The Strange (and Sad) Life of Bob Diamond
Some say Robert Diamond is a genius; others say he’s paranoid; all agree he has not mastered the art of social fakery.
But he played by the rules (that constantly changed) and in the end he lost everything. He was screwed.
And so were New Yorkers who lost Bob Diamond, a true Gotham original.
In 1980 Diamond, a self-styled urban archeologist and Brooklyn’s own Indy Jones, discovered a long-forgotten 19th Century train tunnel beneath Atlantic Avenue, between Columbia Street and Boerum Place, that was built by the Long Island Rail Road in 1844 and sealed off in 1861. It was the first rail link between New York and Boston and according to the Guinness World Records the oldest subway on the planet.
Despite endless bureaucratic roadblocks Diamond spent more than a year poring over archival maps and articles and then battling municipal powers to finally gain entrance into a tunnel the authorities said didn’t exist, and if it did it surely wasn’t where he said it would be.
For almost 30 years the rotund 55-year-old Brooklyn native who has a deadpan style and speaks in a drone gave tours of the cavernous tunnel, a surreal experience if ever there was one. When I attended the tour, shortly before the tunnel was shuttered by the city in 2010, the line for the tour wound around the block.
Clad in sneakers and flashlights in hand, one by one we inched down a vertical ladder beneath a four-and-a-half by three-and-a-half foot rectangle on Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. While it took a few moments to acclimate to the dim light and pervasive creepiness, it was a fascinating and entertaining afternoon as we cautiously moved through the half-mile-long stony tunnel that was approximately 21 feet wide and 17 feet high.
Part scholar, part standup comic, and terrific storyteller, Diamond evoked the corrupt politicians and industrial barons of the 19th Century and brought to life the tunnel’s folklore: it was home to pirates in the 1800s, bootleggers during prohibition, German spies in World War II, and five-foot rats in the present.
Diamond also said a 19th century wood-burning steam locomotive lay behind the sealed tunnel wall near Hicks Street and Atlantic Avenue and speculated that missing pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary were hidden there as well. (The diary now housed at Ford’s Theater is indeed missing many pages and there’s no shortage of theorizing as to where they may be and what they may contain).
National Geographic (NATGEO) got into the picture and for awhile it looked like a documentary was in the works. But then the New York Fire Department (FDNY) sealed off the tunnel, alleging that the entire operation was unsafe, despite the fact that Diamond had been running the tours uneventfully for 30 years. Diamond was never formally charged with anything, but unceremoniously stripped of his livelihood and identity.
It was a devastating blow for Diamond and not the first. Founder of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (BHRA) — a non-profit educational (501c3) organization, dedicated to creating a light rail system in the outer boroughs — he boasts many ideas on how to enhance New York City’s transportation system and is a recognized expert in the field.
With City Planning Commission approval and $300,000 in federal grants in the mid-’90s he purchased 15 vintage street cars and installed 1,500 feet of tracks in Red Hook before it all fell apart in 2003 when the city Department of Transportation (DOT) scrapped the plan and ripped up the tracks, once again without issuing any formal explanation. All but one of the street cars has been destroyed and Diamond has received no compensation. BHRA is now wholly self-supporting and nobody—three staffers, one intern–earns a dime. Without office space BHRA conducts its business in coffee shops and diners in Brooklyn and Queens.
Diamond is embroiled in a $135 million lawsuit with the city for loss of property and income. It’s a complicated, protracted case centering on property rights and plain old due process, such as the city’s right to cancel a contract with an individual or business entity without explanation, even in revocable consent agreements (assuming they were legally applicable to begin with). What rules and protocols govern the FDNY when it shutters an operation as opposed to, say, DOT? It’s been a bureaucratic black hole for Diamond, but even among legal pundits the topics are open to debate. The lawsuit was initially dismissed and Diamond’s lawyer is appealing.
If Diamond wins the appeal and is allowed to conduct his tours again, he suspects he will be charged with making huge repairs that will cost boatloads of money, which he no longer has.
More to the point, “I was willing to do those repairs years ago, but I was turned down,” he says. “They just wanted me out. Ten months before I was thrown out I had to have a safety inspection and the Department of Transportation signed off on it. Since they couldn’t turn around and say it was unsafe they had the Fire Department do it.”
DOT and FDNY refused to comment because of ongoing litigation, though an FDNY spokesperson noted in an email: “The tunnel was closed by the FDNY for fire and life safety reasons.”
