Tuesday, August 17, 2010



The Freedom Tunnel is the name given to the Amtrak tunnel under Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City. It got its name because the graffiti artist Chris "Freedom" Pape used the tunnel walls to create some of his most notable artwork.[1][2] The name may also be a reference to the freedom one may find in this tunnel, the freedom to live unobserved, the freedom to create artwork, and freedom from rent.[3]


The tunnel was built by Robert Moses in the 1930s to expand park space for Upper West Side residents – although Moses's expansion of freeways in the same area effectively blocked access to the river.[4]

After it was completed, the train tunnel was not used for long. With the automobile and trucking taking over more of the city's transport needs, trains no longer ran along the West Side, and the giant, man-made caverns became a haven for homeless people. At its height, hundreds of people lived in the tunnel. On April 4, 1991 the tunnel was reopened as the Amtrak 'Empire Connection' for trains[5] and a massive eviction followed. The shantytowns were bulldozed and the tunnel was chained off.[6]

To this day, however, graffiti artists and urban explorers continue to visit the tunnel, while the homeless population has dwindled to almost zero.[7]
[edit] Artwork

Since the tunnel is isolated, the artists take their time and create ambitious pieces without fear of arrest. The tunnel has unique lighting provided by grates in the sidewalks of Riverside Park. The shafts of light create a gallery space for illegal artwork. Often, the artwork is centered under the light giving the space the feeling of a chapel or great cathedral.

After achieving popularity in the book Spraycan art by James Prigoff and Henry Chalfant, graffiti artists began to flock to the Freedom Tunnel and gained access through a series of broken gates near 103rd st street and Riverside Park. Early artists who left their mark on the tunnel included Smith and his brother Sane (who died in 1991), Ghost, Twist, Cost, Revs, and Dan Plasma.

Until the construction of the Trump Riverside development, the south side of the tunnel ended with a large open area. In the 1980s and 90s, a tent city with pirated electricity and hundreds, perhaps thousands of dwellers existed in the south end of the tunnel. Retired trains were also permanently parked near the south end of the tunnel allowing artists to do top to bottom whole cars, even if they never ran.

Works by "Freedom" remained mostly untouched and respected by taggers. A notable exception was the re-creation of Goya's "The Third of May," which was defaced, but subsequently restored by Freedom.[7] In addition to the "Third of May," there are numerous other murals on the walls in the 100 and 90 block areas of the tunnel; including a chiaroscuro style study of the Venus de Milo, and original portraits rendered with impressionistic splashes of color. The centerpiece of the tunnel is a mural painted in the style of a comic book that tells an abstract story that seems to reference the relationship of the former residents of the tunnel, the city, and the police.

In the Fall of 2009, the north entrance to the Freedom Tunnel was painted over, as well as the miles of walls of the train tracks leading up to the entrance, although new graffiti has reappeared where the old graffiti was painted over. The "Third of May" mural has recently suffered a great deal of water damage due to a leak in the tunnel directly above.[8]