I went exploring the so called Freedom Tunnel under Riverside Park in Manhattan one Saturday in June. This is named after the graffiti artist Chris “Freedom” Pape who used its walls as a canvas for some of his famous work. The tunnel is officially off limits nowadays. Being there amounts to trespassing since the land is owned by Amtrak and is also an active railway line. So of course I wasn’t there, and while I wasn’t there I managed (not) to get some shots of the decor inside the tunnel.

What makes it special in a way is that every 20-50 meters or so there is a skylight, or opening, in the roof.

Freedom Tunnel 5

And the graffiti artists mostly placed their pieces to take advantage of the spotlighting effect. This leaves you, as a photographer, with a choice; do you expose for the light or for the shadow, or try some HDR effect. Personally I like dark negative spaces with strong colorful foreground elements:

Freedom Tunnel 9

Apparently, many years ago during the 1980’s, the tunnel was an unofficial shelter to tribes of homeless people who felt safer below ground than on the often violent streets of New York City. They have gone now, and no traces of their brief existence remain, save the graffiti. Even that has been in part removed and subsequently painted over.

One hazard, should one choose to ignore advice and explore the passages, is the occasional train or Amtrak maintenance crew. You are pretty exposed when these guys come down the tunnel, despite the ample space each side of the tracks. Luckily, near the start there are some corrugated iron ‘features’ that serve as shelter, provided the crews are travelling northbound.

Freedom Tunnel 8

Going further down the tunnel you get a sense of isolation that is rare in Manhattan. Though there are sounds from the street and park above because the skylights also allow sounds to filter down. Sometimes it does seem like the tunnel in inhabited, but somehow this did not seem at all creepy, though I would not want to be down here after dark.

Freedom Tunnel 12

Be very careful before taking a shot like this – check well in advance for any train noises, and ensure nothing is coming. This shot gives a perspective on the geometry of the tunnel. You see it is about 5 meters high and maybe 20 meters wide. There are two tracks – presumably one Northbound and one Southbound. I was not sure what the middle rail was for. It doesn’t look like an electric rail since there were no insulators, but I wouldn’t recommend testing that theory out.

A view I particularly like is straight down the tunnel at a place with graffitti on each side:

Freedom Tunnel 2Freedom Tunnel 3

In summary, an interesting couple of hours (taking into account the time spent biking there from midtown and then finding the entrance (hint – it’s to the side of the 125th Street exit of the Henry Hudson Parkway)). Lots of photo opportunities and, if I’d had the time, I would have explored further to see if I could find any original Freedom graffiti works.

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