Says Diamond’s attorney Gabriel Salem:
The City is talking out of both sides of its mouth. The tunnel wasn’t ‘closed by FDNY.’ The position the City took in the lawsuit was that DOT, not FDNY, shut it down. Under law, the FDNY has no power to shut anything down without a hearing and that never happened here. Words like ‘life safety’ are dropped to give an air of legitimacy, but after 30 years of operation with a perfect safety record what actual legal justification can they possibly have? This case was never about safety. It’s about civil rights and abuse of power. Where was the due process?
More than 1,200 New Yorkers and out-of-towners agree and have signed an online petition at the BHRA website to see the tunnel tours restored with Diamond at the helm.
I meet with Diamond in a Connecticut Muffin in Kensington, his cross-cultural Brooklyn neighborhood, beginning to undergo gentrification that nonetheless brings to mind an earlier era with its one-story store fronts, six-story brick apartment buildings, and detached columned homes that were at one time mansions.
Disheveled and baggy-eyed, Diamond admits he can’t sleep and when he falls asleep has nightmares. “Only they’re not really nightmares,” he says. “They’re just repeated images of the experiences I’ve had.”
Diamond suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), starts each day with Prozac, has gained 150 pounds and lost a mouthful of teeth (“I’m fat and toothless,” he says). He survives on SSI and lives in his late mother’s Flatbush apartment with a girlfriend, whom he says has schizophrenic episodes and disappears from time to time.
Diamond evokes a defeated child-man even as he displays a sly sense of humor and an uncanny mind that accumulates and retains an array of information on history, science, finance, and especially chicanery of all types. He is a conspiracy theorist, though he is not political and does not vote. “It’s a shame there aren’t any elected officials with a pulse,” he says.
He also believes his own lack of formal credentials have rendered him particularly vulnerable. He is an impassioned hobbyist and likens himself to Heinrich Schliemann who found ancient Troy or Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon who dug up the King Tut tomb in the 1920s.
“Someday someone is going to dig on the Temple Mount and they’re going to find something and it’s going to be an amateur archeologist who makes the discovery,” he says as he methodically rips open each of his 20 packets of sugar, dumping their contents into his tall cup of black coffee and taking a disgusted sip.
It tastes like there’s gristle in it. I liked this place better when it was The Independent Democrats of Flatbush and the club house for Mel Miller who was the Assembly Speaker and then lost his seat when he was convicted of a felony. Hey, this is Brooklyn.
But in those days you could just drop by and talk to someone. One day my mother went in and said, ‘my son found a tunnel, blah, blah, blah, could you help him with the city?’ It was ‘yeah, send him over.’ And they called [Brooklyn borough president] Howard Golden and I got to see him.
Today, you can’t get through to anybody. I tried six times on De Blasio’s twitter account along with his City Hall email. Not a peep. I know if I could have ten minutes with him I could convince him to open the tunnel and start the light rail in Brooklyn. But there’s no access. It’s like the Kremlin under Stalin.
Diamond admits he’s still at loose ends since the death of his mother Elsa in 2008. A licensed cosmetologist, who had her sights set on an acting career, she was the central figure in his life and they had a stereotypically close Jewish mother-son relationship, though she often blamed him for getting in the way of her show-biz aspirations . “‘I couldha been a contendah,’” Diamond intones.
“But, she was very good at summing up situations quickly. She’d say ‘This is how you’re getting screwed.’ But she wouldn’t know how to fix it.” Still, he continues to speak to her—more precisely her ashes in an urn at home–seeking her advice. “I ask her, ‘what am I supposed to do now? How do I get out of this one?’”
Diamond’s background is a mixed New York bag, a little Damon Runyon, a little Saul Bellow. His Polish-born Jewish maternal grandmother, who fled to America to escape her molesting stepfather, was married to a Jew, had three daughters, though decades later she claimed that two of them, including her youngest Elsa, were the offspring of an affair she had with an Irish-American cop.
Likewise, Elsa was originally married to a Jew, but ultimately left him for a small-time Italian-American gambler, who was Bob’s father. Says Diamond:
He’d come and go. He’d come around and we’d all go to Big Daddy’s in Coney Island. Then he and my mother would get into a big fight and he’d disappear. He’d have drunken rages and smash furniture and throw things into the wall, including me.
He left the house for good when I was in third grade and showed up briefly when I got attention for the tours. That’s when I found out I had two half sisters, both married to gangsters. One of the husbands wouldn’t give me his last name, only wanted to be known as ‘George George.’ My other brother-in-law offered me a high-paying job in waste management and said I wouldn’t have to come to work. I also found out my father was distantly related to Anastasia who headed Murder Inc and was assassinated in a barber chair. That was a famous scene in ‘The Godfather.’ Hey, you can’t make this stuff up.
