NEW YORK UNDERGROUND

MANY FLOORS BELOW YOUR SHOES IS A ROOM WITH THE LIGHTS ON

by Alec Wilkinson

For a long time I have been drawn to places that are underground. I often dream that I am in a basement, or descending the stairs to the subway, or walking in a cave, or swimming toward lights at the bottom of a river, or finding rooms below ground that no one else knows about and that aren’t there later when I try to go back to them. The world of symbols is impenetrable to me, but I am not so thick that I don’t see that the underground stands for the unconscious. I sometimes think of the unconscious as a series of rooms, each opening out from the next. In one of them, perhaps, a book lies open on a table. In another an old woman sits in a rocking chair while rain beats against a window. On the wall in another is writing that you can almost decipher, or a mural depicting a scene that turns up later in a dream. Or maybe not as a series of rooms but as a landscape. It has weather and there is night and day, but it is not always a landscape I recognize, and it changes all the time, as if each vista were a fragment of another one, like the planes in a Cubist painting. I am drawn to the unconscious for the reason I assume most people are, which is the belief that something it contains, if recalled and examined, has the power to release you from torment. Or that something lost can be recovered there. Whatever the explanation might be, it accounts, I think, for my interest in underground places. Occasionally I read in the newspapers about subterranean locations in the city such as the corridors and tunnels under Grand Central or the railroad lines along the West Side, by the Hudson River, where until a few years ago, when the railroad police began chasing them out, squatters lived in the cinderblock chambers that the railroad had built in the walls beside the tracks for its workers to use while they were constructing the tunnels. The darkness in the chambers was so complete that the men and women who inhabited them couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces.

When I hear about such underground places in the city, I try to visit them, the way I used to make a practice of buying a drink at the bar of every new hotel in Manhattan. One morning a few years ago, I rode a train and a bus to Fort Tilden, at the end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, then followed an old blacktop road that eventually went uphill, past a derelict gate, and onto a flat slab of concrete, like a playground or a parking lot, to see the silos where surface-to-air missiles were kept during the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. The silos, called magazines, were long, narrow depressions, like shoeboxes. Over the top of each of them, level with the ground, were sheets of metal about the size of the roof on a house trailer. Someone had pulled an edge back, and I got down on my knees and peered into the silo and saw my face and a little bit of the sky behind me reflected in a pool of dark water that had collected on the silo’s floor. The place was so remote that when I stood up I realized it was the first time I had ever been anywhere in New York City and heard only the wind. One winter day, in the Bronx, I crawled on my stomach through a drainpipe and across the surface of a frozen underground stream, through which rocks and pieces of broken glass protruded, in order to reach the interior of the aqueduct and walk as far as I could—I had hoped to walk to Manhattan—but the drain ended after only a few yards in a small, stone chamber, like a closet. I also once walked the length of the steam tunnel that runs north and south through the basement of the main branch of the public library on Fifth Avenue. The tunnel consists of a series of small, vaulted chambers like Quonset huts. Each chamber is about the size of a toolshed, and each is tall enough to stand in, but you have to bend your knees to pass from one to another. In the northernmost chamber, below the sidewalk against Forty-Second Street, a few wire hangers depended from a copper pipe. People who work in the lower regions of the library and live in rooming houses sometimes wash their clothes in sinks in the basement and drape them from the hangers to dry.

The deepest subterranean chamber in midtown Manhattan is the size of a small cathedral and lies beneath Central Park. An elevator leads to it. The chamber is made from concrete and has a high, vaulted ceiling. It is mostly empty—pipes in a pit at one end convey water through the city. At intervals in the walls are vertical seams through which water seeps and sometimes flows, as if a faucet somewhere had been left open. Central Park is laced with underground streams, and the seams prevent water outside the walls from building up to a pressure sufficient to damage them. The light in the chamber has a metallic tint; it comes from sodium vapor lamps which are never extinguished. A person might stand in the Park on a certain piece of grass and reflect that many floors below his shoes is a room with the lights on.

