Cool images of underground subway construction in NYC

Building new subway lines is a massive undertaking and this gallery of photos gives some indication of the scale of the work. Here is what New York is undertaking:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has taken on three massive projects: East Side Access, the No. 7 subway line extension, and the new Second Avenue subway line. Construction for the projects is taking place deep underground, much of it simultaneously. The three projects span 14 miles and are expected to be finished in 2019 at an estimated cost of $15 billion.

This indicates a few things: New York has the kind of capital and ability to build such lines and the trouble it takes to construct such things suggests new lines must be needed in a city where a large percentage of residents use mass transit on a daily basis.

NYC proposal for an underground park

Parks are often considered places to find open sky and sunshine but a recent proposal from two architects for an underground park in New York City turns these ideas on their head:

The pair want to turn the rundown, graffiti-covered trolley terminal under Delancey Street into an underground park, reports CBS 2?s Don Dahler.

“It’s part historical rediscovery of an amazing space; it’s part science-fiction. And I think it’s part just sort of a green, magical community renewal,” Ramsey said…

The ambitious duo were inspired by the overwhelming success of the “High Line” project, an elevated old train line turned park. The proposed “low line” park would take up three blocks underneath the Lower East Side, and would feature actual trees and greenery, thanks to technology straight out of science fiction…

The proposed park, which would be free to the public, has gotten a positive response from the city and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and although the developers aren’t sure yet how much it would cost, they’ve already started raising funds for their subterranean vision of the future.

Sounds pretty interesting to me, particularly in the plans for bringing natural light underground. Some people do have a fascination with being underground – see an earlier posts about a proposed underground skyscaper and an “underground temple” and the tunnels below Paris that have become a big tourist attraction.

If anything, New York City should move forward with this just to promote something that is sure to become a big attraction. The allusion to the “High Line” is telling: these architects want to take another abandoned part of the city and turn it into an attractive public space. I could imagine NYC becoming a unique hub for these sorts of spots, leading the world in redesigning brownfield sites into places not only for tourists but for city dwellers looking for an escape.

The only thing that could really derail this is the cost: who is going to pay for this?

Exploring the “mail rail” of London

There seems to be a growing interest in stories about underground spaces below cities. Add another to stories about underground Paris, New York, and Las Vegas: several explorers have documented the “mail rail” system that operated not too long ago beneath London:

Construction of the tunnels began on February 1915 from a series of shaft located along the route. The tunnels were primarily dug in clay using the Greathead shield system, although the connecting tunnels in and around the stations were mined by hand…

It wasn’t until June 1924 that workers began laying the track using 1000 tons of running rail and 160 tons of conductor rail…The line was eventually finished in 1927 with the first letter through the system running on February 1928…

Although initially the system was a success, in its last years of service the line was continually losing money. On the 7th November 2002, Royal Mail announced the line had become uneconomical with losses of £1.2M a day and that they planned to close it should no alternate uses be found. This was to be the death of the Mail Rail with the line from Mount Pleasant to the Eastern Delivery Office closing on the 21st March 2003, the remaining section from the Western District Office to Mount Pleasant following on the 29th. Now it just sits there buried where light cannot reach, rusting away, the trains sleeping silently in and around the stations wanting to be used again. Sadly a dream which we all know will never come true.

I had not known that these sorts of mail systems were in use until so recently. Such systems were not completely unknown in big cities: Chicago had a much more complex system that delivered mail as well as other kinds of freight. In big yet dense cities, these delivery systems could make a lot of sense as it would keep some traffic off the roads and goods could be delivered with little interruption.

I do wonder at times whether current city officials are very knowledgeable about what is underneath their cities. The pictures regarding London’s “mail rail” are quite good and I wonder if they caught anyone off-guard.

With such interesting things underneath so many big cities, it seems that movie and TV writers would have an endless supply of interesting settings where odd things could occur and creatures could roam…

More on people living beneath Las Vegas

I first ran into a story on people living under Las Vegas in The Sun (UK) two years ago. The most recent edition of Newsweek also briefly discusses this situation as part of a larger article about Las Vegas and the impact Celine Dion has had on the city:

At the south end of the Strip, near the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, a hidden concrete path leads into a 500-mile warren of wet, trash-strewn drainage pipes that function as an underground shelter for hundreds of the city’s most downtrodden. Several have been laid off from the same well-paid, benefits-packed service jobs that give Vegas its rep as a working-class paradise. The pipes are one of the few places police and hotel security don’t bother to tread, and since the recession, they’ve become increasingly populated, according to Matthew O’Brien, author of a 2007 book about the tunnels, Beneath the Neon.

