Friday, April 12, 2013

The loss of secrets

I'm in Montreal for the next twenty or thirty minutes, until I board a train for Toronto. I've been here two days, but it's been so cold I haven't seen as much of the city as I'd hoped. (The truth is I'm a bit tired from traveling a lot the last couple of weeks and I've embraced the cold as an excuse for some down time.) But the cold did give me an opportunity to experience something I might not have otherwise -- the underground passages between buildings in downtown Montreal, a necessity for a city that apparently spends a good part of the year locked in a pre-glacial Ice Age.

I loved it, and it filled me with a crushing sense of sweet nostalgia for (bear with me here) a secret New York that doesn't exist anymore.

I haven't lived in Manhattan in almost forty years, so I may be completely wrong about this, in which case I expect I'll hear about it from more well informed New Yorkers, but what I'm about to describe is, I believe, a secret city that was on its way to being buried and/or locked away before 9/11, but was certainly shut down soon after the Towers fell.

Let me explain.

Way back, in the late 1960s, I discovered something that other New Yorkers had undoubtedly known for decades. It happened when DC Comics moved into a building in Rockefeller Center. One afternoon I went with a group of friends to get a bite in the building's basement lunch room, and afterward several of them decided to wander over to the underground concourse at 30 Rock to get magazines at one of the new stands there. They showed me how our building connected to the concourse through an underground tunnel. This wasn't a "secret" in the sense that it was hidden, it was a "secret" because it wasn't something you'd know about unless someone actually showed it to you. It wasn't on any public map that I was aware of; no prominent signs in the 30 Rock concourse showed you the way (I think there was one small sign near the tunnel exit). It was just... something most people didn't know about. A group secret. A privilege for the special few (hundred) who had a "need to know."

Midtown Manhattan, I soon discovered, had lots of secrets like that tunnel. Underground passages linking one building's basement to another, hallways that connected forgotten subway access tunnels, stairwells that led down one side of the street and up again a block away. In fact, by the mid-1970s, I'd learned it was possible to negotiate your way from Grand Central Station halfway across midtown Manhattan almost to 53rd and Broadway without once stepping on the sidewalk. (This was incredibly useful during snowstorms, much as it must be in Montreal during, say, mid-April. It's snowing outside as I write this.)

I left New York in the late 70s, but when I retuned for visits in the 80s and 90s, most of the "secret" passages were still there. Still secrets waiting to be discovered by the curious or the initiated, little gifts from New York to those who cared enough to explore.

9/11 slammed and locked the doors on those secret tunnels, in the name of "security" and "safety." Padlocks and chains, rusty gates, steel fire doors permanently sealed, and armed guards with suspicious glares, are what greet the urban explorer nowadays under New York. The secret empire of underground Manhattan is no more.

I miss it. I'm not sure what we've gained by giving up our secrets, but I know what we've lost.

1 comment:

Captain Blog said...

Very interesting story. I don't comment much, as your ramblings and rumblings usually leave me with a need to digest it for a bit, but I do love your writings.
Just a nod of praise and thanks.
Do go on...