New York, New York

Tunnel Visions

There may be a thousand art exhibits in the city at any time, but few are housed in an abandoned subway tunnel buried under Brooklyn.

On Sunday, November 10, two-thousand people lined up at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in Brooklyn and waited their turn to climb down a manhole. It was a brisk, sunny day, and a sizable number of those in the queue were simply curious passersby out for a Sunday walk who jumped at the chance to descend into the world of sewer workers and Verizon technicians.

The manhole, however, leads to something other than the miles of electrical wire and water conduits that snake under most New York’s streets—it is the only way in and out of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, a quarter-mile-long shaft built in 1841 to serve as the western edge of a Long Island Railroad line. But it’s been almost 150 years since a train ran through there, and that Sunday found the tunnel put to an entirely different use: as a temporary art gallery.

Few New Yorkers are aware that an abandoned railway tunnel runs under downtown Brooklyn, and for a good reason: Until 20 years ago it was more or less an urban legend, a massive Industrial-Age artifact that somehow had been lost in the bureaucratic shuffle at the city planner’s office. After the railroad shifted the line north in 1859, it shut down the tunnel, and in 1861 sealed it off permanently. In 1916, working on rumors that German saboteurs were using it as a base for making mustard gas, federal agents broke through an adjacent basement; finding nothing, they resealed the entrance.

The tunnel was rediscovered in 1981 by an engineering student named Bob Diamond, who now runs the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association. ‘I was listening to the news and the announcer mentioned there was a legend of a tunnel that no one could find,’ he said. After seven months of archival research he found an old map that showed where the manhole was; he and a group of friends then spent three more months digging a path through the 100 feet of dirt that lay between the entrance and the tunnel itself. Soon after, Diamond started giving tours—and, thanks to local press coverage, some 600 people showed up for the first public walk-through.

Though Diamond has given biannual tours ever since, the exhibit was the first event of its kind to be held in the tunnel. The show was also the inaugural event for Ars Subterranea, a group of local artists who call themselves the ‘society for creative preservation.’ Its mission, according to Julia Solis, a co-founder of the group, is to bring people into contact with elements of the city they might otherwise never come across, using everything from photography to skits to treasure hunts to facilitate the experience.

Solis, whose pale skin and dark red hair stood out in the fluorescent lighting Diamond had strung along the tunnel’s southern wall, is the doyenne of New York’s urban-exploration set, as well as the author of New York Underground, a book of photographs and essays about the city’s infrastructural demimonde. It was while researching for the book, Solis said, that she met Diamond. Soon thereafter she hit on the idea of putting on a show in the tunnel. ‘We were talking for a while that in other cities there are organizations that use the underground in ways that New York doesn’t, for art spaces and performances,’ she said.

Solis, a writer by trade, is also something of a germanophile (she’s translated a raft of Nietzsche’s letters), and she had recently returned from a trip to Berlin and Vienna, where she said she encountered a vibrant—and literally—underground art scene. An exhibit in the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, she realized, was a good way to get a similar movement going in the States.

The show, which ran from 12 to 4 pm (‘We had to be out of there before dark,’ Solis said), was sparse but impressive, with long stretches of tunnel between the works, separating them and giving each a prominence that would have been absent in most above-ground galleries. The works ranged from Solis’s affecting photographs of chemical-strewn water surfaces, found during her underground expeditions, to a piece by performance artist Sxip Shirey, which ended with a chorus of Albanian folk songs at the unlighted far end of the tunnel.

Behind where the chorus stood is a sheer wall, though Diamond and others believe the tunnel continues for several dozen more feet. According to Diamond, on the other side sits the locomotive used while the rail line was active, which was wrecked soon before the tunnel was sealed; rather than try to move it the workers simply left the locomotive behind. ‘Many of the same documents I used to locate the tunnel show the locomotive was back there,’ Diamond said. He and the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association are making plans to eventually open up the wall; even so, the locomotive played an important part in the show—Shirey’s work, entitled ‘The Walled-In Woman,’ drew inspiration from the similarities between the abandoned train and an Albanian legend of a woman who was sealed inside the walls of a castle to give it extra strength.

Solis, who describes the response to the show as ‘daunting,’ said that Ars Subterranea is already talking about future events. ‘We’re just getting started,’ she said. Hopefully, she added, the group’s efforts won’t simply highlight the city’s past, but ‘construct a story out of it, turn a location into a personal experience for you and your friends, so that when you see it again you are reminded of its history and your experience of it.’


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen