20 arrested in NYC trying to see underground art

The New York City police have arrested 20 people for trying to enter an abandoned subway station housing the formerly secret guerrilla exhibition of underground street art that was revealed to the public this month.

The clandestine gallery has attracted urban explorers eager to catch a glimpse of dozens of provocative, large-scale installations created by more than 100 street artists who sneaked into the station over the course of a year.

Several of these spelunkers, however, have encountered something else: a team of police officers, some in plainclothes, assigned by the city to monitor the site. Most of those arrested were charged with trespassing, and a few were caught carrying spray cans and other graffiti paraphernalia, the authorities said.

While the police are taking a hard line on keeping people away — “This is not an art gallery; this is completely illegal,” one officer said — the paintings in what the artists called the Underbelly Project are likely to live on. Subway officials said they had no plans to paint over the artwork, even if they sincerely hoped nobody ever got to see it again.

“We have no intention of disturbing the works,” said Deirdre Parker, a spokeswoman for New York City Transit.

Parker noted that the fiscally challenged transit agency would not want to devote resources to restoring a space almost entirely unseen by the riding public. “It’s in complete darkness and not really at all visible to anyone,” she said.

The organizers of the project, who did not return a request for comment on Wednesday, have refused to disclose its location. So have transit officials. But first-person accounts, photographs and speculation around the Internet focus squarely on an abandoned station built in the 1930s atop the existing Broadway stop on the G line, near South Fourth Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The exhibition was the subject of an article in The New York Times on Nov. 1, but without specifying the location.

A comparison of current and historical photographs makes a convincing case for the Williamsburg station, and a spokesman for the police acknowledged that the site is in Brooklyn. But subway officials would not divulge the exact spot. “There are some bloggers who can pinpoint these places because they eat and sleep transit lore,” Parker said, “but officially, no, we’re not confirming anything.”

So far, efforts by the authorities to secure the space appear to have been only partly successful. Evidence of recent visits to the site has been published on the Internet, including photographs that suggest some of the artwork has been defaced by graffiti.

One blogger from Brooklyn, who said he explored the site in the early hours a week ago, posted photographs on his website that appeared to show vandalized works. “It does seem to only have been tagged by one person, and it’s actually kind of sad since some of the works are so amazing,” the blogger wrote in an e-mail. (He requested anonymity to avoid drawing attention from the authorities.)

The blogger said part of a chain-link fence put up by the police had already been peeled open. “If you are industrious enough, you can still get up there,” he wrote.

The South Fourth Street station was intended as a primary transfer point for subway lines that would have stretched from Lower Manhattan into Brooklyn and Queens, part of an ambitious expansion of the subway system planned by the city in 1929. The Great Depression forced officials to abandon the proposal, but not before bits and pieces of the proposed network had been built.

Transit officials reiterated this week that getting to the site could be dangerous.

“We really don’t want to encourage anyone to go near these places,” Parker said. She said the Police Department and transit officials were “working closely together to come up with short- and long-term solutions to the security problem.”

Detectives have been looking into the project’s origins, a Police Department spokesman said, but the police often find it difficult to link individuals to cases of illegal street art.