*

New York City is riddled with clandestine tunnels. Most of them were built for the railroad or subway, or to convey water or electricity or gas, or for some other straightforward purpose—there are tunnels underneath Columbia University, built to maintain the school’s buildings and sealed up during the ’60s because militant students occupied them. Workers for Con Edison sometimes find chambers that resemble parts of tunnels; they call them voids. A void is a hole left from an earlier job that should have been filled. Most tunnels are not so much secret as they are forgotten about. Probably the most widely known tunnel of this kind is in Brooklyn, beneath Atlantic Avenue. It was dug by means of cut and cover architecture in 1844; it was something less than half a mile long; it connected steam trains from Long Island to the Brooklyn waterfront; and it went out of service in 1859. During the Civil War the city sealed both ends because Confederate sympathizers were thought to be hiding weapons in it and transporting them at night to the docks. In 1981, an engineering student at City College found the manhole that led to it on a set of old blueprints.

A couple of winters ago, at a construction site in Queens where I had gone to interview someone, I met a photographer from Brooklyn named Stanley Greenberg. For years, Greenberg has been taking photographs of ruined and overlooked sites—a derelict corridor in a gallery built for pedestrians on the Manhattan Bridge, the decrepit piers along the riverfront, the abandoned asylum for lunatics on Roosevelt Island—which he then published in a book called Invisible New York: the Hidden Infrastructure of the City. Greenberg is in his late forties. He has blue eyes, a sharp nose, and short, bristly, black hair with a little bit of gray. He nearly always wears a black T-shirt and black jeans. He mentioned that a few weeks earlier he had given a talk at the Municipal Arts Society during which he said that for years he had heard references to secret tunnels dug beneath the city by smugglers, especially by bootleggers during Prohibition, but that no one had ever been able to tell him where any of the tunnels were. After the talk, while Greenberg was occupied with questions, a man from the audience took out a notebook and drew a map depicting the location of a smuggler’s tunnel in the East Village and gave the map to Greenberg’s wife.

According to the map, the tunnel began on Second Avenue and ran east below Third Street to the East River. Of course, it would no longer be intact; too many buildings have been built since Prohibition between Second Avenue and the river, and a backhoe digging a foundation would chew up the walls of a tunnel in about three bites. The map was drawn by a man named Rafael Hurwitz, who works as a water engineer for the Department of Environmental Protection. When I called Mr. Hurwitz at his office and asked how he knew about the tunnel, he said “I personally saw it. It was in the house of an architect I knew. He had fixed it up, and he invited me over. We went down to the basement, and he showed me the wine cellar, and there was a part of it that went out under the sidewalk, beyond the house. He had blocked it off, so I hadn’t seen it—this is twenty years ago—but he’d been in there. He said it ran all the length under Third street.”

I asked the man’s name. “His name was Mitch. Mitch… I knew him since high school days,” Hurwitz said. “College, actually. Mitch. He was doing a lot of work in New Orleans, but he’s still based in New York. He had the second or third house in from Second Avenue—I don’t remember.”

No one answered the door at either the second or third house from the corner. As it happens, I know the man who owns the house on the corner. He wasn’t home when Stanley and I knocked but a woman who worked for him was. I described the tunnel and she said, “Well, there is something in the basement.”

We went downstairs and into what once would have been the vault into which coal was delivered. She pulled aside a few boards that were leaning against the wall, and behind them was a patch on the brickwork. The hole appeared to have been about the size of an oven door. It was very awkwardly filled. The bricks swelled toward the room as if some pressure had caused the mortar to bulge toward the basement. Stanley placed his ear against the bricks, like a safecracker, and then his palm, and then he said, “It feels like there’s a breeze coming through.”

The first mason I called wanted fifteen hundred dollars to take down the bricks and put them back up. By the time I found one that would do it for five hundred dollars, I had begun to think that even five hundred dollars was a lot of money to find probably a few feet of air and then solid dirt.

*

Any conceivable enthusiasm a person might entertain is usually represented by someone else whose interest in the subject either makes him his living or takes up a lot of his time. I expected to find someone obsessed by the subject of secret tunnels in New York, a tunnel buff, someone to tell Stanley and me where to locate other tunnels and who dug them and what they were used for, but I haven’t yet. Almost all the tunnels people told us about were supposed either to be connected to the basements of houses that belonged to Al Capone or to be sections of the Underground Railroad. Capone grew up in Brooklyn and left the city when he was seventeen and never lived here again, and I thought everyone knew that the Underground Railroad was a concept, not an actual railroad, but I guess I was wrong. Stanley once corresponded through the internet with an organization that engages in surreptitiously exploring sewer and subway tunnels. They publish a ’zine. Through an index on their website they list catacombs and tunnels in America and Canada and various places abroad. Someone named Ninja was in charge. I sent Ninja an email asking if he knew of any such sites in New York. Almost immediately Ninja replied, “There are sites in New York.” I was very excited. I wrote back explaining who I was and asked Ninja if he could put me in touch with anyone in New York who knew about hidden tunnels, and about an hour later my phone rang, and it was Stanley, and he said, “I just got some email from a guy named Ninja asking if I could help a writer in New York find tunnels.”

