New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has released some new shots by photographer Patrick Cashin of the so-called “86th Street cavern,” through which the future 2nd Avenue subway will someday travel.

[Image: Inside the “86th Street cavern”; photo by Patrick Cashin. View larger!]

The artificial caves are roughly 100 feet below street level. Quoting from a now-subscriber only article originally published back in 2009 in the trade journal New Civil Engineer, Wikipedia offers a glimpse of the difficulties: “Of the below-ground obstacles, Arup director of construction David Caiden says: ‘It’s a spaghetti of tunnels, utilities, pipes and cables—I’ve never seen anything like it.’ Additionally, the project must go over, or under, subway lines, Amtrak railway lines, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel linking Manhattan and Queens.” It’s woven through the city like a carpet.

[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].

It’s extraordinary, though, to see how easy it is to forget that, when walking up and down stairs inside subway stations, you’re actually walking around inside a series of relatively dark and irregular caverns—

[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].

—their walls and ceilings seemingly held in place only by an acupuncture of rock bolts, a monochrome world of uneven geologies smoothed over by shotcrete and disguised by tile.

[Images: Photos by Patrick Cashin].

I bookmarked an old article that seems relevant here, especially in light of the next image, that the tunnels had been “blessed”—made holy—by a Catholic priest back in August 2012. In a short article written with suitably—if obvious—Dantean undertones, we read that “the priest, Rev. Kazimierz Kowalski of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel on East 90th Street in Manhattan, stepped over rocks into a small clearing away from the shaft to be clear of falling objects. And there he began to pray, blessing the underground cavity where the Second Avenue subway tunnel is taking shape.”

[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].

Fascinatingly, he then made architectural reference to the urban work of laying down this subterranean layer of the city: “Reading from a letter of Paul to the Corinthians, he added, ‘For no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely our Lord’,” something I quote not out of theological advocacy but for the interest of a possible religious connection between mining out “a spaghetti of tunnels, utilities, pipes and cables” beneath New York City and the establishment of a metaphoric “foundation” upon which a future city might sit. Tunneling, we might say in this specific and limited context, is God’s work, the subway system secretly a consecrated labyrinth of artificial caves, its stations like chapels drilled into solid bedrock.

[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].

The priest then “sprinkled holy water on the ground and invited the sandhogs to sing sometime for his parishioners.”

[Image: Photo by Patrick Cashin].

In any case, I feel compelled briefly to revisit something in Jonathan Lethem’s recent novel Chronic City, in which we read about a tunneling machine that has gone “a little out of control” deep beneath the streets of New York, resurfacing at night like some terrestrial Leviathan to wreak havoc amongst the boroughs. From the book:

“I guess the thing got lonely—”
“That’s why it destroys bodegas?” asked Perkus.
“At night sometimes it comes up from underneath and sort of, you know, ravages around.”
“You can’t stop it?” I asked.
“Sure, we could stop it, Chase, it we wanted to. But this city’s been waiting for a Second Avenue subway line for a long time, I’m sure you know. The thing’s mostly doing a good job with the tunnel, so they’ve been stalling, and I guess trying to negotiate to keep it underground. The degree of damage is really exaggerated.”

Eventually the machine—known as the “tiger”—is spotted rooting around the city, sliding out of the subterranean worlds it helped create, weaving above and below, an autonomous underground object on the loose.

(For a tiny bit more context on the Lethem novel, see this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, from which the final line of the current post is borrowed).

6 thoughts on “Foundation”

  1. That’s just so cool. Brings to mind, somehow, John Crowley’s line from Little, Big: ‘Houses made of houses made of time…’

    Learned of your blog a couple weeks ago, working my way through your archives- Absolute treasure trove of good stuff.

    All the best!

  2. I recall that several years ago in Los Angeles, a teardown of a stucco senior citizens home revealed a structure underneath that dated to 1850 and had been built by one of the pioneers. I believe the city and developers mused over it for about 4 seconds and then continued the demolition unfortunately.

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