Photographs by Michael T. Regan
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It's about 2 a.m. and the gates to South Broad Concourse the massive corridor under Broad Street, south of City Hall are locked. For all I know, that means I'm locked in.I'm not alone, though. The concourse 1 floor is lined with homeless men and women sleeping on cardboard boxes. This room is expansive, more than 1,600 feet long, stretching six city blocks and encompassing more than 6 acres. And though it's not sanctioned by the city, not overseen by social workers, and not intended as such, it's evident that this is a shelter a place for the homeless to rest. Tonight, I count about 60 people sleeping quietly. Twenty sleeping restlessly. And one person who's awake, wandering around, like me.
I decide to call him Andrew. Not because he looks like one, but because he looks like the opposite of one. 2 When I picture someone named Andrew, I think: white, tall, blue-eyed, saying Christian prayers before 10 o'clock bedtime in a suburban townhouse. Not this guy. This guy's black, 6-foot-1, solid but crooked, limping a little, favoring his right side; he's unwashed, wearing an outfit of gray jeans and a navy blue hoodie that looks like it hasn't been cleaned since the Carter administration. He doesn't look older than 35, but his hair is unkempt with streaks of gray throughout. He is constantly, vocally pissed the kind of urban wanderer who seems always engaged in angry conversation with someone you can't see. For my first couple of hours here, he's ignored me completely.
But now things change. He's ranting, spitting, talking to himself as usual, and I'm sitting here looking up at him from the stairs by the concourse's Locust Street entrance, but he's about 50 yards away now and I notice his pace is quickening toward me. He's approaching. Making a move, I guess. Why this sudden interest? Have I trespassed? Done something offensive? He's moving closer, much more intensely now and the sound of his angry voice is getting louder. I'm hearing lots of "fuck" and "motherfucker" and it looks like he's growing angrier by the second, looking directly at me, moving faster. I'm not sure whether to stay here and hold my ground or run away. I stand up and stare and he stares back at me, spitting venom in words that aren't even registering to me anymore because I'm gripped by fear and unsure what to do. So I stand, petrified, barely hiding it, barely ready to defend myself, barely poised, waiting. He's 20 yards away now. Fifteen, 10, getting closer and really yelling right at me "motherfucker, you stupid motherfucker" and he's closer still, 3 yards away, 2, and I'm on the verge of tears, ready to take a swing at him, anything to defend myself, but he ...
... walks right past me. Up the stairs to the iron gateway at Locust and Broad. He's still yelling, but not at me. He touches the gate and throws his hands in the air, exasperated. Lord knows why. He walks back down, past me, back into the concourse, toward City Hall and away.
This huge, nearly-empty tunnel is part of my daily route downtown from West Philly. I normally don't think about it while I'm walking there because, during morning rush hour, there's nothing really going on: Janitors collect cardboard boxes and wash the ground with industrial machines; people migrate wordlessly to their jobs; you can hear the sound of trains rumbling below and car horns blaring above, but it's routine, the minutiae of Philadelphia's downtown morning rush.
A while back, though, I needed to get into Center City late at night. I took the 34 trolley from 47th and Baltimore into town, and walked underground toward Broad and Walnut. It wasn't until then that I realized what I was actually walking through every morning: a routine cleanup, yes, but a necessary one after lively nights beneath the city. Just after 1 a.m., the place looked like a dynamically dispossessed encampment. I saw some men and women arguing on one side of the massive room, and two others feebly throwing punches at each other on the opposite side. I saw a man pissing against the stainless steel gates outside the "exit only" South Penn station ticket booth. I saw a slew of men and women unconscious on the floors. The contrast was striking. Above ground sat the Ritz-Carlton, multiple national banks, bars, limos, the "Avenue of the Arts." Below ground? The depths of Philadelphia the parts no one wants you to see.
Next day, I read about the 36-year-old Starbucks manager who died in March after being attacked in the concourse by some high school kids. Then I asked around: What, exactly, is this place?
One City Hall dispatcher said the concourse turns into Night of the Living Dead after dark. A maintenance worker for Center City District (CCD) the organization that "consolidate[s] the cleaning of 3 miles of interconnected, underground walkways under South Broad Street, City Hall, JFK Boulevard and East Market Street," according to a press release said, "Them dirty-ass muthafuckas mess this place up every night and we clean up after they asses." A friend told me she won't go there, period. Another talked about going down there to "take pictures of the emptiness." But overwhelmingly, when I mentioned the concourse to Philadelphians who had known it for a long time, they tended to talk about how bad it used to be.
James (not his real name), a CCD maintenance employee who works overnight in the concourses, 3 and has worked for generations of companies with contracts to maintain the tunnels underneath Center City, gave me an earful about the hundreds of homeless who would congregate under Broad Street in the late '80s and early '90s. He said they would separate themselves according to vices, and interact only over monetary disputes. "I used to carry nun chucks to work every night," he said. "The crackheads would go under Chestnut; if you wanted straight sex, you went under Locust; homosexuals were by Spruce; the dope heads were in the tunnel [connecting the concourse to the hallway under Market]. Place was a fuckin' madhouse." James said he would regularly need to defend himself, particularly as morning approached, when he was tasked with physically moving people so he could clean floors and walls. "I'd get into fights all the time," he said. "Every day was a new day, I'll tell you that much."
Some of James' assertions are verified by newspaper reports from the Inquirer and the Daily News. In November 1993, then-mayor Ed Rendell ordered a sweep of all the subway concourses. The reports say that, in winters, the homeless numbered "in the hundreds," and that, following the homeless sweeps, the concourses would be locked from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m.
I wondered how much had changed.
I called SEPTA's press spokesman, Gary Fairfax, to find out if that was still the case. Are the gates still locked from 12:30 a.m. to 5 a.m.?
"Yes," he said.
I asked if it was possible to tour the space between those hours.
"Why would you want to do that?" he asked. "It's empty."
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Ididn't really know what to expect. I asked some friends if they'd like to join me on an expedition under Center City, but the conversations always went the same way.They'd say, "You're going to spend the night under Broad Street?"
I'd say, "Yeah."
They'd say, "Why?"
I'd say, "Because it's supposedly locked from the inside and I want to see what's down there."
They'd say, "You're gonna get stabbed."I'd say, "No, I'm not."
They'd say, "Yes, you are."
I'd say, "You wanna join me?"
They'd say, "No."
So I went alone. A couple of Thursdays ago, I had drinks with three acquaintances at Abyssinia in West Philly, and then biked to the concourse around midnight. Fairfax had denied my request, and told me the gates would be locked. This was backed up by a SEPTA cop I spoke with that afternoon, who told me, "If you want to go down there, you need to get clearance, otherwise you're liable to get arrested for trespassing." But I suspected that was all bullshit.
I tried the gates and they weren't locked yet, so I secured my bike to a parking meter on Market, descended into the station under 13th just west of the transit museum and walked cautiously west, toward City Hall.
Before you reach the concourse, there's a curved tunnel, about 10 feet wide, 10 feet high, that introduces the hollow atmosphere under Broad Street: It's damp, concrete and mostly empty. The smell of urine and disinfectant starts here. Even on good days, this is where you begin to see people sleeping on the floor. Tonight, there's an old white man in black jeans and a Michigan Wolverines winter jacket who's passed out in the wet gutters that line the hallway. He's next to two younger black men who are sitting up, in jeans and puffy down jackets, also asleep.
I don't see him approaching me from behind, but after he passes me, Andrew is the first conscious person I notice. He isn't speaking to himself, ranting or spitting, so I don't quite suspect at this point that he's one of the concourse's tenants. But I smell him as he walks by a scent combining dried piss and shit, body odor, the stale stink of neglect of long-worn clothing and a long-unwashed body. He enters and fades from my consciousness when I finally enter the concourse.
As always, it's quiet. It seems bigger now than it does during rush hour. If it weren't for the two rows of steel beams lining the center of this enormous room, you could picture 767s fitting here easily. There are more people sleeping next to the walls than I've seen before, but it's more evident now how much space each person can comfortably occupy 30 feet at least, on each side. I don't see anyone fighting this time, no arguing, and no voices other than those of the couple embraced, kissing on the brink of the concourse.
The two a man and a woman are just inside, on the left, under Chestnut Street, and they speak softly to each other in words I mostly can't understand (but words I understand are not meant for my ears). The woman is black, short, and wears a clean blue collared shirt and khaki pants that don't fit her (they're way too small). The man is tall, at least a foot taller than she is, and wearing clean jeans and a black T-shirt. They don't acknowledge me as I pass them. I move deep into the concourse, walk forward for two minutes and find a space next to the wall by the SEPTA sales and information booth at Walnut and Locust station.
I sit and I wait.