Diamond was every bit the latchkey kid in an era when it was not commonplace and he was an outsider on many fronts. He was ostracized by the Jewish kids for not going to Hebrew school while the Christians wondered aloud why they never saw him in church.
Diamond identifies as a Jew and believes in God.
“If you’ve seen a sun rise, how can you not believe in God?” he asks rhetorically. “As for Jesus…My aunt used to say, ‘There probably was a Rabbi named Jesus, but we don’t believe he’s God.’ That’s what we don’t know. Maybe if you’re so good and so righteous you become God. Somebody’s got to do it. Not that I know why anyone would want to.”
Diamond’s best friend and BHRA president Gregory “Bullfighter” Castillo struts in to join us before focusing his attention on Diamond’s untouched lox and bagel sandwich. He seats himself and starts eating it as Diamond glances at his disappearing sandwich without expression. Though Castillo sports a cap worn backwards and a sleeveless sweatshirt revealing arms awash in tattoos from wrist to shoulders, his tough street style is oddly deceptive. He is not only Diamond’s champion, but also protector. At the tunnel tours, he was a constant and slightly intimidating presence keeping watch, making sure nothing went awry.
In person he listens carefully to Diamond’s comments, interrupting him with a gentle, reassuring pat on the arm, “Bob, Bob, let me,” when he feels Diamond is getting agitated or not responding as clearly as he should to my questions.
Castillo and Diamond have been pals since their days at Midwood High School. “Bob was nerdy and nervous, but some kind of genius,” recalls Castillo. “In 12th grade Bob won an alternative energy sources competition for designing a solar cell satellite that converts solar cells into electricity, which could [in theory] run three cities.”
Castillo says that he too was a science wiz (in addition to being an epic-poet and sculptor) and both men were “informally involved, though at the highest civilian level, with the FBI and/or NSA [National Security Agency].”
“Before you think Greg and I are crazy and having shared delusions–” Diamond mutters as Castillo finishes Diamond’s sentence “–It’s not unusual for high achieving math and science students to be recruited. It’s intellectual feudalism.”
Discovering the Atlantic Ave. Tunnel was almost a fluke spawned in the wake of a crisis. Diamond had received a scholarship to Pratt as an engineering student, but because the school had urged him to apply for a Kodak scholarship—and he nailed it—in his sophomore year he lost his Pratt monies and found himself slapped with a huge bill that he could not pay. As he understood it he’d have to work for Kodak for eight years before returning to school.
Depressed and confused, Diamond came home and turned on a radio show where G.J.A. O’Toole’s latest thriller “The Cosgrove Report,” was being discussed. The novel explored the idea that following President Lincoln’s assassination, John Wilkes Booth escaped to Europe, but before he left, he hid pages of his diary in a metal box near a steam locomotive in a long forgotten Brooklyn tunnel. The missing pages reveal an assassination plot conspiracy between Southern confederates and supporters in New York.
Initially, Diamond was far more intrigued by the prospect of a hidden tunnel and steam locomotive than any diary and contacted O’Toole who, according to Diamond, pretended to have no idea what tunnel he was talking about, insisting the book was a work of fiction. Diamond did not buy that for a minute, especially since O’Toole had previously served as a CIA agent and Diamond suspected his fictions were fronts for the truth.
The Search Begins
Diamond headed to the map department in the main library at 42nd Street and spent the next seven months studying dozens of old Brooklyn maps before coming across an 1845 map showing train tracks emerging from the New York Harbor waterfront at Atlantic Avenue and Columbia Street, then disappearing and reappearing at Boerum and Atlantic Avenue.
Other maps confirmed his initial finding, and then after 1861 the tunnel was no longer appearing on the maps. More research led to a 1911 story in the Brooklyn Eagle reporting that Brooklyn had the world’s oldest subway that no one had been able to find, though many had tried, including a team organized by the paper.
Undaunted, Diamond sought out Howard Golden’s head engineer, “who was reading the racing form when I arrived,” says Diamond matter-of-factly. “When I asked for the 1868 Nassau Water Commissioner’s map, showing cross-sections of the tunnel, he said, ‘You’re another one looking for the tunnel. I looked for it. It doesn’t exist.’ ”
Finally the head engineer put down his racing form, disappeared into another room to retrieve a huge trunk, stuffed with ancient materials, including blueprints of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel dating back to the 19th Century.
Diamond landed an appointment with Golden who found the idea of a hidden Brooklyn tunnel fascinating and asked the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to remove the manhole lid at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street.
