Book Review

Author: Matthew O’Brian

Publisher: Huntington Press, Las Vegas NV
ISBN D-929712-39-0
Price: $19.95

Writing a book about tunnels under a city can almost always spark interest in readers. There are so many tunnels, and so many cities that have them – an astonishing number, in nearly every country of the world. However, most anything written about underground spaces of the cities that have them range from ultra-dry Corps of Engineer type-documents to historical works of varying merit, some of which slide more into myth instead of fact. In other words, there is little written about under city tunnels that is both interesting and factual.

Las Vegas and its tunnels, and Matthew O’Brian’s telling of them, is quite different, and of a much higher caliber. His book is “Beneath The Neon.” Matthew brings a human touch of reality and immediacy to the people who live below Las Vegas, who are in continual danger of their lives. “Beneath The Neon” therefore, is a very interesting, entertaining and factual book.

Take the tunnels of Orange County, in Southern California, for instance, which has miles of tunnels and spaces, many as wide as the four lanes above them, all of which are bone dry and empty of life. Most of these tunnels channel into massive floodways, snaking through the Los Angeles basin, and eventually empty into the Pacific. Of the few times a decade that they are full of water, people are amazed at both the volume and speed of the water. Whoever gets caught in one of these channels has little hope of survival. Go here for a look at the scope of the tunnels under Los Angeles.

Then there is the Burro Schmidt Tunnel in the upper Mojave desert, a couple of hours north of L.A., built over a number of years by a single individual, through solid granite. Here is a link.

Secret tunnels of historical significance and mystery can be found under San Francisco. And under Seattle.

Cities don’t have a monopoly on tunnels either. Colleges and universities sometimes have their own. Here is a similar link. But by far the biggest and most astonishing underground of all, is under Tokyo.

Many tunnels have small collections of people; homeless, addicts, and iconoclasts. The only apparent exception is Los Angeles, where there are no homeless living in the wide, dry, and accommodating tunnels. It is not that these tunnels are policed, it is just that the homeless there are likely smart enough to know better.

But what really interests O’Brien are the homeless people who live in the tunnels under the bright oven that is Las Vegas. He estimates that there are 300 people at any time, who are living in small encampments throughout the tunnel system, and in the course of his research, he got to know many of them.

There is evidence of these people everywhere: an old set of pans; heaps of garbage, including many old mattresses; and graffiti. If you were to wander through the tunnels, you would never know it was 110 degrees or more just above your head. Down there it’s quiet, dark, cool–and wet.

You would think the tunnels are dangerous, but O’Brien said they don’t feel that way. But he had a guide who knowingly led him around through those spaces, so who is to say? He was most impressed by being underneath Caesar’s Palace, for the tunnels are not relegated just to being beside and under the expressways through the city.

The tunnels under Vegas are storm drainage tunnels, built around 1977 to control runoff from the local wash. Prior to that, there were stories of cars washing up in culverts around the town after a sudden downpour. When Vegas started to expand, it was decided that the city needed a subtler way to deal with the results of storms, thus the tunnels were born. Today there are 450 miles of flood channels in Las Vegas, including 300 miles of them underground. O’Brien says that the Las Vegas master plan created in the 1990s calls for 1,000 miles of flood channels and tunnels within 25 years.

Most of the time the tunnels are dry, largely because it doesn’t rain much in Vegas. But when it does, O’Brien says, the water level in the tunnels can rise rapidly, quickly turning into a flash flood. Down there is not where you’d want to be if such a thing were to happen. Which is why on a pillar deep underground, someone has helpfully spray painted, “In case of flood swim for your f—ing life.”

In fact, spray painting–the graffiti kind–is a major element to the tunnels. Everywhere there is some kind of graffiti, much of it meaningless and uninteresting. But in some places, it turns into art, as the photos in the book, taken by Danny Mollohan, testify.

Because of its unique and dynamic presence in the world, Las Vegas is the subject of more books than any typical community of its size. The Las Vegas metro population is roughly the same as that of Columbus, Ohio, but you don’t see many authors flocking to the Buckeye State capital in search of best-selling material.

Nonfiction books about Las Vegas commonly come in four flavors:

— Gambling: Tomes of wisdom and mathematics to beat the odds (or at least not lose all your money during your first hour in the casino).

— History: Documenting the city’s past, from John C. Fremont’s brief stop to the Rat Pack era to the rise of the mega resorts.

— Organized crime: All the dirty details — some of them actually true — about Bugsy Siegel, Tony Spilotro and other lovable crooks.

— Photo essays: Artful pix of leggy showgirls, crowded craps tables and neon signs.

But Matt O’Brien’s “Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas” doesn’t fall into any of these categories. It’s a refreshing departure from the usual fare.

O’Brien, is the news editor of CityLife, a weekly newspaper owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. “Beneath The Neon” is not a boring engineering-type textbook. It is a glowing, personal journey of discovery. Get this book. You will enjoy the read, written by a mostly likely future Pulitzer prize winning journalist.

HERE is a link to some photos of the tunnels under Las Vegas.

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