Fighting to Return to a Subway Vault

Bob Diamond has spent nearly his entire adult life curating the Atlantic Avenue train tunnel in Downtown Brooklyn, an abandoned 19th-century rail line that once ran beneath Atlantic Avenue between Court and Hicks Streets.

Mr. Diamond, 51, located the tunnel as a teenager and got the city to let him go down a manhole while wearing tennis shorts and an oxygen tank and smash through a concrete wall to break into the long-forgotten cavern. In the following years and decades, he gradually expanded his access to the space, obtaining city permits to bring large tour groups in. He formed a nonprofit group to collect voluntary admission fees, to put toward improvements, a tour staff and other expenses.

Though he periodically threatened to quit the tunnel-tour game over clashes with the city Department of Transportation, late last year his project seemed to be booming. His tours had been featured on countless blogs and travel sites and in tourist handbooks. A local group organized a film series inside the tunnel.

In early December, Mr. Diamond was aiding the shooting of a documentary by the National Geographic Channel, which had filed requests to unearth the legendary steam locomotive that Mr. Diamond had long insisted was buried in a sealed-off section.

But everything came to a screeching halt in mid-December when the Transportation Department announced that the tunnel was off-limits, citing safety concerns raised by the Fire Department.

Now, Mr. Diamond is trying to sue his way back in. A notice of claim he filed Jan. 28 as a precursor to bringing a lawsuit against the city demands that the tunnel be reopened to him and says he wants $2.5 million in damages.

“If they don’t want to open the tunnel, they have to pay me for my intellectual property,” he said. “I discovered the tunnel and spent 30 years of my life developing and publicizing it into a historical treasure and tourist destination. That is worth money.”

He said fire marshals visited the tunnel constantly over the decades and called the tunnel safe. He pointed out his perfect safety record: not a single injury among the thousands of visitors.

A spokesman for the Transportation Department said the main concern of the Fire Department was that the tunnel had only a single access point: a manhole in the middle of Atlantic Avenue. The spokesman said no future access to the tunnel was currently planned.

Concerning Mr. Diamond’s litigation, Gabriel Taussig, chief of the city’s administrative law division, would say only, “As long as the Fire Department believes that the tours conducted by Mr. Diamond constitute a safety risk, we cannot in good conscience allow them to continue.”

A spokesman for the National Geographic Channel, Russell Howard, said that its crews had not been in the tunnel since Dec. 12. Nevertheless, he said, “Production is expected to continue over the next several months” and the goal is to televise the program “later this year.”

Mr. Diamond, known as Tunnel Bob, is a plump man who lives in Kensington, Brooklyn. He is unmarried with no children, and has virtually made the tunnel his life’s work, since reading about its possible existence in a historical novel that speculated that John Wilkes Booth’s diary might be hidden in some tunnel in Brooklyn. Mr. Diamond, then an engineering student at Pratt Institute and a railroad buff, finally found a clue to a lost tunnel’s location in old street plans in the Brooklyn borough president’s office.

Beginning in the 1980s, the Transportation Department issued, and reissued, a permit allowing him to run his quirky, narrated tours of the 1,700-foot-long arched vault, built in 1844 by the Long Island Rail Road for its New York-to-Boston line and sealed in 1861. The permit — a consent agreement “to continue to maintain and use” the tunnel — was valid through 2018; Mr. Diamond paid a $250 fee annually.

In recent years, Mr. Diamond was taking up to 400 people in every other Sunday. He also took in school groups during the week.

“People come from all over the world, just to see this tunnel,” he said. “The day the city closed it, I was supposed to show it to 40 Australian tourists who flew to New York City specifically to see the tunnel.”

Mr. Diamond said the city approved $2.6 million in 1986 to build a formal entrance, but the plan was scuttled, as were plans to turn the tunnel into an official museum.

Mr. Diamond said the tunnel had had air quality monitors installed for many years, and he had paid for many safety studies.

“The tunnel is fireproof and has plenty of air circulation,” he said. “If I had any belief that anyone could be hurt, or trapped inside, I’d be the first person to call it all off. The Fire Department came down regularly for 30 years and never had a problem until now.”

Mr. Diamond recalled a conversation he had with a transportation official last year.

“At one point, I told a woman at the agency, ‘Listen, I have $20,000 left — I can use it to make improvements or I could use it to sue your agency,’ ” he recalled. “She said, ‘keep your money, we don’t want you in the tunnel.’ ”

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