For a while I asked almost everyone I met whether he had heard of any hidden tunnels in the city that weren’t a part of the railroad or the subway. A man who owns a restaurant in the Village told me that he knew people who had built tunnels to connect buildings they owned. I asked why and he said, “Paranoid,” but he wouldn’t tell me who any of them were or what they were afraid of. A musician told me about a woman who had a tunnel in her house in the Village, but it turned out that she owned two houses adjacent to each other and had built a corridor to connect them. “There are no windows in it,” she told me, “so I guess it looks like a tunnel when you’re in there, but it’s a hallway.” I asked a lot of cops. A homicide detective named Tommy Hyland told me that he had never come across any tunnels, but that when he was a patrolman in the Bronx there was an abandoned subway station at 163rd Street that purse snatchers retired to in order to rifle the purses they’d just stolen. Except for piles of purses, he said, the station was completely empty.

Stanley and I visited two houses in the Village, 127 MacDougal Street and 45 Grove Street, because people told us that the houses had tunnels in their basements. 127 MacDougal Street was built as an investment by Aaron Burr, and a woman who had once owned a store in the basement told me that Burr had had the builders construct an escape tunnel that had its exit on Minetta Lane, a block away. Stanley’s mother had taken a walking tour of the Village, and the tour guide had pointed at 17 Grove Street and said that there was a tunnel in the basement. The woman I talked to over the house’s intercom told me that the house had no tunnel, but that “The Underground Railroad ran down Grove Street and one of the entrances was up the block at 45 Grove.” What each building had was not a tunnel, but a musty, dirt-floored, cobwebby vault under its sidewalk that is entered through a hole in a wall.

In the basement of a building in the West Village, near the river, I found two tunnels, but they were bricked up. The building belongs to a musician named Novac Noury, who says he was a member in the ’60s of a band called the Soul Survivors, which had a hit called Expressway to Your Heart. Noury told me that he plans to excavate the tunnels and open a nightclub where people can walk through them. “That’s going to be my niche,” he said.

I knew from books that there had been tunnels in Chinatown, especially underneath buildings along Doyers Street. Doyers Street is a block long. It runs generally north and south between Pell Street and the Bowery, and about halfway down it doglegs east. During the Tong Wars, fought by Chinese gangs at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, this turn was known as the Bloody Angle. In The Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury wrote, “The police believe, and can prove it as far as such proof is possible, that more men have been murdered at the Bloody Angle than at any other place of like area in the world.” Near the Bloody Angle were gangster hangouts called the Doctor’s, the Plague, the Hell Hole, the Cripples’ Home, the Dump, the Inferno, the Cob Dock, the Workingman’s Friend, Mother Woods’, Chick Tricker’s Fleabag, and McGuirck’s Suicide Hall. The bulk of the clients of McGuirck’s were prostitutes and women thieves. McGuirck used to say that more women had killed themselves in his bar than anywhere else in the world. A popular drink at McGuirck’s was whiskey and water mixed with liquid camphor. Another was a punch made of whiskey, rum, camphor, benzene, and cocaine sweepings, which was served hot. Most of the murders at the Bloody Angle were ambushes which took place at night. The assassins disappeared into the tunnels. They made their way to the basement of another building and then back onto the street, whistling and with their hands in their pockets, perhaps, and were hardly ever caught.

I went to a few of the businesses along Doyers Street and asked the owners if they had any tunnels in their basements. The proprietors were all Chinese. I might as well have introduced myself as an investigator for Immigration Services and asked if they cared to report any violations.

I now think that there isn’t a secret tunnel expert in New York because most of the secret tunnels one hears about are fictitious or have been destroyed or sealed up and that not enough remain to support a hobby. Another thing is that digging tunnels is hard. One of the traits I have noticed in the criminals I have interviewed is that they always want to do things the quickest and easiest way possible and disdain anything that they regard as work.

