Friday, May 15, 2009

The Freedom Tunnel

So Laura, ever the scavenger for New York City's secrets, discovered something called "The Freedom Tunnel." We spent several hours googling it, with the result of a few photos, and precious little actual information. Here's what we learned: the tunnel was built in the 1930s for the Amtrak, but it quickly became obsolete as the widespread use of automobiles proliferated. It became a shanty town for the homeless; in the early 90s, several hundred lived there. The MTA decided to re-open the tunnel for trains, and all its inhabitants were evicted in 1991. However, in its dormant period, and even since, many graffiti artists have used the walls as their canvases, and legendary artwork is said to reside humbly in the dark tunnel. Perfect. What else could we do but head out to explore it for ourselves?


So this photo shows the path we took. From 125th all the way down to 70th. Two and a half miles. In the dark. We arrive at the entrance on foot, having wandered around the woods for awhile before actually spotting it.


From here, we were only a few hundred feet from the entrance:


All ready, the walls are covered in graffiti, and we go overboard snapping photos.


Poor Laura - trying to smile with the sun in her eyes...

Anyway, we entered the tunnel. Not fifty feet from the entrance, we encounter our first mystery. A stuffed duck stands on a ledge only a few inches from a bright red book titled, “Expect Nothing: A Zen Guide.” Beneath these two strange items, a pair of old Michael Jordan sneakers sit in relative alignment, and several feet to the left, an encyclopedia open to its inventory.


Laura and I look at each other quizzically. I know she’s thinking the same thing I am: if we’re a few steps in the door and it’s all ready this bizarre, what the hell is this place? We laugh and continue onward. We’re moving slowly, snapping photographs as we go.


You can see the train tracks here, along with the refuse of a once-shanty town. It got dark pretty quickly, and in the right portion of the photograph is a good example of how the entire tunnel is (poorly) lit: by the occasional ventilation grate. Not far in, we spotted our first work of graffiti art.


Impressive, but only an hors d’oeuvre of things to come.


We take photos of one another at the same time! We’re dorks like that. Laurita stands in one of the larger oases of light from the grates.


We’re officially in. See those depressions in the wall to the left? They were absolutely eerie, and full of the indiscriminate collections of whomever had once lived in them. Here’s a photo of one of the depressions:


Look closely at it. Nope, closer. Closer. What do you see? A can of Raid, a radio, and... a human head? Yes, a human head. After a moment of intense, heart-stopping fear, we discovered that the head had a body attached, and that the entire item was called John. John, it turns out, was friendly, and willing to discuss his life with us. He’d been living here for about fourteen years, preceded by seven years in Central Park. He said he was actually pretty comfortable there, he came and went as he pleased and didn’t answer to anyone. He had a family, but they’d disowned him when he was incarcerated. I asked him if I could buy him lunch, and he said he’d be very grateful if I would, and so I handed him a ten-dollar bill, an entry fee of sorts, and Laura and I pressed onward. Just so you know we’re not making this up, here’s a photo of a more complete John.


From here, the best way to take you on the journey with us would be through photographs, and so here is a string of them. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that the tunnel is now active. Trains run through there, and they’re surprisingly quiet. Several times we found ourselves scrambling to the side of the tunnel to get out of an oncoming train’s path. They sneak up on you, the fuckers!





I love how the sun found its way through a tiny hole in the cement and illuminated this little spot. It seemed sacred, somehow, an oasis of sunlight in the otherwise dark and musty underground. I wish there was a little plant growing there.



Our Laura, standing in a particularly large lighted area, looking up at the grate. Laura is the photographer of the two of us, but I’m damn proud of this photo.




Another one I’m really proud of - doesn’t it look like Laura is paying homage to the graffiti?




Someone paying tribute to the 9/11 disaster.


This is by far my favorite piece of graffiti we saw - “No Mas Odio!” For those of you out there who don’t speak Spanish, it means ‘no more hate.’ What a fantastic message to peek out of this subterranean sanctum.






Dali clock!


Another remarkable piece. We’re approximately 2/3 of the way through the tunnel at this point, though we don’t know it. In our research, we couldn’t find the endpoint of the tunnel. We didn’t know whether it went to 100th or 40th. Perhaps now is the time to mention that we went in the afternoon, approximately 3pm, and, around the time these photos were shot, it was beginning to get dark. The sunlight was no longer streaming downward from the grates, but was instead lighting up slanted square and rectangular patches on the walls. We discussed whether we should turn around and head back for the entrance, but reasoned that we must be nearer the other end than the beginning. “Laur,” I said, “if we get caught down here after dark, it’s gonna be bad.” She agreed. We picked up the pace.

Unfortunately, the rest of our adventure will have to be conveyed with words: both our cameras had died. The worst part about it was that all the most spectacular pieces were yet to come. There were 10’ male and female torsos, though someone had since spray-painted a penis onto the male, an amazing rendering of The Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski), more Dali clocks, one artist’s self-portrait with a spray-paint can instead of a head, and many, many others. I thought to myself that these graffiti artists ought to be in art school running circles around everyone else! Then I thought to myself, ‘you bourgeois, let ‘em live.’

Finally, after another 45 minutes of quickened-pace walking, we came upon the end of the tunnel. It opened up into a huge construction site, which actually seemed abandoned. There was plenty of equipment but no people. The tunnel stretched further, but it was newer construction; floodlights everywhere, and the tunnel itself was much narrower. Perhaps another day.

We emerged into the day, sun setting over Riverside Park, and the Hudson lolling past. Covered in soot and grime, we were happy, our curiosity sated - at least until one of us stumbles upon the next scheme.

Siempre Buscando,