“But when they lifted it up, it looked like any other manhole and didn’t go anywhere,” recalls Diamond who dropped down into the hole. “It was dark and only 18 inches high, but I was thin back then and with the help of a hand-held electric lantern, I crawled on the dirt floor for about six feet until I saw an arched ceiling. There it was.”
The DEP didn’t want to continue with the project, arguing there were five-foot rats and poisoned gas in the tunnel, none of which was true, says Diamond. He then contacted Alan L. Smith, assistant vice president at the Brooklyn Union Gas Company (now called National Grid), whom he knew from his high school days when Smith was in charge of the alternative energy science competition.
Smith was willing to help Diamond, but insisted he find professional archeologists who would authenticate the project as proof of validity to the stockholders. Diamond checked out the Yellow Pages where he came across Professional Archeologists of New York City (PANYC) whom he called, and now views as the most ill-fated call of his life. At the time, however, the PANYC team seemed enthusiastic, he says.
The tunnel exploration was set for a morning in August 1981 and all agreed to meet at the manhole at 9AM. To rev himself up for his adventure, the night before Diamond went to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but in the middle of the night he was abruptly awakened by his frantic mother.
“ ‘Get up,’ she was shouting at me. ‘Why? It’s five in the morning?’ ” Diamond says. “She said, ‘You have to go down there now. Something stinks. It’s all been too easy.’ ”
He got dressed and just as the sky was beginning to lighten, boarded the D train (now Q) at Cortelyou Road and arrived at the manhole at 7AM to discover the PANYC team hanging around as the gas company engineers were sealing the manhole shut.
When Diamond asked what was happening, the engineer told him the PANYC team had written to the gas company chairman arguing they didn’t need a stupid kid. “But when they got into the manhole and saw the 18-inch space, they were too scared to continue and told the engineers to weld shut the manhole.”
Diamond demanded that the engineer let him into the manhole and while four PANYC members stood on the street, Diamond lowered himself into it with air tank, gas mask and walkie-talkie.
I had a belt around me like a mountain climber and the engineer told me, ‘You got five minutes.’ So, I went down into the 18-inch space that must have been a hundred degrees and crawled 70 feet across sharp pebbles to the closed wall. I said to myself, ‘What did Indiana Jones do when he couldn’t find his way into the opening where the ark was?’ He dug by hand and that’s what I did, digging into a pile of dirt, three feet thick. I got through it and saw a door bolted into a concrete wall and cemented over with cobblestones and brick. I pulled out the walkie-talkie, but I couldn’t speak because I was laughing so hard. I found it. These experts couldn’t find anything.
A few moments later he was joined by several engineers and the PANYC team, who crawled their way in, and with crowbars in hand, broke off the stones from the doorway, pushing the door open.
“We felt a rush of cold air though it was pitch black,” says Diamond. “You couldn’t see a damn thing. It was just like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ except if we shined a light behind the door, we could see a 15-foot drop and on the floor a big wooden plank with nails sticking out. So, we couldn’t just jump in.”
The gas company engineers were ready to call it quits because they did not have a sufficiently tall ladder. But Diamond insisted he be allowed to climb out of the manhole and go to Bruno’s, a local hardware store, to purchase a chain ladder.
“‘You got $20? Give me $20,’” he enjoys re-playing the moment. “They give me $20 and I go up and get the ladder. It didn’t occur to anyone else to buy a chain ladder.”
Triumphant with his purchase, he descended yet again and set the chain ladder in place and the entire party slowly made its way into the tunnel.
“It was devoid of sound, but I remember the earth floor smelt a little bit like a forest,” says Diamond. “As soon as we got in, the four people from PANYC were huddling in a corner, talking, and excluding me.”
Still, Diamond generated press coverage and, more important, Golden and Smith, who were close allies, enthusiastically endorsed the idea that the tunnel should be open to the public and that Diamond conduct tours. They saw it as a great tourist attraction that would boost the local economy in an era when the neighborhood was largely graffiti-covered, boarded-up store fronts, Diamond says. Golden also envisioned the possibilities of establishing a light rail that could run through the tunnel on its trip from the Long Island Railroad to DUMBO, connecting to a ferry that would travel to the South Street Seaport.
At the same time PANYC and the Landmarks Commission were threatening to sue anyone who opened the tunnel, “alleging the tunnel was being destroyed by a crazy kid who did not have the right permits,” Diamond says. “Who the heck are they to arbitrarily decide if someone has the right permits or not? Do you see how absurd this is? Gonifs!”
