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Urban Archaeology and Phaeton

December 31, 2009

The 1936 article from last post about ‘intrepid tunnel hunters’ made me think of two, more recent articles from the Times. The first one, “The Race to Discover the Mystery of the Subterranean Chambers”, from July 14 2007  reports the unearthing of a tunnel in Ossining, NY, similarly enshrouded in mystery. The article reads:

“Now the subterranean structure, believed to date to the mid-19th century, is a mystery just begging to be solved. Is it as pedestrian as a root cellar? Or as storied as a stop on the Underground Railroad? Does it stretch beyond the cluster of at least nine known rooms to connect to tunnels elsewhere?”

Similar to the Atlantic Ave. tunnel, the rumored stronghold for river pirates and spawning ground of labrador-sized rats, attributed it to the Underground Railroad. When contemplating anything underground, in-the-dark, out-of-sight, our imagination reverts to the most fantastic explanation. A follow-up article reveals the mystery of the subterranean chambers: they were “a rare 19th-century pit silo where food for livestock was stored.”

Next, this article, from just a few days ago, about an unidentifiable, but apparently old (relatively speaking), structure unearthed during construction in Times Square.

“Midtown Manhattan has been overhauled so thoroughly in the last two decades that any structure not made of glass and steel looks old. In that realm, the tightly packed pile of stones that appeared at the base of 11 Times Square last week looked positively ancient.

Its sudden unveiling caused passers-by and neighbors to wonder how old it was and what purpose it had served.

Was it a furnace? A fireplace? A coal vault?”

These moments when the underground world is exposed to the surface world fascinate me. At any other time, the underground is a hidden world. Not that it’s not accessible via elevator or stairway, of course, but, from street level, it’s decidedly invisible beneath a layer of concrete. The moment of exposure, the unveiling, is especially poignant in cities, where a hole in the ground reveals raw soil and clay, drawing such a stark contrast with the built environment on the surface, giving the impression of a rip in the fabric.

Such moments remind me of Phaeton, who insists on driving his father Apollo’s sun chariot. Phaeton loses control of the chariot, swerves, flies too close to the earth, dries up entire rivers, creates deserts, sets land on fire, etc.. At one moment, “The earth cracked open, and through the chinks light broke into Tartarus, and frightened the king of shadows and his queen.” Granted, excavating a foundation in Times Square has little to do with scorching suns, but, I’m struck by this image of sunlight spilling into the underground world . Excavation becomes a breaking down of boundaries, subversion of Order, Structure and the cosmos.

Anyway. I love the character of Dr. Geismar, President of  Professional New York Archaeologists, who rushes in to evaluate the situation. I imagined her  When the workers said the plan was to leave the mystery structure in place and simply build over it, “She imagined aloud how thrilling it would be for future historians and archaeologists to stumble upon the stones again in 100 years when the lot is redeveloped.

“It makes perfect sense to leave it,” Dr. Geismar said. “It’s sort of a little secret of New York’s past.”

Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, Brooklyn

December 27, 2009

I recently found this New York Times article from July 29, 1936 about a team of policemen trying to break into a sealed, abandoned tunnel benath Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. The article, for me, captures perfectly the way an underground space has such bizarre power of our imagination.

“Just what they were searching for, the intrepid hunters did not know. All they had to guide them was an anonymous letter from Massachussetts, addressed to the District Attorney, that said, ’if you inspect the old tunnel you might find something interesting.’ Murder victim? Bootleg still? Counterfeit den? One guess was as good as another.”

So, basically: policemen get an out-of-the-blue note (from Massachusetts, of all places) in the mail about the possibility of finding “something interesting” in the tunnel, and imaginations are sent reeling to murders, bootleggers and counterfeiters

As one of the policemen prepares to descend into the tunnel, which, according to the article was sealed due to “river pirates,” he tells his fellow officers: “the place is supposed to be alive with rodents big as behemoths. We may have to fight our way through, men, but we’re prepared.”

When I read accounts like this, I am, without fail, amazed. A tunnel, an open sewer manhole, the dark mouth of a cave, or, for that matter, stairs leading down to a basement – these images appear to have some kind of enchanting, hypnotic power over the human imagination. Reason, logic, laws of plausibility – to the dogs. We’re under the spell of legend and myth; there’s nothing we won’t believe about the underground.

Tim O’Brien, in The Things They Carried, describes the same phenomenon (with slightly higher stakes, I suppose) in the so-called ‘tunnel rat’ missions, when he and his platoon would draw straws to see who would crawl hands-and-knees into a Viet Cong war tunnels. Whoever drew the short straw would stand gulping at the entrance of the tunnel, wondering if he’d come to nose-to-nose with enemy, if he’d be nailed by a booby trap or bitten by a snake. “Down there in the dark,” writes O’Brien, “there’s no such thing as a skeptic.”

