“This stop is Borough Hall, the Next Stop is Nevins Street, stand clear of the closing doors please!”
Welcome to Brooklyn, or at least the underside of it. You’re under Borough Hall, base of operations for Brookyln’s Borough government, current president Marty Markowitz. Take the stairs to your right, up to Court Street. That’s better. The building beside you— federal style, temple-fronted, cupola topped with a golden statue? It had another name once, City Hall, which is fitting. Brooklyn was its own city up until 1898, and this served as the heart of operations. City Hall started getting built around 1846, and it’s one of the oldest landmarks in the area. Let’s turn to the east, to an even older landmark, its buried twin.
We’re across the street now from Red Hook Lane. There, on our left, that little nothing by way next to the red brick building with the subway map mural— it’s supposed to be haunted, or so they say. It might look like just an alley now, but before all of this was developed with the white, detail laden 1890s skyscrapers. The chiefest among them, the Corbin building, visible now behind above the smaller buildings of Red Hook Lane, was the tallest in the United States in 1892. Between immigration and the railroads, the original landscape— farms broken up by tidal wetlands— disappeared. Once an inn stood in this spot, catering to local farmers. Around 1812, the story goes, a man named Boerum was drinking here, and rode off to fetch brandy from the ferry station at South Ferry. Two hours later his friends found him, lifeless in the road just five blocks from here— a block south of our destination. The street on which we stand and which he must have crossed is Boerum Place, named for landowner and Continental Congress delegate Simon Boerum (1724-1775)— a possible relative but not the dead man himself. Names are funny like that.
Over here, on the right, on the southwest corner, we have the New York Transit Museum— don’t let the entrance fool you, it’s not a subway stop anymore. The Court Street station only operated for 10 years, and was one of the last Subway stops completed in 1936— a full 25 years into the building of the New York subway system. Most of the traffic was shifted either to Borough Hall, our own point of origin, or the Hoyt-Schemerhorn station two and a half blocks east of here. Hoyt-Schemerhorn itself has been half closed since the 1980s, its empty, phantom tracks used only in movie shoots.
People always complain about the lack of transit just south of this neighborhood: there’s nothing south of the Carroll Street F Train still running after Hurricane Sandy. Putting a subway museum so close almost feels like an insult.
A city’s transit system is like the circulatory system in a body. An appendage without blood atrophies. It rots, and things begin to crawl beneath its surfaces.
It’s hard to see it today, with the grocery stores and the fast food locations, but the tall building ahead—drab, blockish, blocking the sun—on the left corner of State Street shows part of a darker history. That’s the recently reopened Brooklyn House of Detention standing 11 stories tall. It was originally built to house unruly teenagers in 1957, around the same time the streetcar lines began to close. It was converted to a general men’s detention facility in 1984— around the time this area was the “Crack Capital of The United States” noted for its high crime rate, a name it kept through the 1990s. Only 100 years earlier, the area had a similarly dangerous reputation, when this whole neighborhood bore a different name, not Boerum Hill, not Cobble Hill, not Red Hook, but Smokey Hollow— named for the tangle of tenements that had replaced the tidal wetlands, linking the area fully to the busy industrial harbor. In those days, men looked over their shoulders in the night for straight razor wielding river pirates.
As we turn right onto Atlantic Street, take note of the black asphalt at the street’s center. There’s nothing to see here. All signs have been erased. But once, for a brief period of 17 years, this was a site of progress and noise— of bells, and whistles, and rushing smoke. Here was one of a pair of two gated entrances into the depths that horses feared and shied away from.
As we continue west down Atlantic, we’re walking over part of our subterranean destination, a section that was filled in 1861.
The only entrance to the abandoned tunnel underneath our feet is here, on the corner of Court Street. Yes, the abandoned tunnel. Stop and look around. Don’t mind the crowd of sour faced pedestrians milling around our interruption, as if our interest was a direct affront to their busy days. They’ll stare but they’ll live.
Do you see that manhole across the street, the one that eclipses part of the crosswalk? The one that reads “Hicksville, LI, NY,” instead of any New York City office? Do you see those markings along its top edge? The welds, like the white scabs of new wounds against the iron, holding it in place as if to keep something out, or maybe (rather) to hold something in?
Something was lost and something was found here. The definitions have been debated by the Guinness Book of World Records, the National Register of Historic Places and even the court of law. Something may have been lost again. The tunnels story is a complicated a mix of facts, legends and dreams. Dreams which easily become nightmares. Dreams that cast shadows. There’s even a chance it’s better that you don’t know the story at all. The city government has shut up the only man tasked with telling it.
For now, let’s begin with the part he knew.
