Part III: The Strange (and Sad) Life of Bob Diamond
A Plan for a Tunnel Museum, the Politics of Boredom, and the Pain of the Phantom “Toof”
“I’m beginning to get bored with your demands for proof in triplicate,” says Bob Diamond in a tone that marries petulance with grandiosity.
Leading with his paunch and clutching his purple cane in extended arm poised slightly above the ground as if it were a magisterial scepter, he shuffles towards Mirage Diner on Kings Highway, Brooklyn.
Diamond and his BFF-cum-business partner Gregory “Bullfighter” Castillo ride around the outer boroughs tracking down old fashioned diners (no kitsch, no irony).
Diamond is pleased to have made good time from New York State Supreme Court, Kings County, in downtown Brooklyn, where he sacked his attorney of four years. Thanks to cutting those ties he is feeling good, though my request for corroborating evidence about another topic entirely still rankles.
“I couldn’t just know something on my own, no, no, no, I heard it somewhere,” Diamond continues sarcastically. “I heard it on the History Channel, I heard it on PBS. No, it’s all a delusion. I’ve been out in the sun too long.”
He and Castillo believe in the power of visions, dreams, and flights of fancy to warn, guide and instruct. Coincidence rarely exists and omens are everywhere if you’re evolved enough to see them.
Both men—who co-run the Brooklyn Historic Railroad Association (BHRA) that has been embroiled in lawsuits with the city and National Geographic Society (see Parts I and II)—also allude to shadow acquaintances who have shadow lives and are often employed by shadow agencies–government and/or private.
Still, there’s an element of performance as they revel in their clairvoyant flashes or disparage the behind-the-scene (and unnamed) operators. They are at once wholly serious while at the same time playing themselves for my benefit. They like being provocateurs.
The contentious topic in question is Diamond’s interpretation of an email he received from a Paris-based gallery owner announcing an exhibit of paintings by French Renaissance artist Hubert Robert, known for his depiction of grand and romanticized ruins.
The email displays a Robert painting, “Ruins of Temple Diana,” featuring workmen clearing away mounds of stones and boulders two stories below street level. Diamond sees the email as a sign.
“Why did I get this painting from a man I don’t know?” Diamond asks. “Why now?”
“Robert was a visionary,” Castillo interrupts.
The ruins in the painting look like the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. They’re geologically correct. And the tunnel, like the ruins, brings together the past, present, and future. It becomes a portal from the past to the future. And the two workmen in the painting look like Greg and me. I call it synchronicity.
Massless Particles on the Move
Diamond talks about string theory, quantum mechanics, the Butterfly effect, Higgs Boson, linked equations, dark energy, and time travel. The latter is very much on his mind, in part because of his new plans for the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel that will incorporate elements of “time travel.”
“Time travel is theoretically possible,” he says. “Einstein’s theories of mass are being challenged every day. The recent production of Weyl fermion proves massless ‘particles’ can exist in our four dimensional space. Because particles of this type have no mass, conceivably they can be sent into the past or future to gather and retrieve information. This is a game changer. Newton and Einstein’s equations fall apart. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It means they still work, but in a finite range.”
Diamond frequently launches into a topic midstream with neither segueway nor prelude, assuming his listener knows where he’s coming from and what he’s talking about. The subject ends as abruptly as it began as Diamond turns his attention to his upcoming lunch, looking around for a waiter and menu.
“I’m foraging for food,” he announces. “But instead of nuts and berries, I want BLT, veal parmesan, extra red sauce and prime ribs. It should be slow roasted to tender succulent perfection with a tad of horse radish on the side.”
When I wonder aloud if he could possibly chew all that (he has few teeth), he quips, “I’ll chomp it up the way a turtle uses his beak.”
The Joys of “Pro Ses”
His large appetite and big visions notwithstanding, most of the time he’s grappling with the quotidian. Currently it’s the seedier and dispiriting aspects of his two lawsuits that are in a holding pattern. He has made conciliatory gestures to both parties in an effort to resolve the cases amicably. He’s had some feedback from the city, NATGEO not so much. The iconic institution wants the whole case dismissed and feels it owes Diamond nothing.
