September 8, 2012, Washington, DC: Ascending into the light from the Dupont Circle Metro station takes time. The escalator keeps going and going, rising out of the earth in the middle of the city. What I didn’t know until recently is that it carries Metro riders up past a huge piece of prime and vacant real estate, a former underground trolley station wedged between the circle at street level and the Metro station far below. I know this comes as old news to some of you, but my fascination with the cavernous space know as the Dupont Underground is just beginning. It’s another one of these pieces of Washington history that makes me wonder what the heck I was doing for the first six years I lived here, oblivious to knowledge about my local surroundings.
Thankfully I’ve been playing catch-up, and the Dupont Underground is one of those nearby spaces that’s captivated me. I haven’t yet taken a tour, hopefully soon, but I’ve been learning more about the efforts to transform this subterranean urban space. To think that 75,000 square feet in the heart of Dupont Circle sit there empty! There are so many possibilities.
On Friday night, I attended a fundraiser for the Dupont Underground at Eastern Market — an effort to bolster support for one historic city space while gathered in another — to learn more about the prospects.
My interest in the Dupont Underground has ballooned since I learned about it last year due to what I’ve seen in other North American cities during recent travels. I spent much of the last year returning to my former hometowns, studying their features and considering what makes them livable. In doing so, I got a first-hand glimpse of the well-used tunnel networks beneath both Montreal and Toronto, and grew increasingly interested in places like New York’s High Line, where a group of city residents raised funds to transform an old urban transit route into something new. The experiences have bolstered my interest in making use of the Dupont Underground. Since the city’s trolleys stopped running in the 1960s, the Dupont Underground was used as a fallout shelter until its closure in 1975 and reopened briefly as a food court in 1995, but has often sat empty in the center of Washington.
I suppose it’s not the first time I’ve considered the space beneath the surface: As a student at Columbia University, I heard legends of the school’s tunnels, remnants of the days they ran beneath an old asylum and later shuttled materials during the Manhattan Project. But envisioning underground space as an extension of city life at street level was not on my radar. Even upon arriving in Montreal last winter, I was initially disinterested in the underground network, doubtful I’d learn anything about the pulse of the city by spending time beneath its surface.
Eventually, I’d see how Canadians make use of their underground real estate in ways I’d never before considered. Under the streets of Montreal and Toronto, daily routines carry on: People shop for groceries, run errands, go to the office, and escape the snow and rain by walking miles beneath the city. The space underground is an authentic extension of city culture. I now realize that when Place Ville Marie, the heart of Montreal’s underground city, was designed in the early 60s by architects Henry N. Cobb and I.M. Pei, it was notable because nearly half of the space and half of their vision was stashed below the surface. I now understand why my parents encouraged me to check out the underground space while exploring these cities: Because they were among those making use of these new connections throughout the city just as the underground networks were gaining traction in the mid-1970s.
Can the true life and culture of a city exist beneath its surface? And can it be just as authentic below as it is above? Like those who’ve developed underground spaces elsewhere around the world, the Arts Coalition for the Dupont Underground thinks it’s possible in Washington. The coalition envisions the former trolley station as a future focal point for DC’s arts and design community. They’re offering tours and leaving those who’ve visited imagining new possibilities as they ascend into the sunlight.
Related Posts on Neighborhood Nomads:
- The Bottom Line on the High Line (March 31, 2012)
- Documenting Hometown History (March 3, 2012)
- Historic Hubs: San Francisco’s Ferry Building & DC’s Eastern Market (Feb. 24, 2012)
- Creative Collisions in the City (June 13, 2012)
- History at The Hill Center (March 18, 2012)
- The City That Never Was (December 11, 2011)