In response to my request for an interview PANYC chair Lynn Rakos wrote in an email:
I am sorry but following Mr. Diamond’s attorney subpoenaing me for documents related to Atlantic Avenue Tunnel project which I was working on as part of a team for the National Geographic Society and then Mr. Diamond posting the documents I provided under subpoena on his ‘Brooklyn Historic Railway Association’ website I want nothing to do with him or any story related to him.
A Trolley Ride
For close to a year Diamond was frozen out of the tunnel, though he managed to book an invitation to appear on WNYC’s Marty Wayne-hosted show where he recounted his experiences, noting his desire to open the tunnel and see it used as part of a modern streetcar line, that would employ old-fashioned trolleys, Diamond says. “Marty said, ‘that sounds good, but where do you think you’d get trolleys? They’re hard to come by.’ I said, ‘Tunnels are even harder to come by.’
Thanks to his radio interview a Staten Islander who owned a fully restored 1897 trolley offered it to Diamond if he could house it. Diamond also received an enthusiastic call from John Herzog, chair of the brokerage firm Herzog Heine Geduld, who said, “ ‘Well, young man, you need money and important people on your side and I can help with both,’ ” Diamond says.
Herzog arranged for Diamond to meet with Jack Lusk who was Deputy Counsel and Special Advisor to Mayor Ed Koch on Transportation and Environmental issues, and Lusk contacted David Walentas (of Two Trees Management Company in DUMBO), who offered Diamond space for the trolley at 88th Water Street.
When Diamond noticed barely camouflaged freight train tracks in the streets around the property Lusk asked him to dig it up to see what lay beneath. Diamond pried away the asphalt, exposing the track and the original cobble-stone street and within short order, Diamond’s trolley ride was inaugurated in DUMBO, accompanied by a festive marching band clad in 19th Century costumes and Keystone cops running amok.
Entertainment value aside, Diamond’s talents were taken seriously and he was invited to meet with several major players who were promoting the idea of a light rail on 42nd Street in Manhattan, but had been unable to get their plans approved by the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR) because their plan required power plants that were large and polluting, Diamond says.
But he had a plan in place—based on his winning high-school science project–that was compact, clean, and had no impact on the environment. In fact, he continues, his project was the only operation of its kind in the city to receive City Planning Commission approval from the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and City Environmental Quality Review (CEQR), an extremely difficult four-year bureaucratic process.
Ultimately Diamond and his team were relocated to Red Hook to set up shop on a no-man’s land belonging to Greg O’Connell, who later built Fairway on the waterfront property. At that point Diamond bought three more streetcars from the Transit Authority in Boston, and he was establishing an electric light rail system that had patentable applications, he recalls.
This was a happy time for Diamond who, with the help of Lusk, had also landed a franchise application for his tunnel tours and a clean bill of health from an engineering company asserting that the tunnel was safe.
“The PANYC-Landmark people never sued us and for awhile they were out of the picture,” Diamond says.
And, his tours were attracting as many as 800 people a day. He charged $10 a pop and on a good day could roll up to $6,000 or $7,000. “Most of the money went into further research of the tunnel,” he says. “It was a non-profit, educational and cultural business. We were not in it to make money, just to keep it going.”
A 19th Century Locomotive
Diamond’s research focused on what he believes is a fully intact 19th century locomotive behind the tunnel wall. He faced plenty of skeptics but says his views were vindicated when Brinkerhoff Environmental Services scanning Atlantic Avenue from street level and utilizing a Cesium Vapor Magnetometer was able to discern a highly magnetic 20-foot object exactly where Diamond said it would be.
Matthew Powers, director of geophysical services for the company, wrote in an email:
It is conceivable that the suspect locomotive is located between the middle and south sides of Atlantic Avenue and a separate smaller anomaly is located on the northern side of Atlantic Avenue. Based upon Brinkerhoff’s interpretation of the geophysical data, there is no question that something(s) metallic is buried under Atlantic Avenue. It’s just a matter of what and in what orientation.
Diamond has little doubt that it’s a train dating back to the mid-19th Century, “because when the tunnel was sealed in 1861, nothing except a locomotive would have utilized that much metal,” he contends. “The locomotive was probably used to pull dirt from one end of the tunnel to the other to fill it up and then when it broke down it was simply buried there.”
As for the missing pages in the John Wilkes Booth diary, Diamond says during the Civil War years the actor was frequently in the neighborhood, allegedly to perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But according to the Brooklyn Eagle he was repeatedly playing to empty houses; and Diamond speculates he was not there to act at all, but rather used the performances as a pretext to meet with New York-based Southern supporters who subsidized the cotton industry in the south and had gathered to discuss battle plans.