They were already closing the manhole when Bob Diamond turned onto the corner of Atlantic Ave and Court Street at 8 a.m. He was an hour ahead of schedule, he was sure of it. Alan had definitely said August 5, right? A truck from the Brooklyn Union Gas Company was parked along the South sidewalk, its silhouette cutting off the view of the Independence Savings Bank’s high arched windows. The grey brick Italian renaissance style building was a landmark he knew, but he was seeking something still older than its 65 years. About a dozen men milled about around an array of orange traffic cones aimed to block any passersby from the small black hole that intersected the cross walk on Atlantic Avenue. A hole now dangerously close to being closed off yet again, as it’s strange blank manhole cover began to be moved back into place. Diamond picked up his pace, already starting to sweat in the 80 degree heat and shouted that they weren’t supposed to start until 9.
“You’re wasting everyone’s time,” one man in a hard hat said, apparently in charge. He spoke loudly, talking over the mechanical rattling of a nearby pump, feeding fresh air down into the man hole. “We already checked it out. There’s nothing down there.”
Diamond’s resolve hardened. He’d come too far to give up. The 20-year-old pushed his chances. “You have to let me down there.”
“I’m telling you kid,” the man said again. He lifted his hard hat, wiping his brow in the early morning heat. “There is nothing down there.”
“You want me to tell Alan Smith you didn’t even give me a chance to see for myself?” It was as much a threat as a complaint. Diamond tried to look menacing, but felt somewhat silly in his own outfit— a white tank top tucked into blue shorts that ended mid-thigh and a pair of new work boots bought for the occasion. The workman frowned, giving him a once over, before he sighed and threw up his hands.
The men moving the manhole cover back in place stopped what they were doing. The foreman walked to the back of his truck, pulled open the back doors, and rummaged for a few moments before coming back. He handed Diamond a mask and a scuba tank. Diamond looked at the offering for a moment.
“For the poison gas,” the foreman said, answering the unasked question.
Diamond pushed the mask’s straps behind his ears and slung the air tank onto his back. The foreman tied a rope to his waist in case he needed to be pulled back up, and handed him a crow bar, a hardhat with a headlamp and a walkie-talkie. A path in the workmen cleared as he walked toward the portal as if preparing for a dive. He peered down into the hole. Below it was dark and uncertain, but there was something solid down there. He took a deep breath and squeezed his eyes tight. He jumped.
The bottom came faster than Diamond had suspected. He opened his eyes, and found the familiar view of Atlantic Avenue still all around him, down to the Arabic food market across the street. He looked down. His neck remained above the surface. He ducked, squinting to better assess the situation. His feet were resting on an expanse of dirt that stretched out further in both directions than the small space would allow him to see. Up ahead, the channel seemed to narrow— the dirt floor rising at a slow angle up toward the arched stone ceiling. If it was here, he told himself, it was buried. He’d have to start digging.
The foreman chuckled.
“You have 5 minutes.”
Diamond dropped to all fours and began to crawl in to the darkness. He’d have to dig fast.
Leaving the circle of sunlight and the men above behind him, Diamond shuffled his bare hands and knees through the dirt. In the darkness the headlamp he was wearing provided his only illumination. The air was damp and muggy, and he could hardly shift his back without hitting the vaulted brick ceiling. For a moment, he let his lamp linger on the features of the bricks overhead, stained black in places as if from steam or coal smoke. A good sign. He grinned and kept moving east.
The floor continued rising steadily before leveling out, and he had only a foot and a half in which to maneuver. His stomach began to drag against the dirt as he forced himself still lower to the ground. Silently he reflected that it was a good thing he’d never been claustrophobic.
Suddenly, his light hit something in front of him. A brick wall built of the same grey cobblestones that composed the ceiling. His heart sank. Had his research been wrong? Could the tunnel really have been closed? He got closer.
He followed the wall down with his fingers and began digging into the dirt, scraping away as much as he could with his hands.
An outline began to form. A different pattern in the masonry seemed to mark a filled in passageway.
Diamond started to beat on the bricks with the crowbar, swinging with one hand as he balanced on the other. The crowbar shook in his hands, and the void around him filled with the clash of metal. His ears rang as concrete mortar began to splinter away. The stones shifted. There was a cracking and he was through.
He looked through the small opening, and the beam from his head light seemed to go on infinitely into the black void. A cold breeze blew against his face, bringing air over a century old instead of any promised miasma.
He tried to radio back to the surface, but instead he started laughing. The words wouldn’t come. His eight-month search at an end all could do was laugh. Incessantly. Through the radio. For 15 minutes.
This section is based mainly on multiple interviews with and documents provided by Robert Diamond and Greg Castillo of the Brooklyn Historic Rail Association, with additional information from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 23, 1911 and The New York Times August 6, 1980; August 19, 1984: September 8, 1985; and July 19, 1988. Additional geographic and architectural information was collected from the New York Transit Museum, the Brooklyn Borough official government website and the New York City Department of Correction.