Atlantic Avenue Underground

Photo © Leni Schwendinger

Much has been written about the Atlantic Avenue tunnel since Bob Diamond rediscovered access through a manhole to the storied passageway in 1980. His investigations and contemporary efforts are superbly documented on the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association website. Diamond shares this body of knowledge on occasional tours of the tunnel, an exploration I was eager to take – a lighting designer underground for two hours without light, except for the jittering, swirling, white-to-blue light of portable flashlights.

I set out from my Greenwich Village nest on a frigid Saturday walking full speed to the Christopher Street #1 IRT station, musing in the cold air about the overground walking experience and the imminent descent into the subway. Once on the concrete platform, intent on getting to Brooklyn on time, I lost all thoughts of the sidewalk, streets, buildings and people above.

Photo by Joseph Legros

The Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in Brooklyn New York is apparently the “oldest subway tunnel in the world.”  It is not only old, it is legendary today, and those legends have enthralled and elaborated since the tunnel’s cut-and-cover excavation in 1844. Open House New York sponsored two tours on Saturday January 30th led by Bob Diamond, the man who “discovered” the tunnel’s whereabouts and access in 1980.

The info-pack demanded that “All guests must wear sneakers or boots (no high-heeled shoes) and should bring a (strong) flashlight.” The tour would be “70 people” for “1-1/2 hours, as we all have to enter and exit from one manhole”. We descended the narrow ladder through a metallic-rimmed manhole right in the middle of the street, almost in the crosswalk, into what had been promised as a “constant 50-60-degrees” Fahrenheit. The best part about this activity, I decided, would be experiencing a 165-year old excavation by the illumination of 70 flashlights.

The ladder dropped straight down – there was no view right or left or below, just the faint and pleasant odor of damp dirt. I descended step-by-step and then arrived in a one-person wide rough-hewn space with only one choice: forward, to an ill-shaped opening in a pitted and pocked sand-colored wall. Squeezing through, I beheld a great uneven stairway and the pit beyond. Gaining balance and eyes adjusting, I noted visitors grouping up and the intermittent points of light from uncovered incandescent light bulbs strung up on the grey and black stone walls.

Photo © Leni Schwendinger

We spend more than 1-1/2 hours underground with our garrulous host Bob Diamond. He regaled us with the amazing history of the tunnel: the transportation, geology, the methodological digging of seven months, the criminal, the politically unethical and mercenary, the gunfight, the pirates (the fanciful vision of gold gleaming), the Smokey Hollow slum gangs, the mustard gas and five-foot rats — in short, the folklore and the facts.

All the while the crowd was quiet, the darkness begat dreaminess, with shadows on walls and ceiling and flashlight beams moving, searching for clues in the stone, and brick of that which was not extant – the tracks, the smoke, the voices of 800 Irish laborers – and that which was hidden – the tunnel beyond a great barrier wall which seals in a majority of the length. Looking back from the monumental wall, the darkened passage is defined by glimmering archways, a coppery, incandescent glow shot onto the barrel vault by clear glass incandescent-filament bulbs – a cathedral of stone, brick and dirt.

Photo © Leni Schwendinger

Investigation over, photos taken, history well described, discoveries made, I returned to reality – the overground world of daylight and cold. I descended once again, this time to the IND line’s A train platform, enjoying the solidity of the comparatively grand concrete and tiled stairway. As I walked home I found my view adjusted: manholes, drains, basements, vault covers — there is a world down there!

The vertical layers of New York City revealed themselves in my mind’s eye – I will never take over- and underground passage for granted again.

To see more photos of Leni’s visit to the tunnel, check out her photo essay, “Atlantic Avenue Tunnel: Vertical Layers of New York,” posted on her blog.

The next available Atlantic Avenue Tunnel tour is March 7. Visit the Brooklyn Rail website for details.

Photo © Leni Schwendinger


Leni Schwendinger is a recognized authority on the many issues and applications of public lighting, art and community outreach, creating lighting environments for architectural and public spaces all over the world. For almost two decades, her Light Projects studio has worked to energize architecture, landscape and infrastructure, with the ultimate objective of connecting people to each other and to their surroundings.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

One Response to “Atlantic Avenue Underground”

  1. For readers interesting in walking the city, especially in hours of darkness, please refer to the movie Night City

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