Almost every time there was a major battle in the south, John Wilkes Booth was in New York ten days before. Even more interesting, the tunnel was filled up and shut down in 1861, but two weeks before Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, city records listing expenditures show that a contractor was paid $25 to open the back end of the tunnel. I can’t help wondering why.
Diamond’s conclusions are circumstantial at best, but in 1991 he received a DOT permit to open up the street at Atlantic Avenue between Hicks and Columbia, just behind the wall. A DOT engineer brought him together with a construction company and the work began. Two 10-foot holes, approximately four feet wide, had already been completed, “when some guy from DOT’s Highway Quality Assurance shows up and says, ‘You and your contractor have 10 minutes to get out,’” says Diamond. “ ‘And if you don’t you’ll be arrested.’ We only needed to dig one more hole to lift a piece of the street to see what was inside. They didn’t give a damn about our permit.”
It was only going to get worse.
The Red Hook Effort
Red Hook is a stunningly incongruous community filled with renovated Civil War Warehouses sheltering Fairway, chic art galleries, and honky-tonk eateries serving tourists, locals and punk-Goth hipsters who evoke East Village runaways in the ’80s. Perched on a strip of land at the far end of Van Brunt and adjacent to the New York Harbor, intrigued visitors stare, grin, and shoot photos of an abandoned 1930s streetcar, locked in place on two eroded train tracks.
Diamond, who says he is the rightful owner of that streetcar and thirteen others that have been scrapped without his permission, does not join me on my trip to Red Hook. He has difficulty walking and the memories of how close his dreams came to fruition are painful.
He recalls Red Hook throughout the ’90s when it was a windy, wet, and cold backwater of run-down buildings and deteriorating piers, and simultaneously a hub of activity and promise, at least for him.
Fairway’s owner Greg O’Connell Sr. was not only willing to house four of Diamond’s streetcars and his 1897 trolley, he also gave the BHRA team 8,000 square feet of workshop and office space at 499 Van Brunt Street—which also served as BHRA’s trolley museum–in return for helping him develop the pier.
“I’d still love to see an ecologically friendly streetcar system running from Red Hook to downtown Brooklyn,” says Diamond who, along with Castillo, once again meets me at Connecticut Muffin. “It’s an underserved neighborhood and it would cut travel time from 45 minutes to 12 minutes. It would serve 16,000 riders daily and the construction costs—if they were done right—would come to $13,000,000 a mile for a two track line.”
With Kickstarter funding, Diamond and Castillo have now written a comprehensive 500-page book (“Brooklyn Historic Railway (BHRA) & The Discovery of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel”) on the topic that describes, among other issues, the success of light rail systems in cities across the country in bringing more people into a neighborhood, boosting property value, and decreasing travel time. The book also debunks well-respected feasibility studies on the high cost of light rail systems.
In the ‘90s Diamond had broad-based support, including the Department of Transportation (DOT), who instructed him to start laying down the tracks on Greg O’Connell’s property and agreed to sponsor his efforts with $300,000 in federal grant money. The MTA and Conrail contributed equipment, tools, and other materials.
Diamond says he should have known something was amiss when he did not see any monies for three years and he was asked to submit two sets of bills, suggesting cooked books. But he put his discomfort on a back burner when in 2000 BHRA got a revocable consent to build tracks in the street and a year later a notice to proceed. They were still short $98,000 in government funds, but started building anyway, he recalls.
Ironically, they got $50,000 from the City Council thanks to the efforts of City Council Member Angel Rodriguez, who later was a convicted felon and served time in jail. Diamond says:
He was caught attempting to solicit a bribe from O’Connell. He wanted O’Connell to give him money under the table in return for his approval to proceed with building Fairway in Red Hook. But O’Connell was wearing a wire. This is Brooklyn. You gotta remember this is Brooklyn.
But the turning point came in 2002 when the DOT refused to extend the City’s sponsorship of Diamond’s project, alleging he hadn’t coughed up his agreed-upon share of monies, which came to approximately $90,000. Diamond says he contributed about $2 million in labor and equipment.
In fact, recorded minutes of a meeting between NYCDOT and BHRA (May 21, 1996) reads as follows:
NYCDOT recognizes that BHRA has apparently raised and expended funds in excess of the ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act) program required local match.
But the rules of the game had abruptly changed says Diamond who remains convinced he was being asked to pony up monies to compensate for funds that had been misappropriated. A city DOT official, who did not want to be identified, said in an email that disappearing monies within the agency is business as usual.
