Pirates, glaciers, German spies, Roman aqueduct architecture, shootouts, hidden treasure, assassination. All right here in Brooklyn. Who knew?
T minus 54 days and I find myself descending through a manhole in the middle of the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. The nostalgia has set in at realization that I am leaving Brooklyn soon, possibly for good, So I am now on a mission to take advantage of anything and everything NYC has to offer in the next 54 days. Free David Byrne show at the Bandshell tomorrow. Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday. Museo del Barrio coming up soon – you get the idea. This weekend it was Water Taxi Beach and the Atlantic Avenue Subway Tour.
An old red Jeep and a half dozen of orange plastic cones protected the manhole from oncoming traffic in either direction. About 50 people formed an orderly line against the wall of Trader Joe’s, awaiting their turns to run out in traffic and climb down a manhole. A few took the sneakers and flashlight directive a little too seriously and seemed to believe that they were about to voyage to the center of the Earth. A few did not heed the mandate at all, instead arriving in flip flops and summer dresses, carrying toddlers.
The transition from hot beating sun and whizzing traffic to cool, dark subterranean chamber – via a regular ladder stuck into a narrow manhole – was striking. We emerged at one end of a large open corridor with a vaulted brick ceiling, dimly lit by several dozen flashlights.
Once assembled beneath the street, Bob Diamond began his story. Within minutes Mr. Diamond, an unassuming Brooklyn native, had everyone captivated. Over the course of an hour, as we moved through the 800 meter tunnel, he wove a fantastic tale of murder, espionage, corruption, and riots. From the Ice Age glacier that is responsible for Brooklyn’s lack of natural stone, to the precise method of murder employed by angry immigrant tunnel diggers against their unsympathetic foreman, he had every detail of the tunnel’s history. Legend has it that it was once filled with silver and gold, used as a depot for the loot of East River pirates.
We arrived at the far end to a wall that awaits further excavation. Allegedly the chamber behind the wall contains an 1830’s steam engine and the missing pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary. Clearly the folklore of the place is just as much of a draw, if not more so, than the fact that it is the world’s oldest subway tunnel. I couldn’t help but find some of the details dubious, but in my preliminary googling around this afternoon, everything that was presented as fact has thus far checked out. (The pirate treasure and the Booth diary legends are yet unproven and unlikely.) For the record, Mr. Diamond’s research is meticulous and his knowledge immense.
However apparent lack of safety precautions and organization was somewhat shocking to me given lawsuit-happy America, not that I ever felt unsafe (I didn’t). I find it hard to believe that such a setup doesn’t violate myriad health and safety codes. But for now the seemingly renegade operation is apparently condoned by the City. Tours run on Sundays about once a month (http://www.brooklynrail.net/proj_aatunnel.html). Definitely worth it for an offbeat slice of Brooklyn history.