Part II: The Strange (and Sad) Life of Bob Diamond
SOLDIERING ON WITH NEW STRATEGIES
Bob Diamond can’t stop scratching. He says:
All night I feel like I’m sleeping on poison ivy.
The itching has gone on for weeks and his rash is spreading. He rolls up his sleeve to reveal spotted blotches scattered across his arm resembling little black bugs set in red circles.
You don’t want to see my back.
He asked for a stick with a Brillo pad stuck on top so that he could scratch his back. When I give him just such a gift—homemade and beautifully wrapped with a bow attached—he tears off the paper, twisting the stick from side to side. “This is no good,” he says sliding the pad up and down the stick. “We need a way to keep this thing in place.”
Diamond is literal-minded and does not quite get that it’s a joke. Still, he boasts a keen sense of the absurd and, at moments, startling self-awareness that surface in wonderful non sequiturs.
Look, do me a favor, buy me a fly swatter and I’ll pay ya back. Or get me a clean toilet brush that I could use as a back scratcher.
He likes the image and erupts in wild, happy laughter.
Will the real Bob Diamond please stand up? There’s a fine line between genius and thinking aliens live under your bed.
Things have not gone well for Diamond since we ran our first story on him, Feb 8, 2015 , recounting the bizarre experiences of the controversial Brooklynite who in 1981 re-discovered the Atlantic Ave. Tunnel in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, which had been sealed since 1861. For 30 years, he gave tours of the tunnel, offering dead-pan commentary on its folklore, including the presence of a 19th century steam locomotive on the other side of the tunnel wall along with missing pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary.
Alleging that the tunnel was unsafe, the city abruptly shut it down in 2010; and for the past four years Diamond has been involved in a $135 million lawsuit with the city centering on due process, loss of property and income. The complicated case was dismissed, and just recently — after anxiously waiting another two years — their appeal failed as well.
Diamond’s lawyer was planning to amend the complaint —and that may happen yet– but Diamond, who doesn’t want to fritter away more years in court, abruptly sent out dozens of conciliatory letters to politicians, municipal leaders, and local businesspeople, asserting that he had exhausted his legal options and only political interference could pave the way for a re-opened tunnel that was a tourist attraction, and an economic boost to the neighborhood. To this day, hardly a month goes by that he does not get a request for a tunnel tour from a national — or, more usually, international — tour guide bringing groups of tourists to Brooklyn. It leads him to ask:
How many more years am I going to live? I want to get back in the tunnel and find that locomotive and feel justified before it’s too late.
His letters were mostly ignored and in a mercurial turn of mood, and against advice of counsel, in mid-April Diamond decided to drop his suit against the city. He sent a detailed 25-page proposal to an array of leaders at New York City’s Department of Transportation (NYCDOT), asking them to re-open the tunnel that would include a “resumed quest for the 185-year-old steam locomotive.” If, indeed, it’s there it would be a major historic find, he pointed out.
Responding to the city’s concerns about tunnel safety, specifically an inability to get out of the tunnel in a timely manner in the event of an emergency, Diamond proposed, among other things, new pedestrian entrances within traffic islands at either end of the tunnel at Court Street and Atlantic Avenue and at Hicks Street and Atlantic Avenue; and replacing the existing 30-inch-diameter manhole with a rectangular, 3’ by 6’ manhole as well replacing the six-foot-high straight ladder below the manhole with a three-foot-wide steel staircase. He estimated a cost of approximately $450,000.
He divided the project into phases and talked about the formation of a “progress committee” that would meet on a bimonthly basis and include members from the NYCDOT, New York Police Department (NYPD), Fire Department of New York (FDNY), New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) and Diamond’s own non-profit educational and cultural operation, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (BHRA).
He asked that the ten-year revocable consent granted BHRA on July 1, 2009 be re-instated with a five-year extension to compensate for BHRA’s forced hiatus from the tunnel, and that in the future revocation of consent could only take place with cause. He further stipulated that before consent was revoked a pre-revocation hearing would be held so that issues could be negotiated and resolved.
DOT’s attorney said that the kind of contract Diamond wanted does not exist. Revocable Consent by definition means revoked at will. The attorney also said that the construction work Diamond pitched would create traffic obstacles on an already congested thoroughfare and that the cost would far exceed $450,000, adding that the DOT does not have the budget to upgrade tunnel access and egress. Diamond’s initial proposal was denied. He has followed up with an amended proposal and then another intensely apologetic — borderline obsequious — letter saying how much he hoped his damaged relationship with the City could be repaired. The attorney said he’d pass all letters on to his client.
