Top 10 Best Subterranean Spots in NYC

Image (c)

Londonist recently shed light on the networks of underground tunnels and passageways that knit together the British capital with its Top Ten Tunnels and Catacombs list. New York City might not be quite as old (by a long shot), but we’d argue that our city is considerably more infrastructure-heavy, perhaps due to the topographic snarls that necessitate the many tunnels needed for 8 million people to survive on an island. NYC’s subway is 842 miles long, for example, while London’s is only 244 miles total.

Not that we’re really counting, we just got to wondering about the best in our own city’s subterranean charms. After the jump: the ten best.

Image (c) Fred Guenther, via The Coolist.

1) City Hall Station. City Hall station is probably the most opulent of the city’s stops, and amazingly, was only in use for about forty years (it was built in 1904). The station is akin to Moscow’s Peoples’ Palace metro stations, with arched ceilings, chandeliers, and skylights all setting it far apart from typical station architecture. Passengers can actually scope this station legally — read about it here.

2) Federal Reserve Bank of New York. You can take several different tours of the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan’s Financial District, one of which is the Gold Vault tour. The Gold Vault sits 50 feet below sea level, and houses billions of dollars worth of gold. The bank is one of the few places in the country that still conducts physical trades — gold is handed over in-person, as it is bought and sold.

Image (c) Vlad Rud, under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

3) Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. This tunnel underneath Atlantic Avenue is the oldest subway tunnel in New York (built in 1844), and perhaps even the world. Amazingly, it was forgotten until 1981, when an 18-year-old rediscovered it (he still gives tours!). The story reminds us quite a bit of the Basilica Cisterns underneath Istanbul, which were built in the days of Emperor Justinian and only rediscovered in the 1800s, when an visitor to the city noticed people fishing through the sewer grates and decided to inspect further. We wonder what else lies beneath NYC’s un-inspected streets?

Image (c) Animal New York.

Image (c) Workhorse, via the New York Times.

4) The Underbelly Project. Profiled in a recent NY Times piece, the Underbelly project is a controversial collaboration between some of the best graffiti artists in the world. Located in an previously-undisclosed location (in reality, the never-used South 4th Street station in Williamsburg), the darkened “gallery” houses work from 103 artists recruited by the project’s leaders to paint by flashlight, over the last two years. Read more about it here.

Freedom Tunnel, via.

Image of a “mole person” underneath the West Side Highway, via NPR.

5) Freedom Tunnel. The Freedom Tunnel is an AMTRAK tunnel underneath Riverside Drive in Manhattan. It’s the home of many of Manhattan’s Mole People, and got its name for the graffiti artist who decorated many of the tunnel’s walls. It was actually built by Robert Moses, and in the ’80s, the tunnel was a home to hundreds of people.

Image of Plymouth Church, via Wikipedia.

6) The Village & Brooklyn’s Underground Railroad. Plymouth Church, in Brooklyn Heights, was a central node on the Underground Railroad (not to mention its overwhelming history beyond the underground – Abraham Lincoln sat in its pews, as did Walt Whitman). Fleeing slaves would hide in the church’s basement. Among the Railroad’s other NYC stops, there’s an entrance to a tunnel at 45 Grove Street in Greenwich Village that is thought to have been part of the Railroad as well.

Image (c) Emilio Guerra.

7) Aaron Burr’s Escape Tunnel. Since the Village is one of the oldest parts of the city, it makes sense that there may be hundreds of underground tunnels with entrances in its older townhouses’ basements. In this great piece on the tunnels of NYC, we learn a little of 127 MacDougal Street, built by Aaron Burr in 1829. The home reportedly still has its entrance to Burr’s escape tunnel, exiting on Minetta Lane.

Image (c) NPR.

8) The Canal Street Sewer. Until 1812, the gutter that Canal Street was named for was still uncovered, running down the length of the street. Now, intrepid urban explorer Steve Duncan is one of the few to have experienced the dubious charms of the place . Check out the amazing NYT article on Duncan, whose own site is

Image (c) Mary Altaffer, via the New York Times.

Image of a Water Tunnel no. 3 access shaft, via Moretrench.

9) NYC’s Water Tunnels. The eternal question of curious (and perhaps, worried) New Yorkers: where does our water come from? The answer is actually quite remarkable, and is perhaps the most demonstrative of the massive scale of underground infrastructure existing below the island. There are three major water tunnels that channel our supply to the smaller supply networks — two from the early part of the last century, and a third, which when it’s completed will have cost $6 billion. Water Tunnel No. 3 is under construction right now (and has been in planning since 1950), over 60 stories underneath our feet. It’s been compared to the Brooklyn Bridge in terms of its scale.

Image of Avery Hall, via.

10) Avery Hall’s Boiler Room. We’re including this one for its popular relevance. The above-mentioned profile of Steve Duncan follows him as he burrows deep below the headquarters of Columbia’s Avery Hall (where the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation is located — alumni will know it as where the Buell connects with Avery, or, the Vending Machine Hall). Writes NYT correspondent Alan Feuer, “We descend to the basement and crawl through a narrow tunnel lined with steam pipes. Fifty feet on, a ladder rises to a dirt-floored boiler room. Damp heat, clanking steel. We spread our bedrolls, say good night. Voices overhead — sounds like a French class.” Don’t get any ideas, GSAPPers. We want you to live.

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