“It’s Tammany Hall re-invented for the 21st Century,” says Castillo.
“Years ago, they’d get $500 of public monies for a desk that cost $10 and pocket the change,” Diamond interrupts. “Now they’ll buy a desk for $500 that only costs $10. The money is gone and there’s no desk either.”
In Dec. of 2003, 1,500 feet of track that Diamond and his friends had installed were abruptly ripped up and destroyed. As noted, no formal explanation was ever issued.
Even before the final blow, Diamond was bereft and physically sick, a condition that was exacerbated when he was arrested in July of that year. He was giving a group of high-school students a tunnel tour when suddenly the police converged on the scene and Diamond was ordered out of the tunnel and handcuffed. The cops said he was being arrested for not having the proper permits to be in the tunnel, though he had in his possession a 10-year permit issued in 1998. The handcuffs were removed but he was slapped with a $5,000 ticket. As it turned out he won the case by default as the DOT never showed up at the hearing.
Off Again, On Again, Off Again
Emotionally battered, Diamond found solace in Central New Jersey where he lived in a druggy haze, until he cleaned up his act and returned to New York three years later in 2006, whereupon the DOT in a bizarre turn of events asked him to resume his tunnel tours.
His future looked rosy especially when National Geographic Television (NATGEO) contacted him in 2010, gearing up to make a documentary on the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel.
But it all went south when NATGEO teamed up with PANYC to authenticate Diamond’s find. “There are many ‘professionals’ they could have contacted,” Diamond says. “But they chose to go with my worst enemy.”
“NATGEO also hired Samuel Y. Harris, a convicted felon, as the project manager,” Castillo says. “Harris, who is now deceased, was a lawyer, architect, and engineer before each of his licenses were either suspended or revoked.”
“For all I know he’s still listed as project manager even though he’s dead,” Diamond quips.
The end came abruptly when Rooftop Films, which was slated to use the tunnel as a screening room, issued a press release, dubbing the program “Trapped in the Tunnel and No Way Out.” The Fire Department saw the ads and promptly cancelled the screening, though the tours continued.
Two weeks later Diamond received the worst call in his life from a DOT official informing him that his franchise was being revoked because he had allegedly applied for a permit to dig up the street when that idea had been nixed 20 years earlier. Diamond recalls:
‘You’re a sneaky little bastard,’ she said to me. ‘You’re looking for the train behind the wall and you’re planning to put holes in the street and we caught you.’ I’m like ‘what?’ She said, ‘I have your application for a permit right in front of me and it’s dated from Nov.’ I had never applied for that permit and signed nothing. Then I hear her whispering to someone, ‘Oh, shit, it’s not his signature,’ and then she hangs up.
The next thing Diamond knew the tunnel was sealed shut.
Diamond maintains he was targeted for his ongoing comments about pilfered DOT funds and believes NATGEO played a role in the tunnel shuttering by not following correct protocol to obtain permits. Somebody forged his signature which brought the whole situation to a head, he insists, and has little doubt NATGEO has every intention of going back into the tunnel…without him.
“I don’t know why they wanted me out of the picture,” Diamond admits.
That said, interoffice emails among NATGEO staffers–that Salem obtained through discovery–voice disdain for Diamond and/or a collective desire to be free of him, making it clear in at least one email to DOT that they distance themselves from him.“Regarding Bob…please understand that we are not endorsing, nor highlighting the tours that he has been leading,” the email reads.
“See this?” Castillo flags a certificate of insurance. “This is National Geographic’s High Risk insurance policy for $10 million.”
“It’s not a $20- or $50-thousand policy,” Diamond points out. “For this kind of money, they’re not just planning to do some filming. They’re planning to excavate.”
Holding up his hand with a “watch this” gesture, Castillo is punching numbers into his cell phone. “I’m calling them now.” He waits a moment. “Hello. I’m calling on behalf of the president of BHRA,” he says. “We have an insurance policy of National Geographic with us and we’d like to put a claim in against its $10 million policy involving a series of contract problems and staff problems that cost us many millions of dollars because of them. We should be listed on that policy and if we’re not that’s a problem too. I’ll wait.”
Diamond turns to me. “If nothing else, our claim will delay their plans. It can keep them out of the tunnel for years.”
Covering his phone with the palm of his hand, Castillo whispers, “It’s effectively an injunction.”
BHRA has now hit NATGEO with a $16 million lawsuit for breach of contract, mental distress, misappropriation, and unfair competition.
