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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Riverside Park Tunnel - 2009

I have always been fascinated with spaces that lie in between the public and private - places that are inaccessible and unknown enough that you certainly wouldn’t find your average New Yorker in them, yet that also aren’t obscure and inaccessible enough that various subcultures and enterprising individuals can’t find their way there. This combination leads to creating a hidden, yet still dynamic area, not really a part of the everyday city, yet also more than just an interesting decaying remnant of history. A good example of this type of semi-public space is the train tunnel that runs underneath Riverside Park.

Now that the High Line is being redeveloped, this is probably the most well-know and well-traveled "off-limits" space in New York City. There's been books written about it, documentaries made, magazines have reported on it and its inhabitants, and of course countless graffiti historians and urban explorers have photographed it. It's got its own Wikipedia entry, and is even listed under "Tourist Attractions and Sightseeing" in the AOL travel guide (no credit cards accepted).

Still, I try to go about once a year just to see what's changed, and I'll generally invite along anyone I know who might be interested. Every visit to the Riverside tunnel something is different: new graffiti, new odds and end in the tunnel, new people encountered. Still, I can count on not too much changing. There will never be any advertisements, for instance, or anything that will severely mar the nature of the space. Very, very few places in New York have this combination, which is the main reason why I like the place so much. And of course it's a good way to walk Manhattan Census Tract 315, which runs the length of the park.

This trip was interesting for a few reasons. First, it was the first time I had been to the tunnel deep into winter - which means the icicle stalactites were a really cool complete surprise to me. Second, Amtrak workers had been by recently to put up some new signs and do a little track replacement. And third, someone had been cleaning up the Third of May mural.

The tunnel, as most people know, is the home to several large murals. One, done by Smith and Freedom in the 1990s, is a huge interpretation of Goya's famous "Third of May." Sometime after it was completed, someone defaced the bottom part of it, as you can see here:

photo from

That was how I had always known the mural, until this most recent trip, when it looked like this:

Photo from

Someone's been actively cleaning it up - Guerrilla Preservationists, or maybe the original artists (one of whom has a 2008 tag nearby)? I know where the concrete blocks, and the tag in the upper right hand corner come from, and while I don't think either are related I could be wrong. Heck, maybe it was even the Amtrak workers.

I wonder if this is a one-time thing, or if someone actually has an ongoing project of cleaning, and maybe even restoring, the murals. I'll be back sometime in 2010 to find out. And if you happen to be reading this and need a hand, I'm no artist but I'm glad to help out if I can.

Neighborhoods: Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, West Harlem. Tracts Walked: M315


  1. Moey! You are so smart to know the Goya. I like it because it's from the time of my favorite junk fiction (the Regency of George IV).

  2. Yup, I restored it. My wife had never been in the tunnel and the painting was looking pretty haggard, so I knocked out 2 birds with one stone. My
    first time down there since 1996. Glad you liked it.
    Chris Pape / FREEDOM

  3. i was just in the tunnel a few weeks ago to do the final research for my upcoming book 'Tunnel People', translated from the original 1996 Dutch Version.

    Yeah, the 3rd of May still looks awesome!

    And Hey Chris - long time ago.... Shoot me an email...


  4. Hey Moe, just got back to the UK, sorry I missed you this time. Took a walk through the tunnel again and it seems the rumours I'd heard were true, and loads of the artwork is gone beneath the Amtrak paint rollers. The Goya mural remains, although it has deteriorated somewhat more...