So why do boundaries between myth and reality seem to disappear – poof – when it comes to tunnels, catacombs, sewers and anything else below-grade? Do we have a little gland somewhere in the back of our brain that clouds our thoughts with ‘gullible gas’ every time we think about the underground? (Kind of like being ‘underground intolerant’). No, at least not to my knowledge. But there are ways to explain this phenomenon. On one level, it’s as simple as having your imagination sent spinning by ‘the unknown,’ or anything obscured by darkness. But on another, more complex (‘deeper’?) level, I think  our peculiar relationship to underground space is determined by its power as a metaphor.

‘The underground’ is a strata of material space, a place we can visit, touch, smell, but it’s also a notion, a concept. Ask someone about the underground and you’re liable to have a conversation about Cosa Nostra, the Weather Underground, the Freemasons, or anything that counters the dominant ‘aboveground’ culture. Somewhere down the line, you’ll get to holes in the earth. This confusion between metaphorical and physical incarnations of the underground becomes even more dizzying when you think about all of the cinematic, literary undergrounds – imaginary undergrounds – that are so deeply ingrained in our culture. Everything from Odysseus’s and Aeneas’s descents into the realm of the afterlife, to Jules Verne’s downward adventure in Journey to the Center of the Earth, to the underground lairs of comic book supervillains like Lex Luthor and The Penguin. Underground spaces are simultaneously hidden from view and culturally ubiquitous. That is at least the beginning of an explanation as to why New York policemen are spending an afternoon preparing to wrestle “behemoth-sized rats” in a former haven for “river pirate,” on evidence of an anonymous note about possibly finding something “interesting.”

By the way, check out more about the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. It’s now opened to visits once a month or so (elephant guns to protect against rats provided). The guy who “rediscovered” the tunnel, Bob Diamond, sounds like a real character. I look forward to interviewing when I get back to NYC.

NPR’s “This American Life” on REVS

December 24, 2009

REVS: Underground Memoir

December 19, 2009

During the late 80s and 90s, an artist called REVS was the center of the New York graffiti world. His signature was postered to newspaper vending machines and ‘WALK/DON’T WALK’ signs, scribbled on trash cans and telephone polls, painted in massive block-letters on building facades. You couldn’t cross a street, get a coffee, hail a cab without seeing those four letters: R-E-V-S. Unlike the fiery, neon-colored pieces of other graffiti writers, REVS’s crude letter-style reflected the cityscape to the point of being camouflaged. His tag was always in the corner of your eye, a whisper just audible above the static of the city. It was as though REVS was a subliminal message permeating what Jung called “the deeper levels of the unconscious.” Later in his career, REVS would take the idea of sub-conscious graffiti to a whole new level.

For about six years, starting in ’94, REVS painted his autobiography on the walls of NYC’s subway tunnels. He would go down into the tunnels late at night, hoisting a ladder, a bucket of paint, a paint roller and a spraycan. Setting up the ladder on the tracks, somewhere between the platforms, he would paint a 5 by 12 swath of white on the wall; on this ‘page’ he would spray a few sentences, as though in a diary entry. These diaries are spread throughout the city – they can be found between any two stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They begin as a memoir: the first pages record the day he was born in Victory Memorial hospital, April 17, 1967,  3:00 pm, by way of Caesarean section. Most are recollections of a Brooklyn childhood, some are in-the-moment philosophizing. Subway riders catch glimpses of them as the train rushes past, but to actually read them, you have to go down and walk the tunnels.

I love this idea of using such an inaccessible space as an arena of self-expression, especially to record your life story. REVS inevitably brings to mind Dostoyevksy’s Notes from the Underground. The ‘pages’ of REVS’s memoir may not carry the literary caliber of the Russian novelist, but he is the flesh and blood embodiment of Dostoyevsky’s existential trope. Both men are invisible, existing on the margins of society. (I should say that REVS has never been photographed and that the interviews he has given reveal a misanthropic hermit, who is rather full of rage against society). Having been effectively excluded from society aboveground, they express themselves underground.

That’s a cursory summary of REVS. There’s a lot more to say. I’ll be writing about him (outside of the blogosphere) for the next few weeks, but will record my thoughts here from time to time.

Mole Man and Herrenknecht

December 18, 2009

Reading about underground architects and their visions of a troglodyte future got me thinking about the Mole Man. Going back to 1961, the Mole Man has been one of the featured supervillains in the Marvel comics universe. Before he was Mole Man, he was Harvey Rupert Elder, an eccentric American nuclear engineer and explorer, shunned by his scientist/explorer peers due to his hostile nature, dwarfish stature and absurd theories about a Hollow Earth. While on an expedition to Monster Island, Elder falls into a deep cave that appears to be part of a massive network. Before he can return to the surface and vindicate his theories, he stumbles into a cavern lined with highly reflective diamonds, whose brilliance leaves him partially blind. Unable to return to the surface world, Elder accepts his outcast-hood, dubs himself the Mole Man and begins exploring his new home: the vast underground kingdom, Subterranea. Eventually, he rises to power over a race called the Moloids. During a long career of sub-surface villainy, the Mole Man and his Moloids launch numerous invasions in a never-ending struggle to conquer the surface world – at one point, he steals buildings in New York City, by ‘sinking’ them. His incursions, of course, are always thwarted by the Fantastic Four.

