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Blogging underground secrets into the light

The Internet absolutely can't keep a secret. Here's the story, and the controversy, behind the outing of a long-hidden subway station in New York and the secret art exhibit within.

CC: Flickr user Volpin

This is a story about a series of tubes.

Well, it's about two series of tubes. There's the Internet, the "series of tubes" per the late Sen. Ted Stevens, the web of invisible filaments that tie together our e-mail accounts, Facebook profiles, RSS readers, instant-message clients, and so forth.

Then there's the New York City subway system, the creaking circuitry of tunnels and machines that has shuttled the town's millions of residents and visitors underneath its streets for well over a century now--and which, it was revealed in a shadowy and alluring New York Times feature last week, is home to an abandoned, almost-inaccessible station that this summer was plastered in vibrant artwork by 103 graffiti-inspired "street artists," many of whom operate under pseudonyms.

The journalist who wrote the story had agreed with the curators, street artists who go by the names PAC and Workhorse, not to disclose the location of the station. The entire operation was illegal, and the artists' intention was to create an exhibit, called the "Underbelly Project," that would remain inaccessible, tomb-like, and hidden in contrast to the mounting mainstream popularity and high prices attached to mainstream street artists' work.

The New York subway system likes to keep secrets. The Internet does not. Of course, bloggers had outed the station's location within hours of the Times story and photo gallery appearing online. And thus started the conflict between online enthusiasts of both street art and subway culture, some of whom claimed that revealing the station's location was tantamount to artistic sacrilege or the code of "urban explorers" (don't make it public, or the powers-that-be will seal it off or demolish it) and others who thought that keeping it secret would leave a big hole in a rich social history of a city that's flowered into complexity on the Web.

The former sentiment is expressed well, albeit a bit profanely, through a comment on city blog Gothamist, which was one of the first to pinpoint the location of the hidden street art gallery: "Hey Gothamist don't be an a**hole and post more about the specific location. It's hidden for a reason."

And the latter, just a few page scrolls up: "This is pretty f***ing awesome. I'd give my eyeteeth for a walkthrough."

"I don't think anybody really considered not making it public," said Benjamin Kabak, the author of the blog Second Avenue Sagas, widely considered to be one of the best online authorities on public transit in New York. "It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that people would be able to identify that in about 20 minutes."

To know the subway is to know New York, except both are so steeped in history, stuffed full of hidden knowledge, and subject to rapid evolution that becoming an expert in either is a Sisyphean undertaking. Over the years the subway system has been the alleged home of a thriving community of rapacious alligators (nope), rats the size of cats (absolutely), and enclaves of "mole people" (sort of). But a massive, never-used station? Even to people who know their subway commutes so well that they can "prewalk" to the exact square foot of concrete on a platform that will ensure maximum efficiency, this was probably a surprise.

Bloggers like Kabak, as well as more general city blog authorities like Jake Dobkin of Gothamist, quickly took on the task of figuring out the station's identity. After eliminating other known abandoned platforms like those at Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and Nevins Street in downtown Brooklyn, they surmised that the "Underbelly Project" station is a sprawling six-track complex in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.

The now-phantom station's construction was stalled first by the Great Depression and then completely snuffed when city planning assumed that the future of Gotham would be centered on the car, not the train--which didn't come true, as New York remains the only U.S. city where over half of households do not own a car, and where it's barely abnormal to meet a middle-class, college-educated thirtysomething who has never learned how to drive. It was intended to be a connecting station to an existing stop along the Crosstown Local line, creating a massive nexus of subway service in a part of Brooklyn that is now, instead, only visited by a single and much-maligned service called the G. Sneak onto a ledge in the tunnel just past the northbound G platform, and soon you're there: no tracks, no exits to the street, no lighting, a series of tubes to nowhere.

"This story is so appealing just because of the way they brought to light the fact that the station is there," Kabak said. "Anybody who's sort of plugged into transit online knows that the station is there, but it's kind of an urban legend in a way. It's a giant shell of a subway station for a subway line that was never built. It's been there since the '30s...the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the subway system) won't totally acknowledge that it exists sometimes."

The popularity of poking around
Urban exploration, the dedication to poking around in esoteric, hard-to-reach, and abandoned corners of cities, has exploded with the rise of blogging and photo sharing. Flickr photographs from abandoned military bases, amusement parks, and mental hospitals (a crowd favorite) enjoy a popularity on the photo-sharing community rivaled by few things that don't involve cats. Unrestricted by publishers or legal teams, online city guides and blogs are happy to publish details of city secrets that are often dangerous or illegal to visit.

Other urban explorers are more tight-lipped. Secret underground tunnels have long been rumored to exist under San Francisco, relics of Chinatown brothels, Prohibition, and furtive military activity. But the city's dedicated community of urban explorers have kept remarkably mum about them on the Web considering the fact that, well, this is the town where iPhones and Twitter accounts seem to outnumber humans.

