Subterranean Homesick Blues


Finding trapdoors and secret entrances to the Pratt Institute’s underground steam tunnels occupies the minds of countless students and piques the curiosity of urban explorers. Yet despite myriad tales about failed entrance attempts, there I was, walking beneath the school, dodging the occasional ceiling drip and roasting in the heat emanating from pipes near my head. But it wasn’t my talent that got me there—it was my guide, Julia Solis, queen of all things subterranean and author of New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City. Solis will hold a signing of her newly minted book at Bluestockings, on the Lower East Side, on December 1 at 7 p.m.

While most people in New York canvass the city’s surface for bars and parks, or look toward the sky or ocean for added entertainment, Solis has a long history of reaching below the earth’s crust and noting what goes on beneath that superficial first layer of dirt. Years of meticulous historical research and gutsy personal exploration went into this coffee-table tome, in which Solis touches on everything from alligators in city sewers to how Chinese gangs used the labyrinth of Chinatown tunnels to launch surprise attacks on rivals. (These same tunnels now conceal knockoff Fendi bags to be sold on Canal Street.)

One of her favorite topics is New York’s most famous train station. “I think Grand Central is the greatest mystery of underground New York,” remarks the redhead. “Everyone goes in and out of it, everyone seems to think they know what’s going on, but no one knows how deep it goes.” An MTA worker told her Grand Central goes down 15 stories; others estimate the depth as closer to six.

But it’s the stories of Solis’s personal explorations that quicken the pulse. She has walked unused subway tracks and clambered into abandoned stations, examining the graffiti. She’s daringly floated on a raft down the Croton Aqueduct, New York’s first freshwater supplier, taking a swim in the frigid water. She has explored the grounds of Staten Island’s Sea View Hospital, a former home for tuberculosis patients, making her way through decrepit tunnels that lead to the inherently creepy pathology labs and morgue. Her numerous eye-catching and eerie photos of derelict freight tunnels and buried utility wires illustrate her tales, giving the adventures an even rawer, more tangible edge.

Central aisle of the crypt under Old St. Patrick’s cathedral; Right: steam-driven generators at the Pratt institute’s power plant
photos: Julia Solis

Only a couple weeks after her book launch, filming is to begin on American Ruins, a movie executive-produced by Solis. “It’s more of an interpretation than a documentation,” Solis said, describing the flick as a “rotting Fantasia.” True to her word, they’re planning on setting to music images of the nation’s unused mental hospitals, ghost towns, and decaying ships, as well as Pennsylvania’s Bethlehem Steel plant and Gary, Indiana’s abandoned train station. Despite tighter security regarding underground and unused places since 9-11, Solis hasn’t been daunted. You get the feeling there’s nothing she won’t do.

She moved to the U.S. from Germany as a child, yet Solis still shares a kinship with romantic writers of her native land, like E.T.A. Hoffman. It’s not necessarily her prose that’s similar, but rather the allure of things dark and otherworldly, the way she sees ephemeral beauty where others would see an unseemly industrial building or a pile of bricks. It’s no accident that the first edition of New York Underground was published two years ago in German. (She updated and greatly expanded the book for its U.S. release.)

Murals by artists Freedom and Smith; pipes to a former storage tank atop high bridge water tower
photos: Julia Solis

But as more ruins disintegrate to nothing or are demolished in the name of progress, Solis decided to take her view of the world public. She formed the organization Ars Subterranea, bringing its members into contact with the city’s ruins through underground art installations, and imparting a unique type of history lesson through citywide scavenger hunts. The most recent hunt took place in early November: After Solis divided everybody up into groups of strangers, they raced from abandoned structure to dilapidated building, unraveling clues to finally locate an unmapped underground stream.

“When you’re wandering around the city looking for Egyptian architecture or WW I memorials, you suddenly become attuned to all the great things that are around,” Solis says, adding that participants have confessed that they’d never see New York the same way again. “That sort of crystallized why I was doing it.”