FREEDOM TUNNEL - NEW YORK, NEW YORK
The 83-year-old Freedom Tunnel, which runs 2 ½ miles, once funneled freight trains into New York City. It has become Manhattan’s longest and perhaps most atmospheric gallery, where cathedral light falls upon 20-foot high walls. The day-glow alternates with long stretches of complete darkness turning the entire corridor into its own work of chiaroscuro. Admission is free but you might get busted for trespassing. And when trains speed through, you must quickly clear the tracks.
At some point the Freedom Tunnel’s freight trains went away and were replaced by people seeking shelter and artists seeking fabulous light and generous wall space. The subterranean shantytown was featured in the documentary Dark Days which chronicled the stories of tunnel residents and their eventual eviction in 1991 when Amtrak brushed off the abandoned tracks for their Empire Connection line. That hasn’t stopped folks from trespassing.
In 2007, my husband and I descended into the tunnel following entry directions from a fellow explorer. We brought a tripod and two cameras. Upon entering, we saw a man laying on a platform high up to the right of the tracks. He looked up, smiled, mumbled a few words then lay back down. We continued onwards, the only other contact with humans coming from above—the fleeting sounds of children’s laughter, adults conversing loudly. But for the most part it was quiet. We were in an alternate zone where long walks through darkness gave way to columns of sunlight that fell in from grates above and on the west side of the tracks. The effects combined with the graffiti were a photographer’s dream. Rays of light fell beneath an alien smoking from a hookah. Beautifully designed block letters, 10-feet-tall, spelled out “peace.” And the iconic “There’s No Way Like the American Way” mural by Chris Pape referenced the people that once made this subterranean landscape their home—the “mole people” as they came to be known.
Our walk through this corridor of chiaroscuro was loaded with anticipation. Even in the darkness, our flashlights revealed smaller artworks, tags, and random prose. All manner of ephemera littered the ground—a teddy bear, the bare bones of a bike, and no shortage of spray paint cans. And while there was ample room off the tracks and no third rail to worry about, when a train thundered through it definitely amped the excitement.
Artist Chris Pape (aka Freedom), for whom the tunnel is named, began painting there in 1980. There is an old photo of Pape’s recreation of Goya’s Third of May beautifully lit by a fire that a resident used for cooking. Pape said it was meant to viewed by that firelight. In 2009, Amtrak began painting over the tunnel walls. Gone are works like the American Way mural. The cavalier ruin of decades of visual history is in keeping with the heavy, sometimes tragic, history of this controversial corridor. But the art keeps going up. These days, websites provide directions to the tunnel’s once-secret entrance and more folks are exploring it. I can’t begrudge the masses. To visit the Freedom Tunnel is to experience another dimension, one that is as much a visceral experience as it is visual.
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Irene Tejaratchi Hess is a photographer, video editor and writer. She was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, where evenings brought the sweet song of the mourning dove and the low whistle of a mobster calling his kids home for dinner. Irene spent her early career producing natural history documentaries for the PBS series Nature. She now lives in Portland, Oregon and recently finished editing a documentary on the Marine National Monuments. Find more of her work on her website, www.IreneHess.com, and follow her on Tumblr at luxroxvox.tumblr.com.