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Columbia Spectator Staff

My favorite piece of tunnel lore comes from our whacked-out cousins at Reed College, where students once stole over two hundred Portland lawn gnomes and created a subterranean gnome army. I am rather fond of such tunnel legends—not for the mischief they often involve, but for what they reveal about a place's culture, its history. It's beyond a museum—it's time travel. It's not esoteric; it's below our feet, a strange world not nearly so contrived as a time capsule. And when we enter that world, we can speak to ghosts and leave a little of ourselves to speak to the future—anything from a "your mom" graffiti to two hundred lawn gnomes. And Columbia once had some great ghosts. Old tracks and coal hoppers that once serviced the steam-powered campus commingle with phone cables allegedly used by WBAR in 1968 to tap the University's communications. The remains of the cyclotron—the early-Manhattan Project particle accelerator—and other pieces of nuclear memorabilia littered the lightly radioactive Pupin labs. The last slices of the foundation of the old Bloomington Lunatic Asylum are visible at some points as well. Even with the closure of the tunnels after their use in the 1968 protests, it was not hard to access the past. In 1999, a highly circulated map was compiled (credited to one Mike Schiraldi) of all the known entrances and pathways, doors were often left unlocked, and up until recently an anonymous tagger known only as Benoit led regular tours. But over the past several years the tunnel culture has been unnaturally fading away. The first signs of institutional tunnel culture decay came in 2003 when, according to Benoit, the University cleaned out most of the gizmos and records in the Pupin labs. Then in 2006, the University announced its plans to tighten security around the tunnels—coinciding with the last known tag by one of the tunnels' most prolific graffiti artists, known as "Mouse." And finally, in the spring semester of 2008, the crowning jewel of the tunnels, the cyclotron, was cleared away to aid in reopening the Pupin labs. Ever since 2006, less has been written on the tunnels and, by a very crude survey, it seems as if the tunnels are still visited, but less consistently and with less vigor. It is understandable that the University should wish to limit access to the tunnels—if not for the memories of 1968, then for the more recent case of Ken Hechtman, the student who, in 1987, whisked a (thankfully depleted) lump of uranium-238 (among other chemicals) from Pupin's labs to his McBain suite. Even after Pupin's 2003 cleaning, the tunnels still house the majority of the University's guts, and any sensible troublemaker could easily do some serious damage by accessing the exposed pipes, cables, and circuits. Furthermore, the place is, in some areas, a horrible liability—exposed wiring, uninsulated pipes, steam, and what must be considered unhealthy air. But tunnel restriction only kills the beauty and the spirit of the tunnels, not the danger they pose. Crackdown aside, it's still easy to access the tunnels. To paraphrase 1980s tunneler Patrick McCabe, just go as low as you can, find a door with an air current, and wait until someone leaves it unlocked. Once there, it is not hard to lay one's hands on everything nearby. For example, when lamenting the time it would take maintenance to replace my overhead light last year, one tunnel denizen offered to pilfer a bulb, saying they were often left untended. And if not, I am told the locks are rather easy to pick. I politely refused. It would seem, though, that those most capable of doing harm are still reaching the tunnels, while those who would be most appreciative and harmless are losing the opportunity. We are losing history and identity, but not managing the problems of the tunnels. Cleaning up Pupin I can understand—I was not comfortable with accessible radioactivity. But blocking our ability to access the memorabilia of a chapter of our history (be it the Asylum, Manhattan Project, 1968, or beyond) makes little sense to me. Perhaps here, Columbia could take a lesson from Reed, which embraces its tunnel culture, and reopen some areas. Fat chance, I am sure, but as it is, the University is leaving open wiring, chemicals, history, and tradition to only the sneaky few. For the University, perhaps if safety is an issue, there will be less liability if access to the tunnels is open and institutionalized. And to my fellow Columbians, perhaps it is time that we think up some benign but amusing new tunnel tradition to replace the waning old legends, and to save a part of our identity and our history—to reclaim our tunnel lore and make it our own. Mark Hay is a Columbia College sophomore. Unusual, Unseemly, or Unnoticed runs alternate Mondays.

Tunnels legend administration