He still feels the City treated him illegally by shuttering him out of the tunnel to begin with, but since the most onerous players are no longer in office, Diamond is willing to try a peace-making strategy. He was also spurred on to action because of our story. In the wake of that first piece he received a flurry of press attention, including three newspaper articles and two TV segments. A documentary-maker expressed interest in doing a feature film on him, though that project fell through when Diamond demanded full editorial control.
A MULTI-LAYERED CHARACTER
The more time one spends with Diamond the more difficult he is to read, even as he grows less guarded. Like many of the desperate, disappointed and terminally sad he rages at some imagined slight or frustration and celebrates a crumb thrown his way. He does not lie (though he may misinterpret), jumps to conclusions, acts on impulse and is a risk-taker, especially in connection with his serious weight problem:
I eat extra cholesterol and grease to make sure everything inside my body is working and moving along smoothly. I always order two of everything.
He can be cruel to someone who is on his side and a moment later makes light of it, urging his hurt friend to sleep it off and take two aspirin. He explains matter-of-factly:
This is a dysfunctional family, Flatbush style. Another day, another adventure.
When he’s not working on his BHRA website or attempting to negotiate deals he is a couch potato ordering in pizza or fried chicken and watching Grade B sci-fi flicks, “Law & Order” reruns, and pop-cult classics. He is a master of arcane film and TV trivia.
He is also a recognized authority on the history of streetcars and gives power-point presentations all over town in an effort to re-introduce a light rail system in New York, especially in underserved neighborhoods. He is in the process of writing a book on the topic — including comprehensive descriptions of how light rail systems work and benefit other cities — along with an in-depth proposal on how the system could be funded in New York, while providing affordable housing.
Diamond has a track record as serious scientist, inventor, and engineer.
In high school he won first prize in a SEER (Student Exposition on Energy Resources) science contest for designing a solar cell satellite that converts sunlight into electricity. The competition was created by the National Energy Foundation, and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller presented Diamond with the award. Diamond also met with James R. Schlesinger, Secretary of Energy, before serving as a judge on that competition for several years, and then winning a Kodak scholarship as an electrical engineering student at Pratt.
In the late ’80s, when the idea of creating a light rail system on 42nd Street was being debated, Diamond had a plan in place — based on his winning science project — for a power plant that was compact, clean, and had no impact on the environment. His light rail project, initially slated for Red Hook, 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.
He is currently working with a top NYC transit cop and other Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials, who do not want to be identified, on the never-completed Narrows Tunnel, running from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to St. George’s, Staten Island. The tunnel construction was launched in the early ’20s and aborted in the mid-’20s. Says Diamond:
Maybe they want to open it as a historic site or maybe someone is even toying with the idea of completing it. I’m really not sure why they want the information or what they’re planning.
Either way, it’s a major endeavor for Diamond who is happily doing the research without financial compensation or public acknowledgement. The never-completed tunnel interests him, but he’s also hopeful it will get the city to view him in a favorable light once again. “I want a dinner and a tunnel,” he quips.
Sam Schwarz (aka “Gridlock Sam”), a leading and national transportation engineer, who served as New York City Traffic Commissioner (1982-1986) and DOT Deputy Commissioner (1986-1990), says the City’s treatment of Diamond has been a “travesty”:
It’s a shame the city has given him such a hard time. The city should support and encourage people like Bob. The tunnel tours should be resumed and Bob’s research pursued. Someday, he’ll be recognized as a genius.
Uphill Battle, But With Friend
At the moment Diamond is having lunch with his business partner and only close friend Gregory “Bullfighter” Castillo at The Bel Aire Restaurant & Diner, a favorite eatery of theirs in Astoria, Queens. Diamond and Castillo usually meet at Connecticut Muffin in Kensington, Brooklyn, to brainstorm and strategize. But on Wednesdays they spend two and a half hours in traffic driving to their brightly lit watering hole in Queens where they write letters to movers and shakers in an attempt to find supporters in high (and low) places.
They also sift through articles, newsletters, municipal budgets, and internal e-mail tracks (obtained by their lawyer through discovery), often confirming their conviction that malfeasance is afoot and conspiracy rules. They are conspiracy theorists.
