a mole's eye view of New York City

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The old song about New York brags that "the people ride around in a hole in the ground." And Duke Ellington's throbbing composition, "Take the A Train," immortalizes the charging energy of the Eighth Avenue express as it hurtles beneath the city between 59th and 125th Streets.

New York, famous for its skyscrapers and clogged streets, has another, equally fascinating side that writhes and snakes in the earth below. It is really two cities: one seen in travel posters, the other hidden, and largely unexplored.

Peeling back a layer of concrete here opens the proverbial can of worms. A mind-boggling tangle of wires, pipes, conduits, cables, tunnels, and other man-made paraphernalia stares back at you. It's a tangle that every day becomes more complex and chaotic, as new construction projects add levels and layers to the city's underside. In fact, New York City could already be depicted as a piece of Swiss cheese with a bundle of skyscrapers sitting on top.

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The average New Yorker, striding confidently across city streets, blithely certain that he is treading the good earth, is frequently suspended on a thin skin of pavement over layers of tunnels and caverns that stretch downward for several stories.

There are 137 miles of subway tunnels under this unwary pedestrain, 80,395 miles of electrical transmission and distribution wires, 6,000 miles of water pipes, 25 millionm miles of telephone cables, 104 miles of asbestos-coated steam pipes, and 7,000 miles of pipes carrying natural gas up from fields in Lousiana and Texas.

Most of these systems are within a few feet of the surface. When a hole is dug in a city street, it exposes in the rocky earth such man-made artifacts as: a long pipe descending from a fireplug to a thick water main running perpendicularly several feet beneath it; telephone cables, encased in white polyvinylchloride, with 1,000 individual telephone lines in them, coursing through the earth midway between the skin of pavement and the water main; natural gas pipes; a huge sewer main; cable boxes from the electric and gas utility; steam heating pipes, and other pipe systems.

Another 20 feet down is the city's subway system. And way beneath that there are the vast water tunnels: two main arteries, and a new tunnel under construction.

The world under New York is almost as honeycombed as the Paris that Victor Hugo wrote about, the "occult Paris" he saw under the "public Paris" of the streets. There, gypsum and limestone miners dug huge excavations to unearth the materials needed to make plaster of Paris.The miners were eventually ordered to stop because the city was in danger of collapsing. The Metro and the legendary sewer system under Paris -- which provided an escape route for Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" and a cul-de-sac trap for Orson Welles in "The Third Man" -- were built precariously above these mine pits. And great care has had to be taken to protect the geologic underpinnings of Paris.

There are no such worries about New York City, partly because of the solid mass of bedrock that anchors it comfortably to the continental shelf, and partly because of the incredible engineering care that has gone into constructing the city's major underground passages.

This engineering genius can be seen in action an a couple of tunnels currently being dug under the city. Underneath East 63rd Streets, where a new subway tunnel is being built, you can see something that looks as if it's right out of a C. B. de Mille epic depicting thousands of slaves toiling in a salt mine.

Putting on some rubber boots and a hard hat, I follow my guide down a nondescript staircase in the sidewalk into a wire-mesh elevator that is to carry us 10 stories below ground. The metal doors of the lift clang shut, the motor grinds heavily in the vast darkness, and we are on our way down the wall of a blocks-long excavation, catching only occasional glimpses of the cavernous pit before us.

It is a place that Dante could describe best: a subterranean world blasted out of the bedrock beneath the city streets, a world of semidarkness, noise, and stale air. Arc lights burn like miniature suns, illuminating only small corners of the pervading darkness; the occasional flash of a welder's flame splashes sparks against a stone wall; and the headlights of construction machinery stab their way across the mire-and-gravel earht.

My guide chats away at my side as we descend -- his thick, Indian voice all but lost in the thunder of machinery and moving rock -- about fan lines needed to carry the gases and dust out of the tunnel, and about the "mole," the tunnel- boring machine that chews a 20-foot hole in the bedrock at the rate of 35 to 64 feet every 24 hours. I am so absorbed in the scene around me I can scarcely listen.

As we leave the lift and make our way through the muck and slime across the floor of this man-made canyon, arched ribs of steel vault over our heads, supporting weak sections of the mammoth roof above. Earthmoving equipment with tires taller than a large man groan heavily past us. a hard-hatted worker heaves down on a rope, hoisting a heavy piece of pipe to a waiting shaft 75 feet above him. A wet, grimy workman, fully seven feet tall, lumbers up out of the darkness, nodding to us with an incongruous politesse, like a grizzly bear passing you a crumpet.

My guide leads the way across the excavation to where the subway tunnel begins, through a maze of construction equipment, undulations in the earht, and groups of workmen. He cautions me from time to time to follow precisely in his steps or risk sliding into the open mire. He and I tread carefully between the walls of raw, naked rock, up inclines where the slime under our feet turns to solid clay. Over our heads are several stories of darkness and open cavern.

There is something that defies reason about seeing an arching mass of bedrock suspended above you -- knowing that it is supporting tons and tons of rock, gravel, buildings, and traffic -- and being told that it all stays up there because it is constructed in an arch, and an arch naturally distributes the load into the earth in perhaps the most powerful engineering configuration ever devised.

(The mind understands, but something tells you it's impossible.)

Farther into the tunnel, we come suddenly upon an open excavation shaft, a pit the size of a department store, with sunlight shafting down through openings in the street above, piercing the thick clouds of dust that hang in the air over the construction machinery. At one side of the pit, wooden ladders reach up the cliff face, pueblo-style, to various plateaus where an occasional workman rests, quitely surveying the caverns beneath him.

Going past this pit through the circular shaft, we talk about the topography and geology of the earth under the city.