Life here is spare and dangerous. Aside from floods that can fill the space in minutes, there is ever-present crime. Jody Alger, 48, an unemployed casino waitress, guards her tunnel with a BB gun. Another camp has two makeshift barricades at its entrance; inside, its 32-year-old inhabitant huddles on an old bed with a flashlight strapped to his head. In a nearby tunnel, John Tondee sleeps on a sagging leather couch that he found in a Dumpster. His clothes are in a messy pile, and his entertainment is a guitar with a broken string, which he uses for playing country gospel. “I’m at the point of coming out of here,” he says. “I’ve had enough.” Tondee says he’s a former maintenance worker who lost his job a year ago and couldn’t afford to pay the $675 in rent. “I’ll do whatever it takes to survive,” he says. “I’ll go around and wash windows.” At night, he used to dress in drag and walk down the Strip. But someone came into the tunnel and stole his 16 wigs. Now he has only one head of fake black curls left.

These two paragraphs are meant to set up a comparison between the glitzy and popular Celine Dion shows at Caesar’s Palace and the desperate times some residents are facing.

But from what I can gather, people living underneath a city is not a limited phenomenon perhaps tied to difficult economic times. The space underneath cities can be easier to access than people might realize: this story about Paris suggests all sorts of people end up exploring this area (though many of them are on tours of the Paris Catacombs). And the 1995 book The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City, which I first read for my undergraduate Introduction to Sociology class, is a fascinating look at how a number of people have carved out a life in a space that most would avoid.

The world beneath Paris

A little more than a month ago, I commented on a story about exploring underground New York City. The latest issue of National Geographic has a similar story: underneath Paris is a complex system of tunnels, abandoned quarries, and catacombs.

Although I have not been to Paris, this article makes the catacomb tours sound fascinating. Perhaps other cities, like New York or Chicago, could put together underground tours to generate some extra income. While American cities wouldn’t have centuries of bodies beneath them, I would guess that there would be plenty of people interested in such a tour.

On the whole, this article about Paris makes the underground world seem whimsical and liberating. The article ends with the idea that people go underground to escape the restrictions and expectations of the above-ground world. Are there downsides to these places or the people who explore them? And does Paris have people living underground, like New York City and Las Vegas?

Traveling through underground New York

Walking underneath a city through the tubes, pipes, and sewers has always sounded fascinating to me. One New York Times reporter had the opportunity make an underground excursion and here is a description of the start of his journey:

Tuesday, 12:36 a.m.
Exterior Street, the Bronx

We inspect our exit point — a manhole in the middle of the road. Will Hunt, a bespectacled 26-year-old who is writing a book about the underground (“The last frontier,” he says, “in an over-mapped, Google-Earthed world.”) will serve as our spotter. Will’s job is to watch for traffic: ascending from the hole, we do not wish to be hit by a car. We are to communicate by walkie-talkie. Will ties a long pink ribbon to the inside of the manhole cover. Dangling downward, this will be our signal we have reached the end.

1:20 a.m.
Van Cortlandt Park, the Bronx

Down we go by way of sewer pipe, joined now by Andrew Wonder, a shaggy former film student making a documentary about Steve. The change is stark, immediate: darkness, shin-high water, a dull ammoniac funk. My eyes adjust, and I see an endless tunnel, rounded, eight feet high and made of faded brick. The floor is scummy and perilous to walk on. Within seconds, Steve, Erling and Andrew rip their waders: they’re taking on water. We nonetheless progress and, after 50 feet, the entrance disappears. Forgot how much I hate enclosed spaces.

1:48 a.m.
Bronx sewers

Amazing. The sounds down here are even more impressive than the sights and smells: the Niagara-like crash of water spilling in from side drains; the rumble of the subway; the guh-DUNK! of cars hitting manhole covers overhead, like two jabs on a heavy bag. Steve says we’re only 12 feet beneath the surface, but it feels far deeper. The familiar world is gone: only sewage now, the press of surrounding earth, the anxious dance of headlamps on the water. Every 100 feet or so, an archway appears and we can see a parallel channel gurgling beside us with a coffee-colored murk. I shine my headlamp down and watch a condom and gooey scraps of toilet paper float by. I check the air meter constantly: no trace of gas, and the oxygen level is a healthy 20.9 percent. I ask Steve how he navigates down here; he laughs. “Hey, Erling,” he calls out, “you’re taking care of the navigation, right?” Funny.

This sounds like an interesting adventure. But it also is illustrative of the important world of infrastructure beneath our feet that handles a lot of important functions. How this was all constructed in such a way that it was accessible and so that multiple systems could be in place (subways, sewers, phone and cable lines, etc.) is a remarkable feat of planning and engineering.

It also seems that a disproportionately large number of movie and television scenes take place in this environment. Such scenes often have a certain feel to them: a cold, dank place where monsters, rats, and criminals run around. I have read about “urban spelunking” groups that take it upon themselves to explore the underground worlds but I’m sure this is a relatively rare activity.

h/t The Infrastructurist

Finding an old ship beneath Manhattan

I’ve always been fascinated by cities and what is beneath them. Even American cities, which tend to be younger compared to other cities around the world, have some interesting items buried underground. The New York Times reports on the discovery of a 30-foot long 18th-century ship found at the World Trade Center site.

h/t The Infrastructurist