"Almost all the artists you see in the Underbelly pictures became famous because of sites like Wooster Collective. International street art wouldn't exist without the Internet, without Flickr."
-- Jake Dobkin of Gothamist

"The urb-ex people have this code that says you never talk about the location of a spot, but the truth is everyone talks constantly," Gothamist's Jake Dobkin said. "They brag about it. You get them drunk and the first thing they talk about is the number of places they've gone."

With the Internet, it gets worse. Cloaked by anonymity and yet rife with possibilities for social-media notoriety, the Internet is one giant lure for proving urban-explorer street cred. The rationale: If you don't show off that hidden knowledge, someone else will.

"From the perspective of identifying the station, for me, I guess that was the biggest concern," Kabak said, "how you identify it but at the same time kind of get the point across that it's pretty dangerous to get there because you don't want your readers to go there."

But it grows ever more complicated because it wasn't just an instance of someone taking pictures in an old subway station, it was a massive street art installation--and that's another phenomenon that's absolutely perfect for the Web.

"Street art exists because of the Internet. When I was in college, graffiti was graffiti--subway art, big pieces," Dobkin said. "Starting in the late 90s, the street art movement, which was really European...the Internet, yeah, it just completely exploded it. Almost all the artists you see in the Underbelly pictures became famous because of sites like Wooster Collective. International street art wouldn't exist without the Internet, without Flickr."

Like the Web, the street art subculture relies on viral word-of-mouth buzz--like when the U.K. street artist Banksy, now so far into the mainstream that he concocted the opening credits for a recent episode of "The Simpsons," was known only by the odd, characteristic works that would pop up overnight in random places in far-reaching cities. Street art, given its distributed nature, is by its nature discovered, cataloged, and curated by online enthusiasts: Works are scattered throughout public places in cities across the world to the extent that it's impossible for any one person to see them all. Many are illegal, temporary, or even hard-to-spot by busy and easily distracted city dwellers.

Something's different in the "Underbelly Project." Not only is it a confined space, but its inaccessibility rendered the likelihood of discovery very low. A corral of exclusivity, the abandoned station was shown off to a select few people who had agreed to not publish photos before a certain date and never give away the location. It's the equivalent of giving the exhibit a closely guarded password--while still, thanks to the organizers' outreach to The New York Times, ensuring that the world and the secrets-hungry Web knew well of its existence.

For Dobkin, outing the station's location was partially a big middle finger to the reasoning behind the "Underbelly Project," which he said stripped away the spontaneity and the democratic raison d'etre that makes street art what it is, and pushes it even further from its origins in graffiti culture--a product of working-class frustration and rebellion--into the domain of mostly white, relatively privileged artists in search of fame and profit.

"I philosophically do not like secret street art projects and exclusive scenes," Dobkin asserted. "The whole reason I like graffiti and street art is because it's not the art scene. It doesn't have the exclusivity of the Chelsea art scene, it doesn't have the materialism of the gallery scene, it doesn't have the social bulls***t of the museum scene...Once you start attaching all these rules to it, like so-and-so can see it, so-and-so can't see it, it really starts to annoy me."

When Gothamist outed the location, Dobkin received plenty of hate mail. But he says he doesn't mind, despite concerns about safety, vandalism, or the likelihood that the MTA might spoil it all by sealing it off somehow.

"I was happy to be able to blow the spot," he declared. "I kind of thought they were asking for it by going through the press, and giving us all these hints, and putting up the picture."

Sometimes these stories can have happy endings. Across town, over on the far West Side of Manhattan, there's the "High Line," an old stretch of elevated railway that fell out of use in the 1960s and was finally shut down to train traffic in 1980. Until less than a decade ago, the place was overgrown, speckled with graffiti, dangerous to access, and as New York native Dobkin put it, "it was quite the thing to do to buy '40s' and go up there." One of the city's most popular spots for urban exploration, photographs of the High Line and narratives of how to reach it--and the subsequent blogging thereof, back in blogging's early days--led to so much enthusiasm over the old railway that funds were raised to turn it into a park. It's been, thus far, a spectacular success.

Second Avenue Sagas blogger Ben Kabak said he doesn't think that the spark of interest in the Underbelly Project station will have any such result. "As with many things right now, that's just an issue of cost," he said. "It would cost a lot to make that station safety compliant to allow people into it and then you'd have somebody running it and operating it and maintaining it."

But in the end the whole story, regardless of one's opinion on what should be kept secret, is a triumph of discovery, a new slice of city history that contributes dramatically to what locals know about the trains that they step on and off of every day like clockwork.

"We sort of view the subway system as this static thing that's always been the way it is," Kabak said. "Our expansion plans today are so much narrower than they were 70 years ago. People don't tend to think big, and here you sort of think bigger."