Still, Diamond likes representing himself and his current “pro ses” status.
“Now, it’s really David and Goliath,” Castillo says with pleasure.
Diamond is an old hand at playing David, starting with his rediscovery of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel in 1980 (which had been sealed since 1861) against a world of naysayers. And he reprised his David role yet again—duking it out with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Fire Department of New York (FDNY)—when the city shuttered the tunnel in 2010, alleging it was unsafe after Diamond had been conducting tours in the tunnel uneventfully for 30 years.
Now attempting to appease the city’s most pressing concern about visitors’ inability to get out of the tunnel in a timely manner in the event of an emergency, Diamond proposed, among other things, new subway style pedestrian entrances on traffic islands at either end of the tunnel at Court Street and Atlantic Avenue and at Hicks Street and Atlantic Avenue. He estimated a cost of approximately $450,000.
Diamond’s initial and detailed follow-up proposals—including how each part of the project would be phased in—have been turned down. The city’s senior counsel said the construction Diamond pitched would far exceed $450,000, adding the DOT does not have the budget to upgrade tunnel access and egress. His immediate concern, however, is Diamond’s suggestion that the pedestrian entrances be built on traffic islands as opposed to the sidewalk.
Diamond is more than willing to switch gears and his amended proposal will address it. He also has plans to defray the cost by approaching the entire tunnel experience as an off-Broadway production, he says.
My feeling is we’re talking the $4- $5 mil range to set up, but this could conceivably be handled through entertainment investors. I estimate that at an adult ticket price of $30–equal to an ‘event’ admission price at the boring Transit Museum–the ‘Tunnel Experience’ would conservatively draw at least 500 people a week, based on our own 2008 – 2010 visitor head count, yielding a gross weekly cash intake of about $15,000. In reality, I think it’s safe to say this could easily be doubled to 1,000 people a week yielding $30,000 a week gross.
The theatrical investments would help cover the two subway style entrances, reinforced sound equipment and the technology involved in creating holograms. Diamond’s site-specific theater will now embody a unique tunnel museum designed to evoke an archeological dig being explored for the first time and tap into the sensibilities of post-modern consumers who are excited by the growing—and trendy–urban exploration movement (urbex), only without the risks that accompany such explorations.
Diamond says the museum will also attract anyone who just likes a good “human interest” story, and Diamond’s re-discovery of the tunnel against all odds is surely that. As tour guide—and he’s a unique New York persona—he will recount all the colorful details, including his insistence that a 19th Century locomotive lies on the other side of the tunnel wall.
If indeed it’s there—and it would be a major archaeological find—it will be revealed at the end of the tour. Either way, Diamond knows how to use his successes and failures as fodder for entertainment that should appeal to train buffs, historians, and researchers of various stripes, he says, adding, “There’s a huge potential market for conspiracy theorists and paranormal investigators.”
Briefly, this is how it will work: visitors will descend into the tunnel through a new entrance marking the beginning of the simulated experience. Passing through a portal, visitors will find themselves on a walkway flanked by flashing LED panels and blanketed in a layer of fog emerging from fog machines.
“Visitors will feel as if as if they’re entering another dimension,” Diamond says, pausing to clarify “portal,” a word he uses a lot. “ P.O.R.T.A.L.,” he spells, “not porthole.”
The lights and fog will give way to simulated torch lighting and a mine-like pathway suggesting the archaeological dig site featured in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Visitors will move through a cavernous space piled high with rubble and strategically placed artifacts—or projected holograms of those artifacts–which have been found within the tunnel.
The tunnel will also include unadorned stony-walled surfaces, which will serve as backdrops for special theatrical events—thematically relevant concerts, films, and plays, Diamond says.
With the aid of multimedia devices–including video projections and sound—visitors will be transported to Brooklyn, 1861 where they will interact with famous (and infamous) characters of the era like robber baron Augustus Litchfield, John Wilkes Booth, and Walt Whitman, all played by actors clad in period costumes. These historic figures will talk about their connections to the tunnel (factual and folkloric) followed by a Diamond moderated Q and A.
A second “time jump” will transport visitors into the early 20th century where they will meet up with H.P. Lovecraft, WWI German spies and Prohibition era bootleggers. Ghosts and vampires may also make appearances from time to time. “They should be very popular, especially during Halloween,” says Diamond. He continues:
The tour will combine the numerous ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ stories surrounding the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel. Visitors will be transported to other times and realms of ‘imagineered historical accuracy.’
The whole experience is informed by a “Star Trek” esthetic, specifically an original “Star Trek” episode on the time travel paradox, and partly by the unique imagery of Hubert Robert coupled with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek. In theater, as in life, Diamond knows how to straddle personal conviction and self-mockery.
The end of the tour will be marked by a “time jump” back to the present, as Diamond presses a magic button and a “secret” door—yet another “portal”– disguised by a hologram opens up into a mine-like space leading to the engine room. It will contain the lost locomotive as it was found (if it is found).
Enveloped in dramatic spotlights the locomotive will personify and celebrate the joy of discovery. It will also be Diamond’s great triumph and personal vindication.
“Of course, this will never happen,” says Diamond, who knows all too well the byzantine world of municipal bureaucracy where nothing happens quickly, if at all. “By the time I get back in to the tunnel I’ll be too fat to fit in the manhole.”
He does not mean that literally. Even if he gained 100 pounds the size of the manhole no longer has application as he’s in the process of designing expansive subway-style entrances. In fact, he’s trying to hire an imaginative, experienced, and public-spirited architect who will work with him to create them, with payment to take place once tunnel tours are resumed. Anyone Diamond employs has to work on a contingency basis. Still, it’s a seductive, challenge-filled project.
“Ideally, I think the new entrances need to impart the mystery and rich history of the tunnel to such a degree that it compensates for not climbing down a ladder through a manhole in the middle of the street,” Diamond says and laughs. (That vertical climb down into the tunnel was very much part of the earlier experience).
Help! The Glaciers Are Coming!
Diamond has sent his museum pitch to dozens of local businessmen, politicos, and other activists; indeed, anyone who is upright and breathing. He’s also attempting to rally the troops with his book, “The Discovery of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, A History of Early to Mid 19th Century Urban Railroads,” and other eco-urban-friendly proposals centering on mass transportation and ways to fund it. He’s determined to keep himself in the public eye and if one pitch doesn’t materialize, it still might open the door to something else.
And, that’s precisely what happened when Diamond recently received a call from an intern at the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, saying that her bosses had read his book and were sufficiently interested in what he’d written for her to meet with Diamond as a preliminary step to something– possibly re-opening the tunnel– though Diamond is not entirely sure what as her language was oblique at best.
Diamond has no expectation that DOT approval can be “encouraged” by anyone, short of Mayor De Blasio and, as far as Diamond knows, Hizzoner never took a tunnel tour even when he lived in the neighborhood. But he’s convinced the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel would be of great interest to him. “After all, it’s in his backyard,” says Diamond who is hopeful the political scene is shifting and that he (Diamond) is on the cultural radar.
New York City Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents District 33 that houses the tunnel, has always been a Diamond supporter—appreciating both the tunnel and Diamond as great New York attractions for tourists and locals alike. He refers to Diamond as “a unique Brooklyn character and a service to the city.”
In fact, Levin is a champion of community-based cultural organizations and recently he, along with Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, forged a comprehensive cultural plan zeroing in on ways to support the arts, especially in the outer boroughs.
