Exploring the underground art gallery in New York City
The summer after graduating high school, I visited New York City’s Freedom Tunnel.
The best thing to do in New Jersey in the summer is to go to New York. This is something every Jersey kid memorizes in school along with their multiplication tables. So one day during the summer after my senior year of high school, I hopped onto the next NJ Transit to Port Authority. I didn’t stop there — I was meeting up with two other high school friends, and we were going all the way north.
On the train to 125th, where we heard the Freedom Tunnel began, Jack turned to us and said, “How many people do you think have died down there?”
“What the fuck, Jack,” said Maggie. She flung out a hand as the train gave a jolt.
“It’s a serious question,” said Jack, smiling as if he’d gotten his answer. “Maybe we’ll see skeletons.”
He wasn’t a sociopath, but he was an aspiring photographer, so it was easy to confuse. The only reason he was tagging along with Maggie and I was to take “dope photos” with a massive Canon camera. The worst thing you can give a high school kid is a Canon camera. In the time between two stations, he had already snapped artistic shots of Maggie frowning, his own sneakers, and an old woman holding a grocery cart.
Jack was also fundamentally different from Maggie and I because of one major thing: We had just graduated, but he was only about to be a senior.
When I looked out of the subway car’s window, first I saw the dark, and then my reflection swimming in it. Another guy at school, Ben Pasticci or Pistacci or something, had bought a live lobster from the local Walmart earlier in the year and kept it in a recycling bin filled with tap water in his room. He’d named it after a rapper. I thought of it circling around and around in the dark.
“You can’t say shit like that,” Maggie said. She was from the city and had gone to prep schools all her life. One time, Maggie had asked me to pretend to be her on the phone in order to tell her boss she was quitting her job. She was also wearing a beautiful dress that day, a deep red in shiny fabric. And we were exploring an underground tunnel.
When the train arrived at 125th street, we filed out with the noon crowd. The station emerged above ground, awash in sunlight. It was July. Jack was visiting the Freedom Tunnel to take pictures, but Maggie and I were there because of a deep, nauseating fear.
It was the July after our senior year, which meant the last real July of high school, which meant it was the end. The end of what, we hadn’t really talked about, but it felt like something behemoth and historic. A creature about to go extinct.
So if we wanted to pretend everything wasn’t changing, we had to act like we were in the past. We were going to manufacture a memory. We were going to do something youthful and dumb, because we thought we were no longer either of those.
“Is this the right place?” Jack said as we exited the station.
“We’re supposed to find Saint Clair’s Place and then go down it,” said Maggie, reading from her phone. We’d found out about the tunnel in a listicle.
“You mean Saint Clair Place.”
“No, it’s definitely Saint Clair’s.”
“Dude, Google never lies. Look at my phone.”
We did find it after a few minutes. It was a steeply sloped street. We walked past grandmothers on brownstone stoops and twenty-something guys in striped tank tops standing around smoking. People weren’t in motion on that street, only in stasis. The city’s dial of intensity felt turned down to a low thrum.
We ended up at the foot of another smaller, brushy slope that led up to the train tracks — as if we were in a valley, with the neighborhood looming behind us and wilderness in front of us.
In order to actually get to the train tracks, we had to squeeze past a chain-link fence. Previous explorers usually paved the way by cutting holes in it, but every year the holes were mended. We walked along the fence to find a new hole, bushes and branches scratching at our legs. When I found one, close to the ground as if cut for a large dog, Maggie said, “It’d be hilarious if we got tetanus from this.”
It would be, the way karma was hilarious. Entering the Freedom Tunnel was technically illegal. More officially called Riverside Tunnel, it was an active Amtrak tunnel that began a few blocks north of Columbia University and a few feet south of the whole city, rumbling underneath. Occasionally cops would hang around the area or even inside the mouth of the tunnel. That was part of the attraction, to be honest. Especially for Jack, who’d get great photos if we were arrested.
We crouched through the hole onto gravel. The train tracks were in front of us, open under the wide sky and leading into the tunnel, which began a little farther down. It was hot. Maggie had put on a pair of aviators.
We feared when the next train would barrel past, so we walked close to the fence, far from the tracks, until the mouth of the tunnel arched before us. At its very top, someone had scrawled in yellow paint the tiny words ‘ORIGINAL AMTRAK (FREEDOM) TUNNEL.’ There was an overturned shopping cart at the side, covered in graffiti.
“No cops?” Jack said, frowning.
I was more preoccupied with the miasmic black of the tunnel entrance. I couldn’t see a thing inside. It was the kind of dark that felt solid, had mass. Jack lifted his camera, but after a moment, put it down.
Entering the tunnel felt like being in the hot belly of a monster. All the noise of the city — children laughing in playgrounds, car engines, birds, that deep and eternal sound of New York rotating on its axis — vanished. The humid breath of the tunnel condensed on our skin. We turned our phones’ flashlights on.
“Do you think there are people who, like, live in here? Who could see the light?” Maggie whispered.
“I guess we’ll find out,” said Jack.
All we could hear was the crunch of stones and dirt under our shoes. We made small talk to try and fill up the cavern. When I asked Maggie what happened to the lobster bought by Ben Pistachio, she looked surprised.
“Didn’t you hear about it? It died like two weeks in.”
I did hear about it. I guess I wanted to hear the story from someone else — and maybe even hoped they remembered a different one. But even if everyone told a different story about something, the real story would still exist.
