Evan Marshall


An Urban Legend

Jun 23, 2018 by Evan Marshall , in Manhattan Mysteries
Abandoned New York City
Abandoned New York City (Photo Credit: Tristan Bukowski, CC copyright)
According to a popular urban legend, the people who live beneath New York City are mutated “mole people” who can see in pitch darkness and who eat each other. Though none of this is true, it is true that the city’s abandoned water, sewage and subway tunnels are home to many homeless people. I explore this dark world in Death is Disposable, book #1 in my Manhattan Mysteries series.

The Freedom Tunnel

Perhaps the best known of these places is the Freedom Tunnel, an abandoned Amtrak tunnel that runs from 72nd Street to 125th Street under Riverside Park. It got its name because a graffiti artist named Chris “Freedom” Pape used the walls of this tunnel to create some of his most famous pieces. The name may also be a reference to the freedom many people have found in this tunnel—freedom to live hidden from the world, freedom to create artwork without harassment, freedom from social pressures like rent and taxes.

The tunnel was built by Robert Moses, the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City, in the 1930s in order to expand Riverside Park for residents of the Upper West Side. However, the tunnel was not used for very long. Cars and trucks had taken over many of the city’s transport needs, and trains ceased to run along the West Side. The giant caverns became a welcome haven for homeless people. At its height, hundreds lived there, in vast shantytowns.

In 1991, Amtrak reopened the tunnel to accommodate its new Empire Service between New York City and Niagara Falls. The homeless were evicted, their shantytowns bulldozed. The tunnel was chained off.

Nevertheless, to this day urban explorers and graffiti artists explore the tunnel.

Graffiti art by Chris
Graffiti art by Chris "Freedom" Pape (Photo Credit: Susan Murray, CC copyright)

Chris “Freedom” Pape

Chris Pape began tagging subway cars and tunnels in 1974 using the name “Gen II” before switching to “Freedom.” His most famous pieces adorn the walls of the Freedom Tunnel. These include a “self-portrait” consisting of a male torso with a spray-paint can for a head, and “There's No Way Like the American Way” (also known as “The Coca-Cola Mural”), parodying Coca-Cola’s advertising and honoring the homeless people evicted from the tunnel by Amtrak. Pape has also recreated well-known pieces of classical art, such as the Venus de Milo and the iconic hands from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, painted on a subway car.