The Broad Street subway line, which began operating on Sept. 1, 1928, wasn't extended to stations at Walnut or South streets until 1930. That's when South Broad Concourse opened. Christopher Zearfoss, director of transportation programs in the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning, says the subway was intended to be "the main artery for a more extensive subway system" that would've connected City Hall with neighborhoods throughout the Philadelphia region. But that never happened. So, though it's become more connected to other forms of transportation via the expansion of Market Street and the Center City Commuter Connection, the concourse remains unfinished and underutilized with regard to its initial intention: to grow.In years gone by, in basements of office buildings with doors leading to the concourse the Wanamaker Building, the Philadelphia Bank Building and the Ritz-Carlton building there have been barber shops and modest retail establishments (specifically newspaper vendors) but nothing beyond that. Today, all those doors leading to the concourse are locked, accessible only to those with special access cards and identification.
Over the years, Zearfoss says, there's been some discussion between the city, SEPTA, PATCO and possibly some other adjoining property owners regarding how to make the concourse more attractive and more functional. The discussions have included potentially installing murals, art exhibits and retail tenants, but nothing has gotten off the ground. 4 "[The concourse] is a resource that has been relegated to working status," Zearfoss says. But he thinks now could be a good time to look into further investment. "The surface of Broad was rebuilt in the late '90s," he says, "so renovating the concourse would complement that."
Does the city have a plan to make something out of it?
"The long answer is yes, the short answer is no," says Anthony Santaniello of the Philadelphia Planning Commission. He says CCD's maintenance group took it over a year ago, and their contract was revolutionary because it put a blanket maintenance organization in charge of a place with many different owners. He says "there is a will to redevelop the concourse into a manageable space where commerce is encouraged," but there are very basic problems that seriously hinder any possibilities for cafés, restaurants and pretty much any form of embedded commercial retailer you could imagine: It has no hot water, for one thing, and it's impossible to pipe water into the concourse during winter months (he says CCD had to truck water in last year to clean the place). There's also a very antiquated drainage system (which explains the constant piss smell). He says it's cleaner now than he ever remembers it, but it's still intolerable to people "who consider it unsafe or confusing."
Long-term, he says, "It's a problem of ownership." The city owns the concourse; SEPTA essentially rents it; CCD maintains it; and none of these entities really have an interest in spending the money to turn this place into anything other than a walkway. "If the powers that be get together, then sure, you can get hot water, you can create a better drainage system, you can clean the place up and make it workable." Santaniello says the most "comprehensive and recent" study regarding how to better utilize the concourse is the Planning Commission's 1985 "Center City Circulation Study," which has a section devoted to the concourses. That study estimated that "the level of public investment required just to bring the concourse to an acceptable standard of finish is $10.6 million (in 1985 dollars)." 5
"Basically," he says, "it's a matter of political will and money."
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It's about 3:30 a.m. and most of the concourse is quiet. Actually, "quiet" doesn't do it justice; the place is near dead. Someone from SEPTA finally locked the gates around 1:30 a.m., and then all activity ceased commuters stopped appearing; maintenance guys fled to far-away offices underneath the train museum; the last of the straggling homeless fell asleep. The lack of noise that followed, combined with real visions of the sleeping, motionless people in this huge hole, is downright haunting. Even Andrew has fallen asleep, huddled by the Spruce Street wall and next to a sleeping couple using a refrigerator box as a cover. Before bed, Andrew paced the length of the concourse, back and forth, back and forth, for at least an hour and a half, in differing levels of quiet and screaming madness. I tried several times to talk to him to offer a "hello," a "hi," a "how are you?" but he never gave me as much as a glare.In the quiet, I try to stay awake by tip-toeing through the concourse, listening to anything that makes noise. Now, it's the dinging clicks from the token machine at the SEPTA Sales and Information booth; earlier, it was the sound of a man with sleep apnea; before that, it was trying to identify car types as they drove above on Market Street.
In the absence of anything constructive to do, it occurs to me as it's occurred to me before (and many before me) that this place is nearly functionless. Its role is to be cleaned and guarded. I wonder: What can be done to make it better, useful, more functional? Is there an opportunity to transform it into La ville souterraine Montreal's Underground City? 6
When I come back above ground, I'll look into this. Paul Levy, president and CEO of Center City District, says his organization is preparing to explore "what types of entertainment/animation strategies can occur in the concourse that don't conflict with street-level activity." So I ask around.
