THE FREEDOM TUNNEL
Exploring the bowels of a city and creeping through passages 99% of its population will never venture into is a unique and vivid experience. Gifted from previous generations, these marvels of engineering are the last thing on our minds when we’re flushing the toilet, plugging our laptops into the wall or turning the gas on to make a coffee. Yet our infrastructure is one of the most important and intrinsic elements to the quality of life we enjoy residing in a modern metropolis. Steve Duncan is one individual who knows the value of these systems better than anyone. Whilst visiting New York we were introduced to this urban historian, subterranean explorer and photographer, who is well known in the underworld of metropolitan reconnaissance. Steve is most at home with a flash light strapped to his forehead, popping manhole covers, climbing bridges, exploring subways, jimmying doors open and saying things like, “don’t step on that rail or you’ll die”, “I found a dead body right here once” and, “that’s weird, there didn’t used to be an alarm in this building”.
The following series of photographs are from one particular outing into what is colloquially known as the ‘Freedom Tunnel’ – named after American graffiti artist Chris ‘Freedom’ Pape, whose iconic works still grace the walls. The tunnel’s history of housing a homeless shantytown community was exposed and largely popularised through the film ‘Dark Days‘, created by tunnel resident and documentary filmmaker, Marc Singer.
After the tunnel’s recommission in the 1990s, the skeletal buildings were bulldozed, its inhabitants cleared out and the tunnel’s original use as a domestic rail artery restored.
Today, the tunnel is accessed by a small recess between concrete and dirt in an Upper Manhattan park. As soon as we pushed our bodies through the hole, we were forced onto a cascading mountain of earth and broken concrete. After sliding down in ankle deep rubble, checking we hadn’t damaged ourselves or our camera equipment and regaining our composure – we realised we had arrived in a huge, cavernous concrete arena.
The enduring indications of the life that once thrived below the surface of Manhattan were restricted to occasional unoccupied pits of rubbish, miscellaneous possessions and dirty blankets. The only person we could locate still living down there resided below the tracks in his own multi-levelled concrete catacomb – complete with a hanging television, shelves of food and a full sleeping arrangement. It was quite a surreal experience knocking on a tightly screwed manhole (when you’re already underground) to see if anyone is home, to then hear a muffled human voice respond and watch the cover slowly unscrew itself from underneath.
The confidence that slowly permeated our group was intermittently interrupted by the thundering of interstate trains. Luckily their arrival was telegraphed by echoing horns, at which point Steve would yell at us to either hide behind a wall, or “quickly curl up into a ball and look like a lump of rubbish”. Evidently, we weren’t allowed to be down there.
The main tunnel, whose seemingly never-ending curve ran around as far as the eye could see, was punctuated with evenly spaced shafts of light from the street grates above. These diffused reminders of our clandestine location not only created a wonderfully polarised photographic environment, but also allowed a vast, evenly spaced street art gallery to periodically populate the entire tunnel. With no pockets of light going unutilised, a lot of the works they illuminated included some of the oldest and arguably most famous pieces, or remnants of pieces, of graffiti in America.
After a good few hours of walking, the conclusion of the bend confronted us with a blinding light at the end of the tunnel. Like dirty messengers from the other side, we emerged squinting, scratched, damp and dusty – but edified by a shallow glimpse into a sobering reality easily romanticised by history in the minds of those to whom it is a nothing more than another story on the internet.