Brooklyn Johnny Pumps

I headed to Bushwick a few weeks ago with a car full of Rockaway people. Our friends Jairo and Gio were playing at Alphaville. The parking situation wasn’t looking good. Bobby in the back seat points, “Over there, on your right!” I responded, “Eh no, there’s a Johnny pump.” Heads turned and they all looked deeply confused.”

Realizing my besties had no clue what a Johnny pump is made me sad. I continued to search for parking, simultaneously ruminating on how estranged this made me feel.

I thought “Johnny pump” was common city slang. I grew up with it. Our family has Brooklyn roots. For most of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, a “Johnny pump” is an old-school word for a fire hydrant.

Johnny Pump
People like to paint Johnny pumps, it’s a thing. It’s illegal but know one seems to care. The art is often heavily influenced by patriotism and Andy Warhol

This whole thing was eye-opening and started an investigation. At the bar that night, I asked everyone I knew and a few random drunk people, if they knew the term “Johnny pump”? Bushwick isn’t really “Brooklyn” these days but I was still surprised, not one person knew!

I brought it up everywhere I went. My Italian, native New Yorker friends, without hesitation, knew exactly what I was talking about. Some were insulted that I even asked. My Long Island girlfriends know. My friend Anna, a Jewish, Staten Island native, 32 years old, got very close. She first said delicately, “Umm is that a slur… for a type of person?” This is true. Johnny Pump is also slang for an obnoxious, entitled, Italian goombah.  Example: “Look at this (bleep’n) Johnny Pump double parked in front of  (bleep’n) Gino’s.” But Anna’s final answer was, “I think it’s a tool for a car.”

The results of my very loose polling of about 100 friends (30-50 yrs olds) are as follows:

  • A  person of any age, of Italian descent who grew up in Brooklyn or their parents did, 100% know what a Johnny pump is.
  • A person over the age of 40, Italian, did not grow up in Brooklyn but has a close connection to the borough) – 30%
  • A person over the age of 40, non-Italian, grew up in Brooklyn (or close connection) – 20%
  • A person under the age of 40, non-Italian, grew up in Brooklyn –  3% chance they know what a Johnny pump is.
  • A person of any age, any ethnicity, a non-native New Yorker, there’s a 0% chance of knowing what a Johnny pump is.*

By this point, you’re wondering about the etymology…. Back in 1830, inventor John Giraud unleashed his inner genius and birthed a hydrant powered by compressed air –  because regular hydrants were too boring. Firefighters rejoiced as they got to wield longer hoses. The city embraced Giraud’s creation so much that they ditched their old hydrants faster than you can say “Johnny’s Pump,” a name bestowed upon it by New York firefighters.

For more on old NYC Italian things, visit and follow me Instagramming Johnny pumps around the peninsula – @theglorifiedtomato.

Gold Johnny Pump
Phot0 by Katie Honan.

*This is actually untrue but it sounded way funnier to say 0%. A buddy of mine, Brandon Zwagerman (42) of Dutch descent, is a midwestern transplant with 17 solid years in NYC. He knew what a Johnny pump was when I asked. As a community board member (QCB5 royalty) and a biking encyclopedia of everything NYC, this checks.

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