Diamond knows he’s fighting an uphill battle. He’s ruffled many feathers with his lawsuit and frequent charges of corruption leveled against politicos and local business leaders. He doesn’t have much use for the public at large either. He reveals this in a voice devoid of cadence or inflection:
The only thing the public responds to is if someone is handcuffed and escorted out of a building with police. But then they’ll say ‘he’s a bad apple.’ It’s not one bad apple. It’s systemic. If I was an insider and millions of dollars disappeared, I’d be flipping out. But it doesn’t seem to be bothering anybody one bit. Previously, it’s been the role of the NYC Comptroller to monitor/audit NYC agencies. But since the days of Harrison J. Goldin we haven’t really had one. Alan Hevesy went to prison and John Liu was the perennial subject of federal investigation. No wonder these city agencies get away with murder. No one is watching the store.
For a few moments he and Castillo eat in silence, before Diamond proclaims he doesn’t want anymore, scooping up a slab of roast beef and a dollop of mashed potatoes, passing it across Castillo’s place setting in an effort to dump the food into his plate. Instead the whole mess drops into Castillo’s coffee cup, splashing coffee all over the table.
Castillo remains expressionless as he hails the waiter.
I need another cup of coffee, please.
THE NATGEO DEBACLE
A big source of controversy surrounding him is his contention that a 19th Century locomotive lies on the other side of the tunnel wall.
Rumors about its presence go back more than a century. In a 1911 Brooklyn Eagle article discussing the tunnel, the reporter notes the existence of a wood-burning locomotive. A New York Times article, written in 1936, acknowledges the locomotive scuttlebutt, though no one interviewed had seen it. By contrast, in a 1981 article in The Daily News Juan Vega, a merchant seaman who claimed to have played on top of the steam engine behind the tunnel wall as a child, is quoted at length.
Diamond got to know Vega fairly well and recalls him saying that he lived in a building at 64 Atlantic Ave., which is no longer there; but at the time, a collapsed stairway in the basement led directly to a steam locomotive behind the wall. Diamond says:
The address corresponded to where it would be and so did his description of what the train would look like. Vega was hard-drinking, but completely coherent when he was wasted.
More recently, in 2010 National Geographic (NATGEO) — which was slated to do a documentary about Diamond and the tunnel — retained Brinkerhoff Environmental Services to take pictures of the site utilizing a Cesium Vapor Magnetometer, and it uncovered what appears to be a long metal object (approximately 20 feet long) buried in the tunnel. The report does not state conclusively what the object is, but Diamond maintains that in the mid 19th Century nothing short of a locomotive would have utilized such a sizeable piece of metal.
Further, on the basis of Vega’s description and Diamond’s exhaustive research, he speculates that the buried locomotive is named the “Hicksville,” a 2-2-0 Planet type, which was inspired by a locomotive originally conceived by British railway pioneer Robert Stephenson in the 1830s and became obsolete by the 1840s.
The numbers (2-2-0) refer to the wheel arrangements. The 2-2-0 has two leading wheels, two driving wheels and no trailing wheels. Diamond says when the tunnel was sealed in 1861, the locomotive was used to haul in dirt and after the engine broke down it was simply abandoned there.
Dave Morrison and Richard Fleischer, rail historians in Long Island and outside of Boston, respectively, surmise that if a locomotive exists in the tunnel at all, it could be the Hicksville, though Fleisher equivocates a bit, suggesting The Hicksville may have been scrapped in 1853. Still, it might be a similar type, and that would be of major interest too, he says.
This is the only locomotive of that age in the entire world, in its original fresh off the railroad condition. It’s not a ‘partial replica,’ like the John Bull at the Smithsonian, which is currently billed as ‘America’s oldest locomotive’ and is in fact mostly a circa 1892 World’s Fair replica with few original parts such as its wheels. In Brooklyn we have an authentic piece of the very beginning of America’s industrial revolution, literally a time capsule, testifying to our country’s origins.
NATGEO would not comment. The press rep wrote in an email that neither she nor anyone else on board knew who Bob Diamond was. During their brief collaboration — which Diamond says was no collaboration at all — their relationship went south quickly and Diamond has now hit NATGEO with a $16 million lawsuit for breach of contract, mental distress, misappropriation, and unfair competition.
Diamond is convinced NATGEO believes a 19th century locomotive is present and had every intention of uncovering it when it too was shuttered out of the tunnel in 2010. Diamond has little doubt NATGEO wanted to get him out of the way and take credit for the find, “claim-jumping,” as it’s known in archeological circles.