Levin who met with Diamond and me at his Boerum Hill store front office had not heard about Diamond’s recent pitches from anyone at DOT—even though the proposed project is in his district—and does not expect to. Because of pending litigation he cannot run interference and no one at DOT will be speaking with him about it either, he said, adding:
However, I do think it’s of public interest to determine once and for all if a 19th Century locomotive exists in that tunnel, and it’s appropriate for me to pursue that from a public policy perspective. And then we can address the question of re-opening the tunnel tours and explore ways to do that, which would also be a positive thing from a public policy perspective.
But, he emphasized, the price tag would far surpass anything anyone anticipates. “It always does,” he said. “And you have to remember that if we re-open the tunnel today, it will have to be wheelchair accessible. That means elevators would have to be installed in both entrances. We’re talking millions of dollars.”
He said it would be helpful to get NATGEO back into the picture to finish filming its documentary on Diamond and the tunnel, especially if NATGEO threw in some money for the new entrances. But either way, their high-powered name recognition might be a big step towards getting the wheels in motion.
That’s going to be easier said than done. Diamond has hurled more than a few salvos at NATGEO including “claim jumping,” meaning an attempt on their part to take credit for his find.
In Diamond’s $16 million suit against NATGEO he charged that, while he had re-discovered the tunnel and was responsible for calling attention to it through his well-attended tunnel tours, NATGEO was trying to free itself from him. Diamond further accused NATGEO of playing a role in shuttering the tunnel in 2010, not anticipating that it too would be shut out and lose access to its “set.”
But Diamond has had a change of heart. The central culprit is deceased and many new players who had nothing to do with the original project are on board. But as noted, he and NATGEO are at a legal impasse. And even if NATGEO wants to start the cameras rolling Diamond knows there’s no guarantee that the city will support them.
In the meantime—and following our two previous Diamond stories—three other documentary makers have expressed interest in doing a film on Diamond and the tunnel, but their clout with the city is arguably negligible.
Tilting at Windmills — Redux
Diamond has a history of conflict with the city. But even without it, competition for municipal support is keen and initiating cultural projects, especially those that utilize public spaces, is growing increasingly complex. The field is overflowing with high-powered players who see the social, environmental, aesthetic and economic potential in transforming unused public spaces (often abandoned bridges, tunnels, and former train tracks) into galleries, parks, and walkways.
Think High Line on NYC’s far West Side and, most recently, the highly publicized and heavily underwritten Lowline, a plan to convert the former Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal (below Delancey and adjacent to the JMZ subway track at Essex) to an elaborate park and garden that will utilize solar energy .
The two Lowline founders have recently raised more than $150,000 on the crowd-funding website, Kickstarter and their political base includes Senators Kristen Gillenbrand and Charles Schumer; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Congresswoman Carolyn Mahoney, among many business leaders and celebrities.
Boasting major contacts and social media savvy is the name of the game. Diamond says the Facebook-Instagram-Twitter scene is not and he has virtually no access to heavy-hitters, though at one time that wasn’t the case.
Diamond admits frankly he was perfectly happy with the unencumbered tunnel tours the way they were, but now feels the need to come up with a more Disneyfied version—not simply for money and publicity, but–before somebody else does and the rug is totally pulled out from under him. One virtue of the lawsuits is that as long as they’re pending, that can’t happen.
Diamond faces other battles, not least his “brand” as a struggling 56-year-old outlier who’s been at it a long time– still tilting at windmills– and hasn’t yet scored, which almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Tony Giordano, who heads the Sunset Park Business Improvement District, and has known Diamond for more than 25 years, says Diamond’s time may have passed, yet believes he is a true artist likening him to a corralled, wild horse who cannot survive in captivity. Diamond is stultified by those who simply do not understand him or give him creative space. Says Giordano:
Bob is a flawed and obsessed human being who’s eaten himself alive. He’s always on the outside looking in and he’s alone. His friends are drawn to him because of his passion. But they can’t break through or know his pain. He’s been at the poker table too long and no longer has any chips.
