Sunday, January 24, 2010

Underneath Brooklyn

"Wherever the entrances are, they are kept secret. There are men who know the mysteries of the old subway. But no one is willing to lead the way within it." ~
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sunday July 23, 1911

Well, one man knows all the secrets and is willing to lead you down a manhole cover, through a dirt passage, and into the cavernous space of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Bob Diamond. Bob discovered the entrance to the tunnel in 1979, after being told by numerous "experts" of civil engineering, city history, and LIRR managers that it absolutely didn't exist. Of course it wasn't supposed to exist. But that's a longer story...

In 1844 the LIRR put train tracks down the center of Atlantic Avenue to connect goods arriving by steamship at the Red Hook ferry terminal to a railway system that was to extend to Boston. But at that time trains didn't have breaks and the manual system for slowing a train down meant you needed great distances to stop a train. When the train kept hitting people, a public outcry ensued to move the train underground. Of course, a train had never been put underground in the US. The Brooklyn Common Council met and decreed, "The right of the public is not confined to its mere surface. The land itself may be dug and fashioned so as to be made the most subservient to their accommodation." Brooklyn Daily Eagle March 7 1844 Geez....what we take for granted today!

So in came the sand hogs and masons to construct what became a 21 ft wide, 17 ft high barrel vault tunnel out of Manhattan bedrock and brick layed with Portland cement to extend from Court Street to Hicks Street. And steam driven locomotives of the LIRR moved underground in 1845 in the first instance of an NYC subway.

As early as 1847, usage of the tunnel had dropped considerably. "From mid 1845 through early 1847, the LIRR fell victim to Wall Street stock manipulations with it's attendant fare wars, unforeseen competition from its “partner” the N&W [another railroad company] acting with its former board member Vanderbilt, some possibly bad decisions by its board of directors, and last but not least, the seizure of it's one remaining steamboat [used in parts of their routes]." Bob Diamond

In 1859, the tunnel was ordered to be filled-in. However the contractor hired Electus Litchfield, who took the $130,000 and instead only filled-in the ends of the tunnel, closed the air holes to the street, and had a document signed that the whole job was done (with none the wiser). Guess sometimes a half-assed work ethic pays off.

And that's when the tunnel became legend. The tunnel was thought to be gone, but stories abounded about pirates, bootleggers, dead bodies, gangs, and spies. Of course, the best story is that John Wilkes Booth buried his diary identifying who hired him to assassinate President Lincoln behind a wall in a black tin box. Bob Diamond heard about this story on the radio, and so began his search for the legendary tunnel.

Bob's stories are remarkable, amusing, and full of surprising twists and turns. His knowledge of railroad development, New York politics, and social history is astounding. For 120 years, people have remained skeptical about the existence of the tunnel, even right up to the minutes before it's discovery. With the manhole open, and a gas company employee arising from it shaking his head, declaring there only to be a pile of dirt below, Bob had to say, "can I take a look?" His tenaciousness paid off. Once descended into the ground, he found a small hole in the dirt that he crawled through, where he discovered another dirt wall. With the assurance of certainty of the tunnel's existence, he began to dig....and dig....and came to the sealed off opening to the tunnel. Eureka.

I'm looking forward to the forthcoming documentary called "What's Behind the Wall." Archeologists are currently excavating the remaining closed off section of the tunnel. There are also hopes to revitalize plans dropped in 2000 "to rescue this tunnel and reconnect it to the waterfront" with historic trolly cars. This is a marvelous piece of New York's history that needs to be preserved and brought to light. Help the cause....go on the tour! More pictures here.

Monday, January 18, 2010

for MLK day

Words from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address worth remembering.

"bamboo 2" by tamsen ellen
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here...It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the poeple, shall not perish from the earth.
He's right, no one would have noticed the deaths at Gettysburg had it not been for his words that transformed a place and time into a "monumental" idea. "Ideas are more than battles" ~ Charles Sumner

The Road

"Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life.
The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type." Nietzsche.

I loved reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It felt like watching a movie and I read it in about as much time. But I also loved the poetic and symbolic resonances of this story. (spoiler alert) Amidst the earth's devastation, a family (albeit without a mother) takes to the road, walking through the earthly landscape, carrying "the fire," until they reach the sea.

Asako Narahashi - "Kawaguchiko" - 2003 - from half awake and half asleep in the water

The earth/sea contrast didn't strike me at first. It wasn't until they reached the ocean and the father died that I saw the sea as this force confronting earthly mortality. If the earth is a place with generative properties, the sea is no place that man can live. It offers no foothold. The sea could be read as a final mortal oblivion.

Roberto Kusterle - 2004

In Swinburne's poem A Forsaken Garden, "the ghost of a garden fronts the sea." One almost thinks McCarthy read these lines when imagining The Road:

The sun burns sere and the rain dishevels
One gaunt bleak blossom of scentless breath.
Only the wind here hovers and revels
In a round where life seems barren as death.
Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping,
Haply, of lovers none ever will know,
Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping
Years ago.

So Swinburne writes that it is to the sea that the dying look. And if there is any confusion that it is the sea that swallows the living, that consumes the "generative and degenerative" laws of mortal time, the poem's last stanza reads:

Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Seasacape

The sea may be unearthly, but The Road does not end in despair. It only uses the sea as a metaphor of lifelessness, of human oblivion, to counter the power of fire.

Of course "fire" represents human life force. To the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE), fire is the primordial element out of which everything else arises. However, fire represents not just human being but human legacy. In The Road, "We carry the fire" symbolizes carrying the flame of civilization, the survival of mankind. The boy is not only the father's legacy, he is the legacy of humanity, the meaning of life.

Roberto Kusterle - "secret of lights" - 2004

In Virgil's The Aeneid, Aeneas is entrusted to relocate the House of Troy. The ghost of Hector, a fallen Trojan warrior, appears to Aeneas. "From the inner altars he carries out the garlands and the great Vesta and, in his hands, the fire that never dies" -- a fire that feeds the household gods (penates) and preserves Troy's "continuity in time." The writings of the historian Fustel de Coulanges explain that in antiquity "to be at home meant to reside within the blessing sphere of the sacred fire, in which and through which the dead maintained a presence among the living." (from Dominion of the Dead) To carry the fire is to carry the heritage of the dead into the future of those who are yet unborn.

Of course The Aeneid is a story of wanderers. Of a journey filled with the suffering and loneliness of homelessness, as well as the joy of discovery, hope and anticipation of what lies ahead. So there they they are, father and son, walking the road of life to its inevitable conclusion, meeting the good and the bad along the way. It's hard not think of Simon Hoegsberg's photograph We're All Going to Die - 100 Meters of Existence. In contrast to the darkness of The Road, Hoegsberg's photograph has a stark white background, another symbol for death. While Simon similarly captures people walking along a road, they more resemble us, people caught up in their lives, relatively oblivious that the end comes eventually.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

what is poetry?

Glass plate, Kookaburras, c. 1884-1917 from Powerhouse Museum Collection

There is a very entertaining interview with TS Eliot, published in The Bed Post (1962) in which the interviewer asks: what do you feel to be function of poetry? Eliot replies:

‘The function of poetry is to give pleasure and if you ask what kind of pleasure I can only say the kind of pleasure that poetry gives. But I think good poetry is doing something for the reader that is beyond pleasure. It isn’t merely pleasure; it is an enhancement of life, an enlargement of our sensibility and is doing something which to those who enjoy it makes life more worth living.’