The Atlantic Avenue tunnel is so well known that it barely needs an introduction.
For anyone that doesn’t know, this is the oldest subway tunnel in the world. Built by the LIRR in 1844, it was only used until 1861. There’s all kinds of stories of authorities looking for spies and German bomb makers in it over the decades, though proof of any of it is few and far between.
What we do know for sure is that in 1981, Bob Diamond, with the help of some city workers, dug his way into the tunnel. his discovery was but a momentary victory though. . He acquired a lease from the city to use the space for tours and a trolley operation that finally got off the ground around 2000, though relations with the city government soured quickly. The NYC DOT pulled their agreement with him, and pulled up the trolley tracks they had started to lay in Red Hook.
In 2010, the FDNY finally took a look at the tunnel and decided the single means of egress (access) – a small manhole at Atlantic Ave and Court Street – wasn’t sufficient enough to safely give anyone access to the tunnel, thus leading to a legal battle whereby the city has won 2 court cases against Mr. Diamond.
The tunnel itself is blocked in the middle by a fill of rock and debris. How it got here seems to be anyone’s guess. What we do know is that behind this wall there is more tunnel, and a large metallic object believed to be a locomotive. What’s back there? Apparently it will be a very long time before we find out. The former NYC DOT PR Guy threw a tanty and refused to allow anyone to access the tunnel – going so far as to weld the manhole shut. (unsurprisingly, he now works for former NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s foundation).
As a result of the city government’s refusal to let anyone have access to either section of tunnel, the length of tunnel continues to go uninspected. While it’s doubtful that there is any immediate danger, old tunnels and mine shafts collapse all the time – so much so that there’s a blog dedicated to it. This page has more dramatic photos of ground collapses, usually caused by broken water mains or forgotten mine shafts. We reported on this at the time that the DOT’s refusal to let anyone access the tunnel came to light. There has been no response from the city or neighborhood associations in regard to the potential danger in their back yard.
Our position is simple: even if the city never wants to let a civilian access the tunnel again, at the very least they should inspect the full length of the tunnel – and to do that they will need to create access to the portion that contains the metallic object. The city could kill two birds with one stone: inspect the tunnel and make sure it’s structurally sound, and end the mystery to what the large metallic object down there is. It’s actually a win-win for the city to both get nice PR and ensure public safety by doing this. Maybe someday someone in City Hall will wise up and get at it.
My time in the tunnel.
In 2002 I was honored to be part of an art show in the tunnel – the first ever art show in a tunnel under NYC (or perhaps in any subway tunnel anywhere). We had a great lineup of artist – a who’s who of underground luminaries. (Revs, Margaret Morton, etc). Aside from going in for the show itself (for which there was a 4 block long line to get in), I also went in a day ahead to help with preparation efforts. Frankly, I found the tunnel a little underwhelming. It was hot, and very humid. The single point of access caused nearly 3/4ths of that aforementioned line of people waiting to get into the show to be turned away. I knew that day the single means of egress would be a problem sooner or later – I didn’t think it would take 8 years for the FDNY to apparently stumble onto it.
The future of this tunnel is very much uncertain. If it suffers a collapse, they’ll probably blow millions of taxpayer dollars ‘making it safe’. If nothing happens to it, it’ll probably sit undisturbed until someone convinces the right politicians (usually done with money) to grant someone access to the space and allow them to build new means of egress to make it safe for public entry. Think about it – it come be a huge underground market, or maybe a theater or arts space. Build another set of stairs or two, add sprinklers, and presto – you’ve got more housing! (which isn’t really that far fetched of an idea). It might simply be a case of ‘money talks’, and in Bob Diamond’s case, he doesn’t have enough money to play… Whatever happens to this tunnel down the road, it’s unlike Bob will get to play any part in it. It’s sad, but… don’t blame me, I’m not a capitalist. If I were mayor I’d build additional access, send out an RFP, and make sure there’s a placard by the entrance with Bob’s name on it. Just for finding this tunnel alone he deserves that much respect.