Tunnel Vision

The art beneath Riverside park

By Michelle Cheripka

Getting into the Freedom Tunnel isn’t exactly straightforward (or legal). Prospective visitors must first walk up the 125th Street off-ramp of the West Side Highway and duck through a hole in the chain link fence along the roadside. As I walked along the tracks, a train barreled by and I realized that the people on board were entirely unaware of me. The tunnel is a passage on their daily commute and not much else.

The Amtrak rail lines that go through the Freedom Tunnel originate at Penn Station and run north under Riverside Park. The tunnel gets it name from prominent graffiti artist Freedom, the street name of Chris Pape. During the eighties, Pape established himself there, creating an impressive collection of artwork on the tunnels’ walls.

Controversial New York “master builder” Robert Moses built the tunnel as part of his overall plan to expand freeways through the city in the 1930s. Freight trains traversed the tracks until 1980 when the tunnel slipped into disuse and the city’s homeless population moved in. They were expelled when Amtrak bought it in 1991.

In 2000, British filmmaker Marc Singer released the documentary Dark Days, which follows the lives of the tunnel’s residents during the eighties and early nineties. There was no running water, but the Freedom Tunnel was a place where men played with their dogs, where pirated electricity meant being able to watch television without any bills, and a dartboard graced the wall next to a doorway.

The tunnel is now mostly empty—a discarded plush chair here, a hard hat there. The painted walls, relics of the tunnel’s long history, are covered by ever-present and ever-changing art. Layers of graffiti lie on top of each other, old words peeking behind the edges of new images.

Other artists aside, many of Freedom’s sketches remain untouched. A notable piece is “There’s No Way Like the American Way,” a satirized Coca-Cola advertisement that shows a series of archetypally American portraits on the rough walls of the tunnel. Many regard this as a tribute to the homeless that were evicted en masse by Amtrak.

Pape attributes the respect for his work to its age rather than to the powerful images themselves. His understatement aside, his recreation of Goya’s “The Third of May.” “[It] was an important work that transcended my [other] graffiti. I’m proud of that one,” Pape told me. “Oddly enough, once you take away the homeless people the painting falls flat and is no longer art. It sort of hangs on the wall like a tapestry. But when the homeless lived there and tended a fire, it lit the entire thing up beautifully. Add to that the smells of the tunnel—diesel fumes, urine, smoke…it made the painting come to life.”

Sometimes ambiance makes the art—remove the rats and acrid smell of urine and a piece becomes less resonant. That being said, people still come back.

History in the tunnels nests on top of itself, decades of accumulated layers made of sketches and spray paint. In a city that typically re-paves its past to put up a highrise, it’s refreshing to see history made visible. Paradoxically, it’s in the dark of the Freedom Tunnel that this is brought to light.

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