New Yorkers may spend more time underground than denizens of every other town, so says the New York Times. But those of you planning to explore the Columbia tunnel system had better do it now, reports Bwog trailblazer Armin Rosen. Because after almost forty years of  the tunnels being locked, guarded and officially closed off to students, administration has vowed to lock, guard and officially close the tunnels off to students….

I guess there’s a chance that this is something more than administrative redundancy, and that spelunkers will find the school’s sprawling system of claustrophobic underground passageways forever sealed off by swipe-points, security cameras, one-way doors (the kind with a knob on only one side of the door; common throughout the system and the subject of much speculation among tunnelers) a nd other means of depriving the enterprising student of fun and adventure. But I doubt it. My personal opinion is that the tunnels, which contain water and power conduits, generators, storage rooms and other facilities vital to the functioning of this school will remain inadvertently unlocked so long as people will have to frequently enter and leave them. Indeed, it didn’t take a lock-pick or a sledgehammer to gain entrance to the tunnels under the Schermerhorn extension on a Tuesday morning in December. A maintenance worker had serendipitously left the door open.

The Columbia tunnels are a stuffy, industrial affair. The air is thick, and the subterranean calm is pierced only by the soft, mechanical hum of distant machinery. The tunneler who once described the Schermerhorn-Schapiro- Fayerweather-Pupin system as “Willy Wonka-like” had it only half right. Aesthetically, it does bring to mind the classic Gene Wilder movie, as the tunnels’  smattering of miscellaneous machinery and pipes does have a Wonka-like incoherence to it. But in terms of a mbiance the workers’ underworld in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is the more apt cinematic reference point–the tunnels are not a place of industrial whimsy like Wonka‘s factory, but of industrial menace and danger. The last time I explored the Schermerhorn basement the doors pictured above were locked and included a sign reading “DANGER: ACIDIC FUMES.” That some intrepid tunneler found this of little enough consequence to live out what was once one of my top goals at this school and steal this sign shows just how attractive the danger aspect is to tunnel explorers. There are signs of danger everywhere: eye-wash stations, rusting industrial apparata, exposed power lines, the breathing machine seen above.

But the most dangerous aspect of the tunnels aren’t the chemicals in the air, although I would really love to see the Spec or The Blue and White write something about the air quality in the tunnel system under Schermerhorn, because numerous maintenance people still work there and I’m willing to bet that said air quality isn’t very good.  From the administration’s standpoint the tunnels are probably most hazardous as a storage area for dangerous and toxic chemicals–lest we forget, a Columbia student was famously expelled in the early 90’s for stealing uranium from the tunnels beneath Pupin, and examples such as this collection of nitrogen tanks suggest that this concern reflects something more than just administrative paranoia (see right).

The tunnels are, most importantly, history: Protestors used them as transportation between occupied buildings during the student protests in 1968 and WKCR allegedly used them to wire-tap the university’s phone system during the crisis, while the tunnels themselves include pre-Columbian remnants such as these train tracks between Schermerhorn and Shapiro. These attest to a time when the land between Broadway and Amsterdam at 116th street was home to an institution of a different (or perhaps not so different) stripe: the Bloomingdale insane asylum, which used these tracks to transport coal.

And there is more, all of you aspiring-tunnelers. Second installment coming tomorrow.

– Armin Rosen