Interoffice email threads are evocative. NATGEO’s project manager, Sam Harris, who is now deceased, described Diamond in an email as “a little old lady in tennis shoes,” who needs to be “retired with honor.” He wrote that freeing themselves from Diamond was an essential first step to doing the work properly while simultaneously appeasing DOT officials who didn’t much like Diamond either.
Besides expressing contempt for Diamond and reflecting byzantine office politics, the emails also point to concerns among staffers that the Brinkerhoff pictures could potentially confirm Diamond’s speculations about a locomotive in the tunnel. They then debate what information should be shared with the DOT. Writes one NATGEO staffer to another in Jan 2011:
With news of us finding something it potentially vindicates Bob Diamond, whom they [the City politicos] view as a thorn in their side. News that there may actually be something down there will leave them with egg on their faces. Also it may make them react negatively to the application for permits to drill the bore holes.
One reason Diamond is suddenly more forgiving towards the City is his belief that NATGEO was the instigator in shutting the tunnel by alerting the City that the tunnel was unsafe and letting it be known that only those with special OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) training would be allowed in the tunnel to make the film. Diamond had no such training (not that it’s difficult to obtain). If, in fact, NATGEO played a role in the tunnel’s shuttering they also succeeded in locking themselves out as well, Diamond says, appreciating the dark irony.
AS FOR MR. LINCOLN’S ASSASSIN
Along with the presence of a 19th Century locomotive, Diamond also believes that pages right out of John Wilkes Booth’s diary lie in the tunnel wall. There are indeed gaps in the legendary diary and plenty of theorizing as to what those pages contain and where they may be. But short of Diamond we were unable to find anyone else who seriously believes they’re in the tunnel.
Even Diamond’s attorney Gabriel Salem is skeptical. Still, he sees the humor. He asks rhetorically:
How often do you have opposing counsel arguing about what should be done if we find the missing pages of John Wilkes Booth’s diary?
Diamond remains unfazed. Like other conspiracy theorists he believes Booth was not killed in a shootout with Special Forces at a Virginia farm April 26, 1865. According to Diamond, he escaped to England, later India, and decades later died in Texas. Before he assassinated President Lincoln, however, he spent lots of time in New York City with Confederate sympathizers and performed at BAM as a cover, says Diamond. City records show that the already-sealed Atlantic Avenue Tunnel was opened in mid-April of that year, at a cost of $25 with no further explanation. Diamond conjectures that Booth, who was in New York at the time, might very well have been behind the tunnel opening and used the space to hide those diary pages naming his co-conspirators in the north and his own plans for escape following the assassination.
This is wild and fanciful stuff. Still, the question remains: Why hasn’t the city opened up the street on Atlantic Ave. to at least confirm or deny the presence of a 19th Century locomotive? In 1991 Diamond and his city-approved contractors were well into the job — with city permits in hand — when their efforts were unceremoniously aborted by DOT’s Highway Quality Assurance. Why that occurred is still an unknown. The DOT would not comment.
THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN
The nationally-known railroad historian Kurt Bell, who worked for 18 years on the staff of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, Pa., and presently serves as Railroad Archivist at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, says that breaking up the street would create a major disruption to the neighborhood:
I’m guessing some kind of liability and civil engineering concerns are at play. And if it turns out there is no train it could be an embarrassment to public officials not to mention a waste of taxpayer money. They may not want a repeat of Geraldo opening up Al Capone’s vault on live TV only to find there’s nothing there.
Bell is ambivalent about the presence of a wood-burning locomotive in the tunnel, saying there are fewer than 20 locomotives that predate 1900 and they are accounted for. But he admits that a contractor’s locomotive of that era could have been used to haul away dirt and debris, and if it stopped working it’s not unlikely the equipment was abandoned.
Uncovering 19th Century locomotives is rare, but not unknown. Two such locomotives (Planet Class 2-2-0) were discovered at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, five miles off the Jersey shore near Long Branch. A Forney locomotive that ran on the 9th Ave. El was found under a highway in Garysburg, NC, and yet another 19th Century locomotive—4-4-0 American—was uncovered in a phosphate pit in Mulberry, Florida. The experts surmise that these trains were either deliberately dumped for whatever reasons or accidentally lost. Bringing them up can be technologically challenging and exorbitantly expensive. Still, their presence is acknowledged and a few are housed in museums.