One of the problems faced by the people who tunnel under New York is the incredible complexity and unpredictability of the material they must dig through. The city sits on several levels of sediment, which in turn lie on various layers of bedrock. The bedrock of the city slopes off to the southeast, so that a major tunneling project can start out in loose dirt at one end of Manhattan Island, encounter Manhattan schist (one of the three major rock formations here) within a dozen or so blocks, and then quite suddenly find itself churning through a heavy vein of Inwood marble or Fordham gneiss, the two other major types of bedrock.

Then there are the man-made complexities of the underground world beneath New York. In 1812, the city fathers decided to level the hilly and irregular landscape of the city so that all the sewers would slope off into the rivers, further complicating the geological formations of Manhattan, which is easily the most tunneled-under and geologically convoluted part of the city.

Since then, public works projects like the one on 63rd Street, as well as building construction and the endless laying of conduits by the municipal utilities, have added to the complexity of the city's intrastructure. The result has been to create an uncharted wilderness of cables and tunnels that engineers must probe and explore each time they lay a shaft into the earth. Recently, city contractors discovered major "vaults" the size of large rooms left over from some past construction.

These vaults are nothing compared with the vast undercuttings of rock scooped out for the new water tunnel under construction here. Tunnel 3 is a controversial excavation designed to reach from the north end of the city down through midtown, across the East River, and into distant Queens. The tunnel has been stopped in its tracks for a few years (the only activity being the surfacing of already excavated portions), several thousand feet away from completion, because of lawsuits and the city's embarrassed financial condition.

But it provides an incredible spectacle to anyone willing to descend 600 feet into the earth and cling to the side of a locomotive as it barrels through bedrock, dripping water, and overhangs along the northern stretches of the tunnel.

An open-sided hoist shoots you straight through the earth, cold air pouring up from the tunnel and brushing your clothes and hair. When you reach the bottom you see an arched, rock tunnel reaching five or six stories above you. It looks like a natural cave because of the rought texture of the rock that has been drilled and blasted away. The white marble rock is veined with streaks of carbon gray and black.

Charging along the tunnel on the "motor," a smallish locomotive with a narrow , side ledge for passengers to perch on while hanging onto a railing, you see the rock abruptly shift from Manhattan schist to dolomite, a silent record of elemental happenings deep inside the earth, where major continental formations collide and grind against one another. As impressive as these natural processes are, they have not changed the upper crust of earth-rock under Manhattan in 450 million to 1 billion years of geological evolution nearly as much as 100 years of man-made excavations and landfills, which have, among other things, added 10 percent to the physical size of the island.

The real, unparalleled achievement of underground transformation in New York is the subway system. Not the simple tunnel newly under construction, but the whole system of tubes and tunnels and platforms, intersecting, overlapping, and channeling their way throughout the underground domain of the city. Much of it is embedded in nearly impenetrable bedrock, and it is the most complex underground railroad system in the world.

Probably one of the best people to guide you through this system is Dubley Thomas.

A tall man with a quietly dignified manner and hair that is dusting over with gray, Mr. Thomas is a flagman for the crews that roam the system repairing and cleaning track. His only job is to signal oncoming trains that a crew is ahead, to stop the train if necessary, and to allow it to pass when it's safe. After 27 years, he knows all the unexposed places, the abandoned stations, the gloomy, dangerous tunnels, and the narrow equipment "rooms" -- little, hollowed-out places between the tracks stuffed with pumps, meters, and dials, with tiny entrances you have to wriggle through.

We board a train deadhealing around the loop that passes the old City Hall station, closed since Dec. 31, 1945, where we get off to examine the ornate, Kremlinesque architecture. The orange, white, red, and green pattern of the tile is barely discernible in the gloom, covered with thick black dust. There is an arched, stained-glass section that filters in a faint trace of street light, and old-fashioned, sturdy chandeliers cast dim, uncertain light and shadows on the platform.

This is one of the earliest stations in the system, and it rivals some of the other architectural wonders in the subway, such as the 168th Street station -- the deepest in the city at 190 feet below ground -- with its huge, arched ceilings, suspended walkways, and cavernous passageways.

The other side of the system that Mr. Thomas knows better than any passenger are places like the tunnel crossover near the First Avenue shaft, just before the trains enter the tubes leading under the East River. Here he stops to light his two lamps before making his way carefully back into the tube, which is so narrow that workers have to "clear up" (jump onto a catwalk beside the tracks) when trains approach.

While we clear up, Dudley Thomas waves his red light in a horizontal line across the track, and the oncoming train, a ghostly black presence behind twin, blinding headlights, slows up with an awful grinding sound. Once everyone has pinned himself to the wall, Dudley mounts the catwalk himself and then waves his white light up and down to signal the train to proceed.

Hanging over the edge of the track, he is an indistinct figure in the white light of the train.

After the signal, the train passes. Slowly at first, but then gathering momentum, around 780,000 pounds of charging metal brush by you so closely that the slipstream presses hard against skin and clothes, rushing past with a blast of cold wind that threatens to blow everyone back onto the track.

When trains don't have to slow up because the workers are in a protected area , the trains pour through the tunnel like gathering thunder that crashes suddenly upon yours ears.

After it passes, the train enters the tube and a section known among engineers as "speed track", where there is no station and no reason to slow up, and the throttle is pushed up to 40 miles per hour. At that speed, the sound of the train becomes almost unbearable, relieved when it makes a short stop at the station on the other side of the river. The train climbs up an embankment onto the elevated track, escaping its compressed confinement, and emerges into the vast, refreshing expanse of New York's sky-covered night.

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