Exploring underneath the streets of New York City

The East Side rail tunnel
The East Side rail tunnel
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Since he discovered an abandoned tunnel that ran beneath his house at the age of 16, Will Hunt has been fascinated by exploring subterranean worlds. In this extract from his debut book, the urban adventurer describes the first time he ventured below the Upper West Side of Manhattan

On a summer morning, I slipped through a slice in a chain-link fence near 125th Street and headed through the tunnel’s entrance, which was voluminous, maybe 20 feet high and twice that across. Rather than pitch dark, the tunnel was twilit: every few hundred feet there was a rectangular ventilation grate in the ceiling, which, like a cathedral window, let in soft columns of light. I set off on a quiet walk through the middle of Manhattan without seeing another soul, like something from a dream.

Author Will Hunt

Author Will Hunt

Around the halfway point, I came upon an enormous mural, more than 100 feet long, painted by an artist named Freedom, who was the tunnel’s namesake. I stood by the opposite wall, admiring the painting, which seemed to tremble in the light. A soft breeze blew through, and I could hear the faraway clamour of cars on the West Side Highway mingling with birdcalls in the park.

And then, from down the tunnel, I saw the giant headlight of a train moving toward me. Crouching with my back against the wall, I felt a deep bass tremor under my feet, and then, all at once, a blast of light, a gale-force wind, and a roar that sent a vibration down through my ribs. I had not been in any real danger – there was a good 15 feet of clearance between me and the tracks – but as I crouched there my whole body quaked, my mind on fire.

Even as I emerged from the tunnel that first afternoon, climbing over a fence near the Hudson River, my relationship with the city had begun to shift. Above ground, I traced and retraced a single path between work and home, following a narrow track of sensory experience; down in the tunnel I stepped outside those bounds, and connected to the city in a new and visceral way. I felt shaken awake, like I was making eye contact with New York for the first time.

Going underground, crawling down into the body of the city, became my way of proving to myself that I belonged in New York, that I knew the city. I liked being able to tell my born-and-raised-Manhattanite friends about old vaults beneath their neighbourhood that they knew nothing about. Down in sunken alleys, I enjoyed seeing textures of the city that were invisible to people on the surface – ancient graffiti tags, cracks in the foundations of skyscrapers, exotic moulds creeping over walls, decades-old newspapers crumpled in hidden crevices. New York and I shared secrets: I was sifting through hidden drawers, reading private letters.

Near the Brooklyn Navy Yard one night, Steve laid orange construction cones around a manhole and popped open the lid with an iron hook, releasing a twist of vapour from below. We climbed down the ladder, hand over hand on slimy rungs, and splashed down in a sewer collector: it was maybe 12 feet high, with greenish water burbling down the centre. The air was warm; my glasses immediately fogged. I hesitated before long, gooey strings of bacteria dangling from the ceiling – affectionately known as “snotsicles” – but the sewer was less repellent than I’d expected. The smell was not so much fecal as it was earthy, like an old farm shed full of fertiliser. We passed our lights over banks of loamy muck, like sandbars in a river, where tiny crops of albino mushrooms grew. During migration season, eels swam through this water.

Mixed in with the green flow, Steve told me, was Wallabout Creek, an old waterway that filtered into Wallabout Bay, where the Navy Yard was now located. You could see the creek on a 1766 map, but as the city had grown and expanded, it had been forced underground and out of sight.

Up on the surface, I knew New York as a crude, if exuberant, animal: rumbling and growling, belching steam and disgorging crowds from its various orifices. But down here, with one of its ancient streams flowing quietly around my feet, the city felt serene, even vulnerable. It was intimate almost to the point of embarrassment, the feeling of watching someone as they slept.

It was past three in the morning when we climbed back up the ladder and emerged through the open manhole into bracing cold air. Just as we came up, a young man on a bike swerved to avoid us. He skidded and spun back around. Breathlessly, he asked, “Who are you guys?”

Steve pulled himself straight and puffed out his chest, as though he were standing onstage, then tilted back his head and delivered lines from the Robert Frost poem “A Brook in the City”:

“The brook was thrown

Deep in a sewer dungeon under stone

In fetid darkness still to live and run -

And all for nothing it had ever done,

Except forget to go in fear perhaps.”

With each trip underground, the city cracked open a little bit more, disclosing another secret, just enough to draw me deeper. I rode the subway with a notebook, watching out the window and recording the locations of gaps in the walls that would potentially lead to abandoned platforms, or “ghost stations,” as graffiti writers call them. I tracked routes of underground streams and searched for places where you could hold your ear to a grate and hear water babbling beneath the surface. My closet hung with waders and mud-soaked clothing, and I carried a headlamp in my backpack at all times. I began moving through the city more and more slowly, as I paused to peer into subway vents, sewer manholes, and construction pits, trying to puzzle together the city’s innards. My mental map of New York came to resemble a coral reef, riddled with hidden creases, secret passages, and unseen pockets.

Underground by Will Hunt is out now, published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99 in hardback.