In Las Vegas, homeless people live in the storm drain and fight for their lives through addictions and floods. In Athens, Greece, a Muslim art museum shows off a piece of the classical city’s wall under its foundation. All around the world, urban explorers enter the forgotten undergrounds to unite urban legends with historical realities.
Global Undergrounds serves as a catalog that positions 80 underground sites of urban, suburban, and rural development, and most segments offer a connection to the culture of the present and the past. Each location has been given about two pages of text, limiting each story and positioning the topic as historical, personal narrative, or an academic curiosity.
As cities grow, the underground has shaped the structure of their design, and often, the culture of the city pays homage to an otherwise forgotten world of abandoned metro lines, hidden bunkers, waterworks, drainage systems, and even rivers that are built over when the population no longer values them. Urban environments have a verticality that grows both above and underground. Places like the US-Mexico border and the Gaza Strip demonstrate the current, organic construction of subterranean tunnels that have political and civil consequences. Underground places and spaces spread like rhizomes in mountains and prairies where abandoned bunkers, data centers, and art installations seem to spontaneously form cultural incongruities that draw tourists.
Diverse authors offer approaches as academics, official visitors, tourists, or adventurers, engaging with spaces and places that usually remain hidden from both sight and mind. Without a common style or a common thesis, readers can experience many approaches to documenting and explaining the cultural importance of underground developments. Readers will learn the significance of the Roman sewer on the development of the ancient city, but they will also experience the hidden areas of vacant metro lines where citizens hid from bombings and invading armies. Some authors focus on the tourist value of sites, and some adventurous readers may choose to visit some of these places to expand their knowledge. Other readers may take note of the academic references and name drops like Italo Calvino that will offer a different context for the short essays that follow.
Because of this lack of uniformity, the catalog offers the readers the ability to use their own backgrounds and interests to frame the sites, but the differing styles allow a few rich stories to shine through. Dhan Zunino Singh offers a meta reading of being the subject and object of surveillance in the Santiago Metro. This first person strategy builds on others where the author writes about being in a vacant space, hidden and alone. Self awareness often engages a poetic beauty where an author experiences a place and moment that defines her cultural narrative. Mariëlle van der Meer experiences crawling through the claustrophobia inside a mine where she realizes that at 23, she will outlive most, if not all, of the Potosí miners who will die for lack of air filtering masks. Other stories give firsthand accounts of both the descent and experience in a place forgotten or left to the underclass who find ways to function in the
The strength of this format may also be a weakness. For example, in “Death Squads and Firebombs: Sewers of Bogotá”, editor Bradley L. Garrett presents the sewers as the long-term dwelling of people affected by the Colombian government and the United States’ support of that government against trade unions in the ’90s. While the story has strong examples of people’s struggles of living in the sewers, it does not offer the details or support to create context or develop the underground “place”. Garrett mentions a family that has been there for 17 years and had three kids and quotes a human rights worker who writes that police poured gasoline on 22 teens hiding in the sewer, burning them to death. While these would certainly create the potential for dramatic reportage or an academic analysis of the culture as it develops in the circumstance, the culture is absent. Garrett acknowledges the majority of the residents are part of the underclass, but the horror of the examples acts as a “counterbalance to many of the celebratory entries in this book” (64).
Critical readers may find other editorial decisions problematic. In Stephen Graham’s “Dark Tourism and Data Dumps: Reusing Missile Silos in the American West”, there’s a general statement about “dark tourism” without any specific examples shown. After two paragraphs, the transition connecting the topics is limited to the word, “meanwhile” (142). The introduction and conclusion promise an essay that does not appear in the body.
Geoff Manaugh’s preface concludes that it is difficult to catalog and connect different underground environs with their cultural and social effects. This catalog offers an imperfect representation of current and historical undergrounds. Here, at least, tourists, adventurers, scholars, and nonfiction readers can sample the worlds below the surface.