness, unless it is some place like Berlin in 1945. Or Rome, where there is a hill composed entirely of wine and oil jug pieces. (No, it is not behind the University of Rome dorms.)

  3. Cities change in other ways. In Manhattan, Hudson Street and Water street are several blocks from the bulkheads, and when they excavated the foundations for the WTC they cut through a ship that had been recorded as lost, as well as a few short centuries of rubbish fill. On the other hand, there are places with shorefront property on Second Street.

    • San Francisco is like that, lots of ships were used as fill, to expand the city. Fairly common to find ship timbers when builders do any digging near water level. Actually, the entire Bay has been shrunk with fill, since at least Gold Rush days. You could almost walk across the bay by hopping ship to ship in the 1849+ time frame. IIRC, there were over 5000 ships abandoned there alone, due to a lack of crew to return them to their origins. They were dragged to shore and filled with rock, as a start to growing the land. Basically, if it is level, and near the water, it is fill. I’ve seen no estimates of surface area created, but an overlay of what they think is original shoreline shows a significantly larger bay surface.

  4. St. Rupert was the first bishop of Salzburg, hence the patronage of salt stuff.

    His successor was St. Virgilius aka Fearghal, who allegedly taught that there were beings living underground in the fairy hills, living in the antipodes, or living on other planets under another sun and moon, depending on how you interpret Pope Zachary’s response to St. Boniface’s tattletale letter. (But since St. Virgilius was accounted a saint in the end, one assumes that the objections to his teaching were overcome, or he was proven orthodox.)

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