Today marks the one year anniversary of that legendary and highly illegal Summer Solstice party that was thrown deep in an abandoned subway station. The clandestine event was impressively pulled off by Jeff Stark—the underground impresario known for producing unauthorized site-specific theatrical performances in moving subway cars and abandoned factories—and N.D. Austin. Here's how it went:
At a quarter to midnight on Friday I spotted the man with a wire coming out of his ear and a giant flower on his lapel. He was standing outside a DUMBO subway station, wearing a suit and holding a clipboard just as I'd been promised. I approached nonchalantly, trying to play it cool in that overcompensating manner favored by shady characters. He was telling a small group of ten or so strangers to walk to a nearby pedestrian plaza and await further instructions. "Before We Were Ghosts" had begun.
A few weeks ago I received an intriguing email from Jeff Stark, the underground impresario known for producing unauthorized site-specific theatrical performances in moving subway cars and abandoned factories. (His weekly events newsletter is also indispensable.) This time Stark was working on another night of illegal mischief coinciding with the Summer Solstice, and he wanted to know if I'd like to cover it. "It's risky," he warned.
No details were provided aside from a subsequent email advising me that "this is an event with some legal and physical risks." (When I emailed Jake and Jen about the assignment, Jake replied, "You should probably write your name and SS# on your johnson so they can identify you at the morgue.") A few days before the big night, I was asked to complete an online questionnaire, which revealed that we'd be illegally entering a space dubbed the "Echo Vault, a temporary memory chamber dedicated to sonic experimentation and uncontrolled dance." I was told to bring a candle, a flashlight, and $20 "for the performers." Other instructions from the "Echo Vault staff":
To remind you, this is an event with some legal and physical risks. If you are uncomfortable with these risks you should not attend. Really. Once the event begins you cannot leave for two hours. Also, there are no bathrooms.
On Friday, please follow the instructions of all staff. You will be able to identify staff by the flowers on their lapels. When a staff member tells you to do something, even if it is weird or inconvenient, do it, do it, do it.
This is a private event. Cameras are not allowed. Cell phones must be turned off. Please do not blog or post about the event or its location before or after the event. There will be professional photographers whose images will be available afterward.
This event involves a significant amount of walking outdoors. Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for cooler weather. Bring a candle. Bring a flashlight (a real one, not your phone). Bring a drink. Do not bring bulky bags or anything you have to carry. Remember: ladders.
As the clock struck midnight on the "longest day of the year," I turned a corner into the Brooklyn pedestrian plaza and realized we were never going to get away with this. What appeared to be a crowd of 200 people had massed just around the corner from a group of traffic cops, near two prime terrorist targets that are supposedly closely watched 24/7 by vigilant officials. There's a law in NYC prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people without a permit; it's selectively enforced, but this was just the sort of low hanging fruit you'd expect the NYPD to get excited about. (Remember Pandamonium?)
After a nerve-wracking quarter hour, we started walking. The people in charge—all with the same Agent Smith wires curling out of their ears and lapel mics—asked us to proceed two abreast and to avoid clumping up. The unspeakably spectacular Supermoon was just beginning to reach fruition, and the weather was sublime for a midnight walk. I drifted toward the back of the group until I was bringing up the rear with one of the Agents.
Austin and Stark have asked me to keep certain details about the location secret, so I'll just say that after about a half hour of walking, I noticed that the long line of people ahead of me had disappeared. About twenty people remained, and then I understood that they were dropping down into a hole in the sidewalk. The Agents stood quietly around a hatch, urging participants to quickly scramble down a ladder into the darkness.
To be clear, this was not a desolate area, and as I reached the hatch, a man and a woman approached from the opposite direction, holding hands and gazing with disbelief as the last of us were willingly swallowed up by the city. I tried to smile normally at them as I went down the ladder, followed by the rest of the Echo Vault staff. The hatch creaked shut behind us, and there was silence, aside from the chatter of the Agents communicating over their lapel mics.
Candles lined a staircase that wound down several flights, but they didn't do much good, so the flashlight was crucial. Two thirds of the way down a young woman stumbled past me, hurrying up the stairs without a flashlight, and I turned to shine some light on the steps for her. "How do I get out?" she nervously asked. I followed her back up to the hatch, where some Agents did their best to calm her down, but firmly reminded her that no one would be allowed to leave until the end. She seemed a little upset, but I saw her later and it seemed that she'd happily embraced the Stockholm syndrome.
A few flights down, the staircase opened up into a series of vast interconnected chambers tagged with graffiti. "Feel free to explore," one cheerful Agent told me as he rushed past on some official Echo Vault business. The rooms overlooked the so-called Vault, a cavernous space at least five or six stories high, lavishly decorated with graffiti and, at the far end, an elevated level that resembled a concert stage. On it, a drum kit.
