In New York City, when night falls, a number of doors and less obvious passageways open onto another city. One of these is the mouth of the Amtrak tunnel that runs under Manhattan's Riverside Park. In December 2011, after five months of living full-time in the mundane city, I need a vacation, a respite not so much from the beloved city herself but from what cities increasingly consist of: light, noise, human and automobile traffic, crowded streets and stores and subway cars, trash and blackened gum on the sidewalks, the appalling tons of flotsam that wash up around us. For nearly half a year the only vistas have been vistas of human habitation. And so one cold night I take it upon myself to walk for nearly 60 blocks through the underground waste of the Riverside Tunnel, known colloquially as the Freedom Tunnel after Chris "Freedom" Pape, a graffiti artist whose murals made it famous among a certain subset of the population for whom spending time in dark tunnels is not unusual, and is even considered fun. My companion this night, Andrew Lynch, is one of this number, young and blond like me, but taller and less muscular, lanky with an easy stride. By day he sells real estate on the Upper West Side. By night—not every night, and increasingly fewer nowadays, but some nights even now—he's an urban explorer.
I'd come across Lynch's website while researching urban exploration in New York City. I reached out to him over email, and that led to a sit-down in a Starbucks near Grand Central Station—an unwise choice on the day before Thanksgiving—which led to more emails and finally to meeting up at half past midnight in the McDonald's at West 125th Street, our starting point for the incursion into the city's substructure. By then Lynch has already consulted with a friend who knows the tunnel and has conducted advance reconnaissance on points of ingress and egress. The way he's mapped out for us takes us over a chainlink fence behind a stand of trees at the top of an incline and then along a rocky path beside a highway. At one point we're forced to duck down behind the trees as a police cruiser glides past on the road below. Once over the fence—there used to be a hole in the chainlink, but Amtrak employees replaced that part—we try to be nonchalant as the headlights of passing cars wash over us. We're clad nearly head to toe in black—black wool peacoats, black gloves. I'm wearing the scarred leather hiking boots I inherited from my father, which he wore across the western United States and which are older than I am. It's the coldest night of the season so far, already around 32 degrees and dropping. Up ahead looms the gaping tunnel mouth, a deeper dark against the dark of the night around us.
This kind of exploration is illegal, and urban explorers, some of whom openly maintain websites about their hobby, occupy a dicey legal gray area in their public statements about it. The best "urbex" handbook offers extensive advice about sneaking and hiding. Urban explorers are seen by others, and tend to see themselves, as adventurers, renegade urban historians who map forgotten places. Rebels who hack the city. Usually they surf undetected through the city's circulatory system, but there are stories of arrest, fines, even death. Twenty-seven-year-old recreational climber Robert Landeta died in 1998 of a fall from the Brooklyn Bridge. Steve Duncan, a living legend of the New York urbex scene, scaled the exterior of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side, only to be arrested by dozens of police officers when he came down.
But Lynch and I have not yet transgressed. There's still time to turn back.
We enter, and are swallowed up by another world. What little light filters down from the grates above shapes out the contours of the vast cavern and the train tracks on their bed of ballast rocks. In daytime, these grates act as spotlights—concentrating the sunbeams on certain patches of wall, which, consequently, become prized real estate among graffiti artists. Their work is illuminated as in a gallery. But now, at almost 1:00 a.m., the tunnel is nearly lightless and the quiet is absolute. We're in an interregnum, a timeless space removed from normal time.
Ten feet into the tunnel, the silence, the uncanniness of it, is what strikes me most. It slows my heartbeat, calms my excitable city-boy nerves. It affects Lynch too. "It's like the city is this creature," he says, "and outside everybody's abusing it or changing it, but on the inside is where the heart is, and you see that it's just so still, so peaceful."
The other thing I can't help but notice is the graffiti. Lots of graffiti. The walls are festooned with tags, all of them jostling for space and attention in a place few human eyes will ever see except in passing, from the seat of a railway car, and then only during the daytime. As we travel farther we begin to see patches of wall that have been painted over. In the summer of 2010, Amtrak employees began painting over the huge murals. These murals, along with a welter of tags, had been created by graffiti artists over a period of years, and none were more accomplished than those of the man calling himself Freedom, who got there first with the most, and it was his murals above all that Amtrak sought to destroy. One of his artworks, of which pictures can still be found online, was a massive reproduction of Goya's The Third of May painted in 1992. Now it's gone. This erasure was done in an effort to diminish the undesired popularity the tunnel had acquired in certain circles, not only among graffiti artists and the homeless—who once lived here in an extensive shantytown, and who still trickle in on bitterly cold nights for protection from the elements—but also among urban explorers.
URBAN EXPLORATION, ALSO CALLED urban spelunking and building hacking, involves finding, accessing and exploring parts of the urban environment that are generally not open for public use. It should be said, however, that urban exploration need not involve trespassing, and most enthusiasts are happy to go somewhere legally if the opportunity presents itself.