We exited the 1 train station on 125th and orientated ourselves with the instructions provided by WikiHow. It was a nice Spring Saturday afternoon and couple of friends and I were about to embark on an expedition into the dark and unknown. I consider myself to be pretty outgoing, continually curious of my surrounding and always down to explore New York’s urban jungle. So a morning text from my friend Annie, asking if I wanted to check out the Freedom Tunnel, immediately sparked my interest.
The Freedom Tunnel is a section of underground Amtrak rail that runs below Riverside Park on the Westside of Manhattan. It got its name from graffiti artist Chris “Freedom” Pape who painted on its walls in the 70’s and 80s. Eventually, the tunnel became a refuge for NYC’s graffiti artists due to its hidden nature. The “freedom” moniker also referred to the homeless communities and shanty towns that used to live there before they were cleared out in the early 1990s.
As WikiHow instructed, we walked towards the train tracks and searched for a chain link fence that was supposed to keep hooligans like us out. Along the way we passed some remnants of a homeless camp, which made me start to doubt our adventure, as I wasn’t in the mood to be chased by bums that day. We eventually slipped through a detached part of the fence and followed the track to the tunnel. Amtrak still ran along these tracks, so we had to be extra careful for oncoming trains. There was significant space next to the tracks, so there was ample room to get out of the way just in case. As we neared the Freedom Tunnel, a chilly breeze brushed against my face and body like an ominous warning. There was very little light, except for the natural sunrays that beamed down through the grates in the ceiling, illuminating the walls like an art gallery.
There were a lot of cool graffiti decorating the tunnel. The atmosphere was serene as there was no hustle and noise of the city, as it was a separate world above us. Silence filled the tunnel, only to be broken by our footsteps hitting the stones that covered the ground or the thundering trains that ran by every 30 minutes. Ultimately, the initial creepiness of the Freedom Tunnel faded away.
We walked about a mile into the tunnel, passing a dozen or so other urban explorers. I was pretty cautious because I suspected that there were still some homeless people living in the tunnels, but I calmed my self-defense mechanisms when they gave us friendly “hellos”. We eventually turned around and made the trek back to the tunnel’s entrance, and as we approached the bright light at the end of the tunnel, an SUV drove in. WTF? Why is there a car here? All of a sudden, the car switched on its flashing lights, and my heart just dropped to my stomach.
3 men jumped out of the vehicle and dashed towards us, yelling some things that I couldn’t comprehend because I was freaked the hell out. As they got closer, they pulled out handguns and pointed them straight at us. Everything moved so fast. Next thing I knew, the 3 of us had our hands against the wall being patted down being asked questions at rapid pace. I can’t go to jail. I’m looking for a job right now.
Ultimately, the 3 men were cops called by the train conductors who saw us walking the tunnel. Even thought the Freedom Tunnel is a popular exploration destination in NYC, it was still consider illegal to enter its premises. A couple others were also caught and we were all given citations for trespassing (I paid my debt to society). The policemen were actually pretty nice and lectured us on why we shouldn’t be down there in the first place. I’m too damn old to get caught up like this.
As a public service announcement: Please don’t go into the Freedom Tunnel. Don’t listen to the blogs and what others say. The risks are not worth the effort.