"It would be great if SEPTA perhaps in collaboration with the Center City District could put in some shops such as a coffee joint," says Michael Froehlich at septawatch.blogspot.com."Or maybe sponsor a sorely needed art exhibit with the University of the Arts."
"Some sort of educational or creative endeavor which benefits the city and everyday people in some way," suggests Matt Scobey, a Philly-based artist. "Free free free! And open to public." He recommends an "experimental exhibition space 7 let the art museum or the city dole out a fellowship to artists or groups to produce rotating exhibits."
But Matt Wanamaker, an urban designer at Brown & Keener in Center City, suggests that this is too limited. "Programming the space with activities seems superficial at this point and wouldn't accomplish much more than occasionally filling space. They would just be temporary activities in the same old dank, gloomy cave." He suggests the simplest next step toward improvement would be to connect the concourses to the outside. "Bringing more natural light and air in would make a huge difference. I'm thinking that light wells brought up through the roof to street level (in the Broad Street medians and certain points in the sidewalk) would accomplish this and create opportunities for public art. More than simple skylights, they could be civic icons from above and below that symbolically connect the street level with the underground."
In short, there's got to be something someone can do to turn this into ... anything. Are any of these ideas realistic? Is there enough demand? If so, then access to amenities is key. And shitty plumbing is a roadblock.
If we take the Planning Commission's word, shitty plumbing eliminates most forms of traditionally successful transit businesses cafés and food vendors and poses problems for cleanliness if anyone were to propose, say, that the concourse should be converted into a sanctioned homeless shelter, with beds lining the walls, access to showers and warm food, et cetera. In an e-mail exchange with Santaniello, I'll make the quarter-serious suggestion that "maybe our best option is to attempt a merging of all our homeless shelters and pedestrian traffic into one, giant room." His response is telling:
What, exactly, would a designation such as this mean for the CCD maintenance contracts? How would the city ever sell SEPTA on this idea when transit customers can oftentimes only gain access to the system via the concourse levels? Also at stake is the entire reputation of a city. ... How do you think the city government, citizens and transit passengers would feel/think if various downtrodden masses were suddenly sanctioned to be in a cavernous space that already has a reputation of being grimy, not to mention obstructed sight lines which may make it a pickpocketer's haven. There would be a domino effect of less people willing to utilize the concourses, leading to more circuitous or impossible means of accessing transit, leading to peoples' decisions to drive into Center City, which would lead to more surface congestion and increased air pollution, etc., etc., not to mention a global image, then, of Philadelphia as a city that has "given its public infrastructure over to hordes of homeless." Do you think the hotel/convention industry would ever buy into this?
And down to Earth we drift.
Maybe the problem is that options are too vast. What do you do with 6 acres of an empty concrete box with only 12 feet of headroom?
Maybe we're thinking about it all wrong. This idea that you can inflict purpose on something maybe it's wrongheaded; maybe the best answer is no answer at all: Allow the concourse to remain as it is, empty and serving as a shelter for the peaceful, tired men and women who need it.
Then perhaps the concourse's role is best for consideration in realms unreal, an exercise of the mind: Fill it with hundreds of tons of twine. Seal all the entrances and fill it with shit. Turn it into a landfill. Enclose it make it a time capsule. A mausoleum. A playpen. A prison. My mind reels.
It's during this downtime when I realize that, simply by writing about the concourse, I'm probably doing a disservice. I look around and see the characters who have showed up for tonight's experiment: There's Andrew, of course, the raving madman who became gentle and timid after he fell asleep; there's a guy named Jerome black, old, dirty who asks me for a lighter, offers me a cigarette and then smokes one using his last match before passing out near the Walnut-Locust station. There's the young blond girl, not likely older than 20, who sleeps by Spruce. There's the old guy in the Wolverines jacket, his friends who sleep sitting up, the two couples. There are the pairs of friends, the men sleeping alone, the codgers in khaki and corduroy, the ones in only socks or only shoes. There are the guys sleeping face down, the guys who snore, the women who collect in a corner by Walnut. There are the ones who toss and turn; the ones who don't move; the ones who do, but noiselessly. These people are here, likely night after night, because this giant expanse represents one of the only places in the city where you can get a decent, warm night's sleep without doting care or interaction with anyone.