Still, he’s hopeful that Diamond’s plan for a tunnel museum materializes. It would be a great victory for Diamond and resonate with all those who’ve stayed the course without much encouragement from the outside world. He has become a symbol for perseverance, despite his personal foibles and bizarre narrative.
But, more to the point–at least from a more pragmatic perspective–Giordano would love to see the tunnel museum because that area of Brooklyn could use a museum, he says. He also favors its role as an advocate for public transportation and innovative ways to create it, noting:
I think his odds with the museum are better than 50-50. But he needs to develop a phased approach that can begin with the most limited of funding and then build upon that in stages.
Giordano warns that he’s up against a systemic bureaucracy “that will always say ‘maybe’ rather than ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ for fear of making a mistake.
Diamond is not the only Don Quixote out there, though it’s an increasingly rare type in this lean, youthful, cyber-hip culture. Many cited Bill Sepe as a Bob Diamond counterpart: a physically large man with an all encompassing vision who spearheaded a community effort that ultimately paved the way for the much enjoyed Walkway Over the Hudson in Poughkeepsie. Prior to Sepe’s arrival on the scene it was an abandoned railway bridge that had been ravaged by fire in 1974. It re-opened to the public in 2009 on the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery of the river.
Literally living in its shadow beneath the bridge and haunted by the image of what it could be, Sepe (who made his living as a handyman) and a band of local supporters, seized the property in 1992 and began its transformation despite resistance from the city who did not appreciate his uncompromising tactics.
Among other issues Sepe didn’t believe the Walkway should be underwritten by public funding. Sepe felt once government got into the mix the revitalized bridge would no longer serve an aesthetic and environmental role. Instead it would be promoted as an economic boost for the community, resulting in projects that would erode the bridge’s eco-friendly aesthetic. He walked before that happened.
“And in the end Bill did not get credit—didn’t want it—for his contribution to the Walkway’s creation,” said Jack Economou, former mayor of Poughkeepsie and Sepe’s attorney.
The Kindness of Nobody
Unlike Sepe, Diamond believes in public-private partnerships and has no intention of jumping ship. Indeed, every time he receives an unexpected call from a prominent businessman or local leader, interested in tapping his expertise, he feels encouraged.
Still, he tries to take these calls and meetings in his stride. There have been far too many disappointments over the years and, to make matters worse, because he has difficulty walking and cannot negotiate public transportation, trips to various sites require a costly car service ride from Brooklyn.
Lack of money is a major issue. Unemployed and living on disability, Diamond has depended on the kindness of acquaintances who have doled out small stipends to him on a fairly regular basis. But that largess has abruptly stopped.
“They thought they were investing in an undiscovered artist and now that so much time has passed and nothing has happened, they no longer see me as that artist and I’m not worth the investment anymore,” Diamond says.
Diamond spends most of his time in his tightly packed Kensington apartment with his girlfriend Sharon, a low-keyed, affable woman whose paintings of floral arrangements and landscapes cover the walls. His late mother’s 12-year-old poodle Silver is Diamond’s four-footed fuzzy companion.
“He’s my familiar, my actual,” Diamond says.
Diamond is busy revising his tunnel plans for the city, but usually he’s just plain bored with little to do besides his weekly lunches with Castillo and his visits to a psychotherapist and physical therapist who treats his crippling back and leg sciatica by administering a series of escalating electric shocks to the affected areas.
“Z—z-z-z-z-z!” Diamond bellows, extending a quivering leg as if in the throes of a convulsive episode.
He also complains of pain in a phantom tooth, or “toof” as he calls it. “And I hardly have any teeth,” he says. Silver is also toothless, though Diamond’s ex-attorney wryly insists the toothless dog bit him.
Diamond is now dealing with a cleanup crew battling an infestation of bed bugs in his apartment. He is also threatening to sue the landlord over a lease renewal that has not arrived in a timely manner.
Diamond admits he’s running on empty and perhaps made some wrong choices in life.
“My one regret is that I never ran for public office,” he says. “I’d like to have been another William Gaynor or Seth Low.”