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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.

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