But Mole Men are not only for the Marvel Universe.

Take Martin Herrenknecht, a German engineer and  the world’s largest manufacturer of “tunnel boring machines.” Herrenknecht’s “worms” are massive, cylindrical vehicles equipped with heavy-duty saws that chew through dozens of miles of the earth crust. In a profile on Herrenknecht last year in the New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger writes:

“At any given moment, close to a thousand Herrenknecht worms are burrowing under mountains, rivers, and cities on almost every continent. They have tunnelled along the San Andreas Fault, under the Yangtze River and beside the Bosporus, through catacombs in Rome and petrified pilings in Cairo.”

With his tunnel-digging empire, Herrenknecht seems to be engaged in a Mole Man-like struggle to conquer the surface world. Bilger cites a recent company newsletter, in which Herrenknecht sounds like he is rallying his Moloid minions:

“The process of urbanization now seems unstoppable.”  There are already more than three hundred cities around the world with more than a million inhabitants, “and the number of such mega-cities is increasing rapidly.” If developed countries are to avoid gridlock, the newsletter went on to suggest, their cities have to grow down as well as up. Every skyscraper needs a corresponding subway tunnel, every country a high-speed rail system to connect its urban centers. “This frontier can only be conquered by bold, innovative and confident engineers, companies, planners, investors, politicians and governments.”

“We are changing the world,” he says. “We are putting it in tunnels. That is my vision.”

I don’t know if anyone has seen the movie Antz – I imagine Herrenknecht up on a pedestal in front of his ant colony, pumping his fist, riling his workers into a frenzy of excavation.

The Lunar Underground

December 14, 2009

I recently found an article from New Scientist announcing the discovery of a ‘skylight’ on the moon’s surface. The 65-meter-wide hole, which may have been created by a moonquake or a meteor, may open into a vast, lava-carved tunnel beneath the lunar surface.

Within the dotted square is a 65-meter wide 'skylight' which could lead to a system of tunnels beneath the lunar surface

What a beautiful image: the moon riddled with tunnels, like some sort of celestial sponge. The discovery is of interest to scientists because such an underground complex “could shield future human colonists from space radiation and other hazards.” The way scientists discuss the discovery in the article is sort of remarkable. Penny Boston of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro: “I think it’s really exciting… It’s free real estate ready to be exploited and modified for human use.” So matter-of-fact. She could be talking about a proposed building beneath a city street.

Here’s an article, also from New Scientist,which goes into further detail about the possibility of a lunar base being built in a cave. Scientists seem to think that erecting “pressurised tents” inside a cave would be preferred to constructing a rigid structure on the surface.”Instead of assembling structures that have to be meteorite-proof on the surface, or burying them, you’d have tent-like structures inside these tubes,” says Austin Mardon of the Antarctic Institute of Canada in Edmonton, Alberta. “It’s like being cavemen on the Moon.”

I love the concept of human evolution following – at least spatially – a parabola. We started off living in caves, then built pyramids, the Eiffel tower and skyscrapers, but eventually we will pass our peak point, begin our descent and end up living underground again as moon cavemen.

Underground Green Space

December 14, 2009

After reading the Triple Canopy interview, I stumbled across this China Daily article from 2007 about an underground park in Shanghai. Shu Yu is behind construction of the world’s first subterranean green space.  Article reads:

We need to make the bodily experience of being underground not feel like you’re underground. We should change the composition of the underground environment—the space’s lighting, shadows, colors, materials, shape, and texture—so that it matches what people are used to above ground. We should change the quality and flow of air. We are also thinking of ways to introduce key elements of the natural environment underground, such as sunlight, green plants, flowing water, and small animals. If we can’t do that, we can at least project images of surface life onto the walls underground.

Shouldn’t we leave natural, green spaces aboveground and put the “less ornamental” elements of society, as HG Wells put it, underground? Something very backwards here. The tone of the article might be most unnerving. The announcements of the first indoor beaches and ski hills came with a “look what we can do!” pride. But here it’s “green areas have generally been ignored…” In other words, “it’s about time we had an underground park.” Imagine a few generations down the road, when children don’t know what it means to play “outside.”


This brings to mind a link recently passed on to me by Loretta Hall, author of Underground Buildings: More than Meets the Eye (2003)Sensory Scapes is a company that sells “windows” that you hang on your wall, offering a simulated view of nature. Their slogan: “bringing the benefits of nature indoors.”