Even the ill-fated Church Hill Tunnel in Richmond, VA, which collapsed on top of a manned train in 1925 — two bodies still remain entombed in the train — has not been ignored, says Diamond. Over the decades serious efforts have been made to locate the train and exhume the bodies. As recently as 2006, a camera was lowered through the tunnel seal, though in the end the experts decided retrieving the train would be too costly and ultimately a hopeless endeavor as the area is flanked by sinkholes and awash in water and silt. Diamond adds:
But they’ll keep trying. Why can’t we do this right here in Brooklyn? And unlike the Church Hill Tunnel, the locomotive beneath Atlantic Avenue is a mere ten feet under the roadway and safe to uncover, since it’s contained within the existing tunnel structure, on solid ground.
Not unexpectedly Diamond evokes strong responses. Some are downright hostile.
Snaps Jim Clifford Greller, senior planner at Hudson County Improvement Authority and the author of myriad books on New York City subways, elevated trains, and trolleys:
Why are you writing about Bob Diamond at all? We’re bored to shit with that idiot. He’s a drama queen and makes reporters who don’t know their ass from their elbows about transportation think that he’s Columbus. There’s no locomotive down there. It’s ridiculous. And even if there is, who gives a shit? You think it’s of historical interest? Finding Christ might be of historical interest too. If you want to find out about transportation, give me a call. If you want to find out about Bob Diamond, no comment.
Railfans are an intense lot comprising a subculture of approximately 100,000 knowledgeable hobbyists — not including the large fringe contingent disparagingly known as “foamers” — says Tommy Meehan, chairman of the New York Chapter of Railway & Locomotive Historical Society. The society boasts approximately 2,100 members nationwide with 10 local chapters. But the largest railfan organization is the National Railway Historic Society, founded in 1921 with 170 chapters and more than 15,000 members, he continues.
Bell estimates 600-plus groups in North America devoted to the preservation and study of railway heritage. One of the best known — and, indeed the largest museum in the country devoted to urban transportation — is the Brooklyn-based New York Transit Museum, housed in the decommissioned Court subway station, not far from the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Bell and others say that if a 19th Century locomotive is discovered in the tunnel the Transit Museum would be an ideal and natural location for it.
Diamond is not willing to relinquish stewardship but he might be open to a partnership of some kind with the museum, if it was willing to join forces with BHRA in an exploratory expedition of the tunnel and play a brokering role with the city.
But neither the museum’s director Gabrielle Shubert nor archivist Carey Stumm is convinced a locomotive exists behind the tunnel wall and expressed no special interest in nailing it down either way. Lack of funds is the central issue, and if they had the financial resources they’d be more inclined to open the old City Hall subway station to the public, they say.
Bell remains unconvinced that a locomotive exists in the tunnel, but concedes:
If a rare iron horse is indeed uncovered, this could present one of the most exciting transit ‘finds’ of the 21st Century, not unlike discovering a sunken locomotive on the bottom of a lake or buried in a long forgotten landfill with all of its appurtenances intact. If the engine still has all its ‘jewelry,’ such as the whistle, the bell, number and builder’s plates and all of its gauges, it will represent a valuable find of the first magnitude. The city should put speculation to rest by sending an exploratory party to the site. If in fact an engine survived, it would be the Holy Grail.
WILLING TO MEND FENCES
Back in the diner Diamond is winding down for the afternoon. “Feeding at the trough is done,” he says, suddenly in an expansive mood.
Asked what’s next on his agenda, Diamond says he’d like to bury the hatchet with NATGEO. The worst culprits are gone, either dead or no longer employed by NATGEO, and ideally the new players would be willing to join forces with him to continue filming and exploring what’s behind the tunnel wall. This time around it would be a true collaborative effort, Diamond emphasizes, and he would be portrayed as the “guru” behind the project. BHRA would have input into the selection process for consultants and contractors, and in the end have “right of refusal” in connection with any “third-party entities” brought in by NATGEO.
He’ s also hopeful DOT approves BHRA’s amended proposal, and if that should happen Diamond would like to see NATGEO pay for the new and expanded tunnel entrances and exits. It would be an expression of good will and solve at least some of the funding issues. Other financial considerations could be hammered out around a table, not a courtroom. He says:
All they have to do is give a holla.
A moment later he’s staring at his rash-covered arm:
The itching is driving me crazy.
Using his sleeve as a scratching board, he rubs it up and down the afflicted area before kneading a bit of dark, scaly skin between thumb and forefinger, plucking it off his lower arm and holding it up to the light, appraising it like a small, but well-deserved trophy.
It’s the high point of my week — picking away dried-up eczema.