*

In Central Park, along the Eighty-Sixth Street Transverse, is a stone wall, and built into the wall is an arch about seven feet high that is the entrance to a tunnel. I have passed the tunnel at night in a taxi and seen lights on within it, and I have seen it dark. What keeps anyone from wandering into the tunnel are two metal gates drawn across the entrance. They look like gates to a dungeon and are locked with a chain and a padlock.

Through the gates you can see that after about thirty feet the tunnel turns sharply to the left. Whenever I walk past the gates, I shake them to see if the chain is secure. I have done this for years.

One morning, I passed the tunnel on my way to the Metropolitan Museum. The chain was hanging from one of the doors. I pulled the door and it moved a little, and I pulled it harder and it opened. It was such an unexpected thing to happen that I closed the door and started walking again. I didn’t stop until I reached Fifth Avenue, which is to say I walked about a hundred yards, then I turned around and went back to the tunnel. I stood at the entrance looking in. The lights were off. I assumed that someone must be inside, someone who went around trying doors just like I did. I thought about calling somebody to go in with me, but I couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be at work, and since Stanley was dependent on the city for permission to visit most of the places where he wanted to take pictures I knew he couldn’t afford to be caught trespassing on city property. I walked over to a hardware store on Madison Avenue and bought a flashlight.

When I got back to the tunnel there were people on the hill beside the museum. I waited until none of them seemed to be looking in my direction, and I stepped through the gate. At the place where the tunnel makes its turn I looked for a security camera and didn’t see one. I saw a small red light about two feet above my head and thought it was an alarm. Then I decided that it was awfully high on the wall to be an alarm. I leaned forward to look into the tunnel and realized I had passed the light’s vector anyway, so I might as well go forward. I could see about a hundred feet. A few lightbulbs glowed dimly at the far end. The tunnel was about as wide as a street, with an arched ceiling. Because I was so nervous, my mind was flooded with impressions. The contour of the ceiling made me think of the way that the sky above the prairie looks like a huge, inverted bowl, and that made me think of the way certain cultures regard the sky as the roof of a cave, and the horizon as a kind of eaves and the place where spirits go after they die. None of this made me feel less anxious. I passed a hole in the dirt floor that was filled with water. Beside it was an orange traffic cone. The ground was muddy. As I swept the floor with the beam of my flashlight, I saw a pair of footprints traveling in the same direction I was going. The footprints had sand in them, by which I mean they were fresh enough that the mud had stuck to the soles of the person’s shoes and left dry ground beneath them in the shape of his shoes. About twenty feet on, I saw the prints returning, and I decided I would go see where he had turned back.

In another twenty feet, the tunnel divided. On the left were big pipes, like funnels on a steamship, emerging from the ground, and on the right were smaller pipes emerging from the ground. The big pipes on the left disappeared into darkness. The ones on the right entered a wall, and in the center of the wall a couple of steps led to a door. On the left, slightly behind me, I saw a small concrete staircase leading down to a door. When I shined my light on the door I saw that it was actually a dark shadow filling the doorway of a small chamber, and I got spooked because it looked like the kind of ambiguous doorway I sometimes see in dreams. The lightbulb hanging from the ceiling in front of me was surrounded by a small, pearly corona—the result of the air’s being so damp, I guess—and the light it gave off suddenly struck me as hard and brittle, as if suggesting that something was about to happen, as if some force were gathering or expected to arrive. I forgot about following the footsteps and turned around and started walking, and when I had gone about ten feet, I heard a police siren. The police station, I realized, is a few hundred yards west of the tunnel. I thought, If the police were coming after me they probably wouldn’t put the sirens on, would they? and that is when I dropped my flashlight and started running. When I reached the street, I vehemently scraped the soles of my shoes against the curb. The police car went racing past me, headed toward the West Side. I remembered a remark I had once heard made by a man who had escaped from a number of prisons. In crossing the prison yard to the wall, he said, he never ran; he always took his time.

“If you act cool,” he said, “you going to be cool.” I began walking as slowly as I could manage in the opposite direction, toward Fifth, and while still a few hundred feet from the avenue, only somewhat ostentatiously, put my hand in the air and yelled, “Taxi!

Alec Wilkinson’s books include Big Sugar, My Mentor, Mr. Apology, The Riverkeeper, and A Violent Act. Since 1980 he has been a staff writer at the New Yorker.

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