I proceeded down two more flights of stairs and emerged on the ground floor of the ol' Echo Vault, where the air was considerably cooler. Stark stood alone in the middle, wearing a suit and a straw stingy-brim fedora, fielding a stream of questions crackling through his little ear piece and looking cool as a cucumber in a bowl of hot sauce. He told me there were 150 "guests" down there, plus another 40 or so "whose purpose would soon become apparent." Then he yelled up to a woman who was edging perilously close to a high ledge that opened up from one of the upper floors, warning her about the drop. "If anyone's got candles, that edge would be a good place to put them!"
I lit my candle and placed it on the edge of the "stage," per Stark's instructions, and wandered around some more. Down another level there was an abandoned (or never-used) subway trackbed, minus the tracks. What would have been two subway tracks extended in either direction as far as I could see, and after finding the stairs, I tucked my pants into my socks as a precaution and clambered down. Surprisingly, I didn't see a single rat the entire night.
Shining my torch in one direction I could see the trackbed terminate in a high cement wall, but in the other direction it curved tantalizingly out of sight. It was cool and damp down there, and as I made my way through some muck toward the bend, I started thinking about what Stark and Austin had decided to call this experience: "Before We Were Ghosts." Shadowy figures darted past me in and out of the darkness, and it occurred to me that Stark and Austin and their friends were alchemists brewing up an antidote to the ever-increasing homogenization of New York City. They gave their concoction an evocative but fitting title. Seven stories under the city, we were doing whatever the opposite of "haunting" is... it felt like an urban exorcism disguised as a dance party.
In the distance, beyond the bend in the trackbed, a weird chanting began to ripple out and echo through the space. I saw the glow of candles, and as I approached I saw that everyone had been drawn to the end of the line. On what would have been part of a subway platform, a few people were leading the group in some sort of wild incantation. By the time I got there it reached a euphoric crescendo, and one of the performers overlooking the crowd yelled something like, "Bring your candles to the Echo Vault!"
By the time I drifted back to the vault with the others, a woman on "stage" (Jessica Delfino) was singing a hypnotic a cappella ballad about New York. Then a drummer, Joel Saladino, joined her, bashing away at the kit in a series of increasingly ferocious drum solos.
I climbed the stairs up another two stories and carefully tiptoed across one of the crossbeams extending the width of the Vault, trying not to think about how I'd probably break an ankle or worse if I fell. The view from back there was incredible, and when the stage at the opposite end filled with the Extra Action Marching Band, I could see the party was really getting started. It was like the Zion dance party in Matrix Reloaded, but with fewer douchebags. The music was thunderous and suddenly the mood was exultant—everyone danced, because that was the only way to deal with the inexplicable joy that was exploding down there.
If we'd gotten caught, the organizers would no doubt have faced some serious criminal charges. But if it was up to me, I'd give them the keys to the city for raising such an audacious middle finger to the notion that New York City's underground is dead and gone.
What Stark and Austin and the musicians managed to create, almost miraculously, was a Temporary Autonomous Zone to remind us that this is still a city worth living in, despite the creeping feeling that New York's being bled dry by an ever-expanding corporate vampire real estate army. Looking back at Friday night, I keep remembering the liner notes for that Operation Ivy compilation that was burned into my brain as a teenager:
Music is an indirect force for change because it provides an anchor against human tragedy. In this sense, it works toward a reconciled world. It can also be the direct experience of change. At certain points during some shows, the reconciled world is already here, at least in that second, at that place. ... Those seconds reveal that the momentum that drives a subculture is more important then any particular band. The momentum is made of all the people who stay interested, and keep their sense of urgency and hope.
Two hours later, when the sweat-soaked band filtered back to some dark corner of the space on a wave of raucous cheering, Kae Burke from the House of Yes materialized up at the candle-lit edge that Stark had warned us about earlier. She explained that our time in the Vault had come to an end, and that we should gather in a line, two abreast, along the staircase leading up to the hatch. Once we were all in place, we would silently scramble up the ladder and disappear.
"When you get to the top of the ladder, it's really important that you go far, far away," Burke told us, and by way of emphasis, got everyone to repeat after her. "Where will we go after we climb the ladder?" she asked. "Far, far away," 200 people chanted in unison. "Where?" "FAR, FAR AWAY!"
I hung back as everyone queued up and saw Stark again, rushing around with a garbage bag, blowing out candles and gathering any trash left behind (there wasn't much). "I can't believe you pulled this off," I told him. "We're not out of here yet," he warned. But I already considered the job a success, because no "authorities" were forcing us to leave. We did what we came to do, and even if I was tackled by the NYPD at the top of the ladder it still would have been worth it.
The long line of guests fell silent as word filtered down that it was go time, and the hatch popped open. I was way in the back, with only Stark and a couple others behind me, and when I finally reached the ladder I glanced back one more time into the darkness. Only a few candles flickered. "Go go go," someone whispered and I hustled up and out. I walked away without looking back, feeling like we'd just gotten away with an elaborate bank robbery. But instead of bags of loot, we stole some of the city's soul back from one of its forbidden vaults.