In a letter, Ed Speedling, community liaison for the Outreach Coordination Center at Project H.O.M.E., will write me the following:
Many people who live on the streets and who may wander down into the underground areas have serious mental health conditions. Others suffer from the disease of serious addiction. We have, in our city, a current shortage of space in facilities that are equipped to provide the services that these folks need for their conditions. A person with a mental illness (I am not saying all persons with mental illness) may have a fear of shelters a fear that can be caused by a multiplicity of factors, including the fear of authority, of giving out personal information, fear of crowded conditions, fear of other people, fear of being picked on or ridiculed, fear because of a memory of something that happened in a shelter in the past, and so on. A person in an active addiction may not be capable at any particular point in time of making a rational decision; some simply do not want the structure that a shelter requires. Some people wander into the concourse because they are dead tired from a day surviving on the streets with no place to go. Tired and discouraged, they hit the concourse, see a few friendly faces, pick an empty spot and try to get a few hours of sleep before they are awakened. But, let's be clear, if you know something about the overnight cafés we have started in Philly, you know that when offered the opportunity to come into a warm place where they are treated with respect by people who care about them, vulnerable people do come in. We do not need any "unsanctioned shelters." We need more Safe Havens for people with serious mental illnesses. We need many more units of permanent supportive housing, including more units of the Housing First variety where people can have a safe place a home where they can rebuild their lives.
I wonder what I'm doing here. Why I'm disturbing these people. How and why I decided to get here, by the steps under Walnut and Broad streets, at 3:45 a.m. And mostly, how I can leave without waking anyone up.
Then, from around the corner, by the South Penn Square tunnel, I see James the guy who used to bring nun chucks to work approaching. He walks toward me, then stops, sits on the stairs with me. We talk for a while. I ask him when they start forcing these sleeping people to leave. He says SEPTA sweeps the area "for vagrants" around 5, and then around 6 a.m. "But most times, they never get everyone out," he says. "And I don't see why they need to; most of these folks are just sleeping, not bothering anyone."Then he asks me, friendly, but point blank, "What you doin' here, man?"
I pause for a moment. "Looking for a way out."
"Oh, you are?" he says. "Why didn't you say so?"
"I dunno," I say.
"You know, the gate by 11th and Market is open all the time. Fire marshal's rules. You can get in or out there anytime you want."
"No shit," I say. "Behind Staples?"
"Behind Staples," he says. "24 hours a day."
"No shit," I repeat.
"No shit," he smiles. "Now get your ass outta here."
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Idon't leave just yet. SEPTA cops open the gates around 4 a.m. Then James leaves me there. I decide to go above ground and find a lighter for Jerome. I unlock my bike, hop on, take a ride around. Finding a convenience store proves harder than I expect. This early in the morning, Center City is closed; I search for a grocery, anything with portable fire, but find nothing just an open Dunkin' Donuts and attendants milling behind locked doors in hotel lobbies.
At the Marriott, I swipe a USA Today from the baggage carriers out front and stand with it (and my bicycle), reading about Barack Obama's "elitism" and other things: Windows Vista, Grand Theft Auto, "grim news for home-sellers," Kosovo, Congress and the federal shield law. Nothing seems pertinent, though; it feels like the news is taking place on Pluto.
I head back toward Broad. The mood of Philadelphia is not quiet but asleep. Just as I re-approach the concourse's Spruce entrance, however, I hear screaming what sounds like real, pained suffering from an alleyway next to Moravian and Broad. I go see what's up.
Some drunk, turns out nothing more: white dude in a black T-shirt advertising a minor league baseball team. He starts giggling as I draw near.
"I got you!" he says.
I roll my eyes, turn around, away from this fucking asshole, saying nothing, ignoring him, biking toward the concourse. I want to ride my bike down there. So that's what I do descend at Walnut, and bike as quietly as I can, in a loop of the 6-acre concourse.
In a minute, I hear the drunk screaming again. He's followed me underground. But now his screams are less real, more purposely annoying. He's pretty much just yelling AH! AH! AH! very loud, over and over again, as well as something about his "filthy balls" with no other purpose than to wake everyone up. He does this for a while. I don't know what to do.
But no one moves. It's as if this screaming, drunk asshole isn't even there. No movement from the ground. No one wakes up.
No one, that is, except for Andrew. He wakes slowly, gets up without a word, and walks out up the stairs toward Broad Street. I see him touch the gate at the top of the stairs and throw his hands in the air. But this time, he doesn't walk back down, past me, back into the concourse, toward City Hall. This time, he just walks away.