More Literary Spelunking In Gotham’s Vast Underworld

New York Underground , by Julia Solis. Routledge, 251 pages, $35.

There are few topics as fascinating or, in their potential to devour readers whole, as dangerous as this city’s underground. Most American towns barely have one to speak of-who cares what’s under Phoenix? New York’s underground is different: The history, geography, politics and sheer size of its subterranean environs have given rise to a library’s worth of books in a panoply of fields, all devoted to the single question of what lies beneath the city’s streets.

Some of the more noteworthy titles include Unearthing Gotham (2001), the definitive text on New York’s urban archaeology; 722 Miles (1993), Clifton Hood’s classic history of the city’s subway system; Jennifer Toth’s The Mole People (1993), a look at people who live in abandoned rail and service tunnels; and Underneath New York, Harry Granick’s 1947 ur-text for all things subterranean. And 2004-the subway’s centenary-saw a mini-boom in underground New York titles, including Subway Style, The City Beneath Us and A Century of Subways.

All this literary spelunking has its extratextual analogue in an army of loosely affiliated urban-exploration “clubs.” Kevin Walsh, a copywriter who moonlights at forgotten-ny.com, leads occasional (but well-attended) tours through the city’s lesser-known corners. Dark Passage does the same, though with an eye toward riskier, more illicit destinations. Jinx magazine hosts explorer message boards. And Ars Subterranea organizes underground art exhibits (literally): In late 2002, it held a one-day show in the abandoned, long-forgotten Atlantic Avenue tunnel in Brooklyn.

As one might expect, the world of New York underground aficionados is anarchic and wildly disparate. But if anyone can claim doyenne-ship over the scene, it’s Julia Solis. Founder of both Dark Passage and Ars Subterranea and a 15-year veteran of the city’s urban-exploration scene, Ms. Solis can likely claim to have seen more of New York’s innards than anyone, save perhaps a few longtime employees of Con Ed or the M.T.A. Now Ms. Solis has added her own contribution to the subterranean library, a coffee-table tome appropriately titled New York Underground.

In her introduction, Ms. Solis writes that New York Underground “is intended as a fairly comprehensive overview of what lies below our streets.” Given the vast amount of academic and popular scholarship, the sheer wealth of material, Ms. Solis’ aim seems unnecessarily ambitious and, given the book’s mere 226 pages of text (interspersed with lots of pictures), unachievable as well. But Ms. Solis means it-she spends the bulk of the book on a whirlwind tour through the history of everything from the city’s enormous water tunnels to the system of pneumatic mail tubes that serviced downtown buildings during the early 20th century. Too much of this is merely retread: Her coverage of the subway is all but copied from Clifton Hood, and anyone wanting a history of the New York water system would do better to dig up David Grann’s phenomenal article “City of Water,” which ran in The New Yorker last summer.

That said, New York Underground is still a good book, saved by both Ms. Solis’ stunning photography and her occasionally brilliant observations culled from her expeditions below ground. Julia Solis, the photographer, has an Old Master’s eye for the telling detail, and though her pictures appear in black and white throughout the book, she saves the best for four full-color, eight-page spreads. The first spread-which could be titled A Study in Rust-focuses largely on the Croton Aqueduct, a 19th-century engineering marvel which brought fresh water to the city from upstate. One image from the set, taken in the pipe that spans the Harlem River, is almost abstract in its composition; the light emanates not from a camera flash or the other end of the tunnel, but from the myriad cracks where the pipe has rusted through, casting a complex and subtle glow on the lengthy expanse.

Another photograph, taken in the subway warrens beneath City Hall soon after Sept. 11, shows a long, square tunnel with a laid-up train at the other end; in between lies a long, thin pool of water covered in the dust that blew through when the Trade Center towers collapsed. It’s a hauntingly beautiful picture, and a wholly fresh image of the World’s Most Photographed Event.

Because so much of Ms. Solis’ text merely glosses over what others have already said (and not as well or as thoroughly, either), her moments of insight are all the more impressive. She informs us, for example, that the orange-tiled Lexington Avenue F Train station, in which the east- and west-bound tubes are stacked on top of each other, has an empty doppelgänger station directly adjacent. “Walking in this unused area,” she writes, “it is possible to hear the voices of the subway passengers on the other side of the wall.” Or this, from the bowels of an abandoned hospital in Staten Island: “One of the windowless rooms had a dirty mattress on the floor and gave the impression that someone had resided there. Inside a flooded closet, on top of discolored debris, floated the arm of a plastic doll.”

It’s to Ms. Solis’ great credit that, despite the eeriness evoked by such images, she doesn’t play up the underground’s fright factor. She feels, on the contrary, that “the hidden areas beneath the streets can be strangely peaceful and welcoming. It’s specifically in its subterranean realms that this often chaotic metropolis becomes approachable; the secret spaces of the underground, desolate and beautiful, are the intimate surfaces of this gargantuan city.” Sentences like these make one wish for a slightly different book. Indeed, had Ms. Solis’ self-appointed mission been to interpret rather than to catalog the city’s underground, she might have produced a classic. Let’s hope someday she does.

Clay Risen is an assistant editor at The New Republic.