Not even 48 hours since my return to the states, exhausted, boots still covered in mud from the catacombs, I’m making my way underground again. Despite my jet lag, and the persistent headache of life back at home, I have a Thursday morning meeting with Braulio Agnese, managing director of the Dupont Underground. We’re going to go inside a set of tunnels I’ve been trying to access for ages.
It might surprise some District residents to know that the majority of Dupont Circle has a cavernous underbelly. The city once had an elaborate system of streetcar tunnels, passing underneath P Street, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Don’t forget, streetcars were once as important as buses are now to the city. In fact, many of the WMATA buses share route names with the old streetcars. The 42 bus’s route, which runs from Mount Pleasant to Metro Center, is virtually unchanged from the streetcar’s path.
Important as they were, they were also bulky, and caused problems with navigating the city by car. The city cut tunnels to alleviate trolleys passing vehicle and foot traffic on the bustling streets of Northwest D.C. There is a whole network of service passageways, 15-foot ceilings, and ramps that would have led directly into the street. Fifty-some years later, it’s sealed off to the world above, and there’s virtually nothing down there.
Braulio would like to fix that. The Dupont Underground is an initiative of several creative-minded and forward-thinking individuals who are looking to convert the now empty tunnels into something much more practical. As Braulio and I grab flashlights, and walk out into the dark of the tunnels beneath Connecticut, he tells me the big plans for the space. He’s thinking some kind of underground urban agriculture would do well here. Japan’s already got something like it, why not D.C.?
It’s difficult to say how the city forgot about the tunnels beneath Dupont. Shortly after the streetcars stopped running, the city shut off the entrances and exits. There were some poor attempts at making use of the space afterward, including an underground food court, complete with stalls shaped like streetcars, and streetcar-stencilled trays. These ideas failed pretty quickly, and pretty spectacularly from what Braulio tells me.
No working elevators meant the food court employees would have to carry in orders by hand, and carry out trash by hand, every day. In addition to the back-breaking work, all of the food court stalls were lined up in a tunnel, against one wall. This meant that the first three or four stalls would get all the attention, while the ones toward the back would go quietly ignored. One by one, the stalls started to fail. The city finally closed it up again only a couple years after opening.
During the years between the food court’s closure and Dupont Underground’s emergence, the tunnels were mainly used by the homeless. Blankets from shelters now crowd the corners of a handful of back rooms. Empty bottles, bags full of clothes, forgotten newspapers are all evidence that people once indeed lived down here. The tunnels were also plundered for valuables– a pile of stripped wire reveals that copper thieves at one point gained access, and made off with anything worth selling.
The basic problem with the space, overall, is that for something to work in the tunnels beneath Dupont, there needs to be a lot of vision, and a lot of money. The space needs massive improvements on ventilation, electricity, plumbing, and virtually everything that is required to run a public space.
Braulio and hist cohorts have no shortage of ideas. In addition to the underground farming idea, the group has been courting a heap of concepts that will not only make good use of the space, but also generate the amount of revenue needed to maintain the tunnels. An underground Crossfit gym comes to mind. Nothing’s final, of course. These are all just ideas.
In the meantime, during these planning stages, the tunnels are surprisingly quiet. Two solid feet of concrete on any side tends to block out most of the extraneous noises and vibrations from the street. They are tunnels full of potential, full of ideas of what could be. The city is waiting.