I am working on a review of Martin Sandler's Secret Subway about plans and early construction of an 1860s subway system in NYC and while very cool on its own, it has gotten me thinking about underground cities in general and Julia Solis' New York Underground:The Anatomy of a City in particular.
Secret Subway is mostly about Alfred Ely Beach, one of those utterly brilliant and talented people who come up with amazing ideas that get thwarted by power-mad politicians (hello Boss Tweed) and others who are more interested in themselves then the greater good. (More about him here.) Beach's subway idea focused on pneumatics. His two block subway still exists, far beneath the streets (there are pictures in the book of the tunnels and waiting area unearthed in 1912) and he proved that his plan was conceivable - but like a lot of others who are overwhelmed by money and power (hello Nicola Tesla) his dream did not come to pass. The history is stirring enough - and certainly fodder for folks curious about inventors, engineering, New York and MYSTERIOUS UNDERGROUND CITIES!!! - but what intrigued me was that it is still down there, which of course made me think of everything else that is still down there and that led me back to Julia Solis.
Here's a bit about Solis from the publisher of her book of short stories, Scrub Station: Julia Solis conducts archaeological parlor games and investigates ruined urban spaces. As the proprietor of the website darkpassage.com it has been her pleasure to document deteriorating bathrooms, morgues and scrub stations in a variety of abandoned mental hospitals.
Solis is a photographer and New York Underground is full of awesome shots of the areas under Grand Central, the Old Croton Aqueduct and the old gang tunnels below Chinatown. She also has one of those job descriptions that I adore - basically she investigates "ruined urban spaces". There is so much romantic and dark and disturbing and appealing about that image, I can barely stand it. Things fall apart everyday and we barely notice. Solis notices, and she photographs and she writes and she remembers. The historian within me does back flips of joy over this very notion.
Here's a bit more from The Society of Creative Preservation which she founded:
Our aim is to instigate unique perceptions of New York's history by constructing narratives around the city's forgotten relics. Ars Subterranea encourages its audiences to interact with the city's neglected and ruinous locations by recreating obscure but fascinating aspects of its urban development. Our projects include art installations, history-based scavenger hunts, unusual preservation campaigns, and much more.
The tag line for the group is "We like to play inside ruins".
While I was reading Secret Subway I kept thinking of how many teens would read this book and be inspired and wonder about trying to find places like Beach's subway and I was so happy to know that at the very least they could go exploring on the internet. I can see this book being an opening to the kind of adventures Solis embraces (and yes - I know that trespassing is wrong and all that so don't trespass, yadda yadda, yadda). Mostly though I'm just happy to see Alfred Beach celebrated again and I'm very happy to know people like Julia Solis are out there looking, and not forgetting who we were and what we accomplished (or tried to) in the past.