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Although the Cold War has long passed, faded yellow and black signs reading “FALLOUT SHELTER” are still present on New York City buildings, indicating former sites that civilians could once evacuate to in the event of a nuclear attack. The shelters — typically a room in a strong, concrete building without windows — were designed to protect people from fallout, or the radioactive debris that falls from the sky following a nuclear explosion.

Today, there are plenty of former shelters you can see, many of which are conveniently mapped below. If you’re interested in checking them out, however, we advise you to do so soon: according to amNewYork, the city has recently begun to take down the corroding fallout signs, which according to officials, “are misleading Cold War relics that no longer denote functional shelters.”

In the 1960s, the federal government’s now abolished Office of Civil Defense placed tens of thousands of signs on city buildings as a result of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 shelter program. During his administration, roughly 18,000 shelters were designated across the five boroughs in an attempt to ease anxieties over the nuclear arms race between the former Soviet Union and the United States.

While the threat of a nuclear explosion occurring today is certainly diminished, it’s not entirely gone as North Korea continues to develop its nuclear-tipped missiles. In the event a strike does take place, city officials and disaster preparedness experts are instructing civilians to ignore the outdated signs.

Maintenance of the shelters ended decades ago, and former sites — including those in public schools — are no longer active. In fact, most were cleaned out and converted into storage or laundry rooms by the 1970s. The former shelter at the Cooper Station post office, for example, is simply used for mail purposes.

A former fallout shelter at the London Terrace apartments in Chelsea.

A former fallout shelter at the London Terrace apartments in Chelsea.

The Department of Education, which is leading the campaign to remove the signs, plans to finish taking them down from school walls by the beginning of this year, according to Michael Aciman, a department spokesman. This will be the city’s first coordinated effort for their removal, leading many to beg the question: “What should we actually do in the event of a nuclear explosion? 

amNewYork writes: “those far enough from the blast center to survive would do well to head to the lower interiors of any standard residential or commercial building, ideally a windowless basement, to shelter from radioactive particles outside.”

An idealized fallout shelter in 1957 (in reality, they were much different.) Image via Defense Civil Preparedness/Wikimedia Commons

Brooklyn Bridge Cold War Shelter. Photo: REUTERS/Seth Wenig

While the signs are still seen as historical markers to many, the city (and historians) believes that their removal will ultimately help to avoid confusion in the future. In any case, it’s always interesting to dig up tidbits of information that give us a sense of what the era was like decades ago. Last year, for example, we covered the secret former fallout shelter under the Brooklyn Bridge, which was discovered by city workers in 2006.

Inside the vault of one of the masonry foundations of the bridge on the Manhattan side, an impressive stockpile had lain untouched for fifty years, as reported by The New York Times, filled with “water drums, medical supplies, paper blankets, drugs and calorie-packed crackers — an estimated 352,000 of them, sealed in dozens of watertight metal canisters and, it seems, still edible.” Boxes with blanket were labeled “For Use Only After Enemy Attack.”

For those interested in learning more about the shelter (and the nuclear fallout sites in general), make sure to join us for our walking tour of the Secrets of the Brooklyn Bridge this weekend:

The Secrets of Brooklyn Bridge Walking Tour

Next, check out Fun Maps: Look at This Disturbingly Accurate Soviet Map of NYC in the Cold War and The Top 10 Secrets of Fort Tilden State Park in NYC.

 Brooklyn Bridge, Cold War

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