No trains, no people, no light. I couldn’t see the end of the tunnel, which was at 70th street, and realized I had no idea what getting there was really like.
“Wait. What the fuck is that,” said Maggie, stopping.
“What the fuck is what?”
“That,” she said, pointing ahead of us. I made out the faint shape of something tall and thin and standing still in the gravel beside the tracks.
“Uh,” said Jack. Then louder, “Hello?”
“What the fuck are you doing,” Maggie hissed, eyes huge.
There was no answer from the shape. It wasn’t moving.
“Maybe it’s not a person,” Jack suggested.
We walked toward it slowly. Maggie, in a subtle maneuver, lagged to walk directly behind Jack and I. Eventually the thing’s outline emerged:
It was a metal pole.
Jack started snickering. As I walked around it, I looked back. There was something lonely about it. Someone had once put it there for a reason completely lost to us. When I said that aloud, Maggie shook her head.
“Yeah, I don’t want to know.”
“I know exactly why they put it there,” said Jack the way only 15-year-old boys could.
Before I could reply, I saw our first graffiti mural, glowing in sudden sunlight.
The murals were why so many people made pilgrimages to the tunnel. Chris “Freedom” Pape, the graffiti artist who’d given the tunnel its name, had started the tradition by painting along the tunnel walls in the late 1990s and early 2000s according to its architecture:
Shafts of light poured in from above, cathedral-like, because of grates in Riverside Park’s sidewalk. Under each shaft of light was a graffiti mural. The entire tunnel became an art gallery.
Nearly all of his art was homage to the “mole people” who lived in the tunnel in the 1990s, when it was inactive, before they were evicted and their shantytowns bulldozed by city officials who were reopening Riverside Tunnel for the Amtrak Empire Connection.
A hundred people, gone. If not for Chris Pape, they’d be gone in memory too.
The thing is, most of Pape’s stuff was actually painted over by Amtrak officials in 2010. Huge swaths of the tunnel were covered in gray. But time had attracted younger artists, so the first mural we saw, a set of rainbow tags, wasn’t actually by Pape, but a new guy.
After such a long time in the dark, at first the graffiti was hard to look at, almost glowing under the sun. We could hear kids yelling from a playground in the distance. None of us said anything. When Maggie stood under the light, her dress shining, she looked like she was being beamed up to a universe above, where the past was invisible. Dust, caught in the sunbeams, floated downward. I looked at the artwork and felt immediately in that strange and remote moment that not only something had been lost but also would be lost. No one knew where Pape was now.
Then Jack stepped forward with his camera and started snapping away.
As we walked, the tunnel got lighter and lighter, and we marked our passage by the little plaques on the walls — 103rd, 96th, 89th. Eventually the whole cavern was lit up by sun and it felt like a meditative place, where a graffiti artist could work for hours on end.
I was going to miss hours spent on the bleachers in high school with friends, our shadows stretched long across the empty football field under the afternoon sun. It’s true I could sit on them again any time, but it wouldn’t be the same. Those particular bleachers, that particular laughter skating across them, that particular slant of shadow, the scarves — they only existed in memory.
“We’re not ever going to hang out like that ever again,” agreed Maggie when I told her. We swapped the little bits we’d miss about high school until Jack heaved a sigh.
“Why are you two being nostalgic now? That’s such a waste of time.”
“You’re not the one who just graduated.”
“I’m not, but yeah — you just graduated.”
“We’re literally out of school now,” said Maggie loftily.
We passed the cartoon portrait of a balding man in a suit. In the corner, it said “RIP KOCH.” Jack took a photo.
I didn’t know who Koch was, but he was important enough to memorialize. The artist who drew him was doing it in the right order: First Koch died, and then he or she said “RIP.” But it felt good to first talk about what we’d miss. It felt good and it felt better, because if we didn’t talk about what we’d miss, we’d talk about what was ahead.
There was also a portrait of the man who built the Freedom Tunnel, Robert Moses. Deep beneath the layers of graffiti lied the behemoth hand of Moses, who built nearly all of New York City’s bridges, highways, and tunnels in the early 20th century. He constructed the tunnel in the 1930s to expand Riverside Park space, but it quickly fell into disuse save for the occasional freight train passing through.
Then shantytowns, then nothing again. Then Chris Pape, then nothing again. Then Maggie and Jack and me, walking along the tracks.
“Wait, let’s do a photo shoot. Stand in front of the graffiti, Karen.”
I told Jack that was such a touristy thing to do. He looked confused.
“No? Why else would people paint these?” I heard the unspoken words: If not to be seen?
Then the tunnel began rumbling.
“Holy shit,” Maggie breathed. “I forgot about the train.”
We crowded against a mural as the rumbling grew louder and louder, the air thick and shrill with energy. Tunnels weren’t built so wide nowadays, but the Freedom Tunnel was wide enough to fit a town once upon a time. I heard a massive bellow that nearly toppled us over and shook the dust eddying in the air. Then the train’s golden eye illuminated us from around the bend.
After a while of feeling like the only people in a post-apocalyptic world, the train was an interruption from the present, a parenthesis in time. We stood in the dirt and watched the train rush by, its wind buffeting our faces.
Jack and I raised our hands and waved. I imagined sitting in the train and looking out into the dark.
We followed the train as it echoed, high-strung and nervous as we waited for another one to barrel through any moment. But soon we became distracted by more art on the walls. And further down the tunnel, it grew darker and darker, and quiet again. That brief moment turned out easy to forget.