To date, no one is back in the tunnel. There’s no Brooklyn light rail project either; and Diamond continues to mourn the loss of his 11 streetcars that were initially housed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard until 2006 and four others that remained on Fairway property for more than a decade. They were all in various stages of restoration, and Diamond was continuing his battle for a streetcar system in Brooklyn.
But the Navy Yard did not think the streetcars had a future, and saw no reason to serve as their parking lot. After failing to sell them on the Internet, the Navy Yard sold them for parts, says Diamond, whose permission was never sought and he received no compensation either. Other property he owned, totaling more than $600,000, was confiscated by the DOT, he says. “I filed a police report and I was stonewalled.”
So was I in my effort to track down the status of the police report. With a copy of the notarized complaint in hand, I called the Brooklyn precinct where Diamond had originally filed his complaint only to be informed that it could not be found. An NYPD spokesperson at Police Plaza said it was not a police department matter and told me to contact the Department of Investigation (DOI), where a DOI spokesperson said it was not a DOI matter, but rather an issue to be resolved with the DOT and NYFD (who would not be interviewed because of pending litigation).
Diamond is no stranger to a Kafkaesque world and had yet another taste of it last winter when Fairway’s new owner, Greg O’Connell Jr.—who did not respond to my request for an interview–had three of Diamond’s remaining street cars carted off on a flatbed trailer to the Branford Electric Railway Association, which operates the Shoreline Trolley Museum in East Haven Connecticut. The museum said it was going to provide temporary housing for the Hurricane Sandy-damaged streetcars in the hope that some other like-minded museum might want to restore and display them. Otherwise they would be scrapped. “They went to the junkyard,” says Diamond. “And I learned about all of it after the fact.”
Opinions on Diamond
Not everyone is sympathetic to Diamond. Some feel he brought the situation on himself thanks to his impatience, inability to negotiate and, most central, his contentious style and allegations; others suspect there may be some truth to his allegations and that payback played a role.
If not payback the reactions to him would have been less severe. I know Bob is not the most diplomatic guy, so it boils down to his personality vs. the city’s power. I don’t like it when our government does something hurtful to someone else. They overlook a contract they signed and then rip up the tracks and sell the trolleys. It sounds like an awful administrative decision and the city should be called to account. Bob’s discovery of the tunnel was a spectacular accomplishment.
New York City Council member Stephen Levin, District 33, agrees and would love to see the tunnel re-opened with Diamond in charge. “The tunnel is in my district and the tours are a uniquely Brooklyn experience given by a uniquely Brooklyn character,” he says. “Bob would be a service to the city.”
Adds Peter Yost (Pangloss Films) who was slated to produce and direct the documentary for NATGEO:
Something has been lost by not having Bob in the tunnel. He was a bridge to the history that was accessed through the tunnel and he himself represented another era: scrappy, devil may care, screw the bureaucracy. Bob also represents the magic of discovery in the city. How he discovered the tunnel is the stuff of childhood story-telling, but it’s real. In a time of condos and impact studies, he was a throwback, and people gravitated towards him and were moved by him.
Diamond is grateful for his supporters—“At least somebody likes me,” he says– but he’s not optimistic about his future.
Still, he’ll soldier on because that’s what he does. Convinced a light rail system is essential to revitalizing the outer boroughs, Diamond has reinvented himself as a spearheading force behind a growing grassroots movement that feels the same way. He has already met with Bronx architect Richard Garey to hammer out a streetcar plan for the South Bronx that would link underserved areas to subway and train stations. They are trying to form an inter-borough consortium with transportation architects and engineers.
Within the last few months Diamond has snagged speaking engagements before enthusiastic crowds in the Bronx. More are slated or are in the works. He and Castillo are also in the process of writing a second book that would focus on trolley routes in outlying boroughs, greening strategies, and input from grassroots organizations. BHRA has become a turnkey design and engineering firm certified in New York State to build, construct, and maintain a light rail system.
Nonetheless, there’s a hole in Diamond’s life. “I miss the tunnel,” he says simply.
If dreams came true, the tunnel would reopen as a classic public-private partnership, says Diamond. The city would pay for any additional exits it deemed necessary, though BHRA would serve as the tunnel’s steward with the ability to raise funds and hire experts of its choosing. But it goes without saying, Diamond emphasizes, the whole operation would function within the guidelines of the law. He pauses a moment to add, “If we uncovered a 19th century train on the other side of the tunnel wall, it would be an amazing tourist attraction.”
Lumbering to his feet, he admits some people think he’s crazy.
“Yeah, I’m crazy enough that I get up in the morning and don’t want to shoot myself,” he says. “I’m able to function. That’s PTSD. You don’t feel anything at all and you don’t care.”