The Deeper Mystery of the Faux Brownstone

“…for the soul is dead that slumbers, and things are not what they seem.”— Longfellow

There’s an apartment building in Brooklyn, New York that’s not really an apartment building. On the contrary, it’s really a secret subway entrance! [See photo of faux building.] Furthermore, there are secret subway entrances, disguised like this one, throughout New York City. A news item about the faux brownstone recently appeared in a number of New York City papers. Apparently, it captivated quite a few readers, as it did I.

What is it about this fake building that is so fascinating? Why are such appearance/reality mysteries so intriguing?

Classified Secrets of the Manhattan Transit Authority

Before we delve into the heart of the real mystery, which is metaphysical, let’s try to understand the ostensible mystery. Why did the MTA — the agency that runs the New York City subway system — wish to build a subway entrance at that particular location? One cannot, from the various newspaper accounts, discern precisely why. Some suggest that it has something to do with counter-terrorism. But it’s unclear as to how these disguised entrances would function in that capacity or as part of any other stealth operation.

Furthermore, the people living in the neighborhood of this particular faux brownstone have long known that it’s a secret subway entrance. We also learn, from the newspaper articles, that workers with the MTA will often enter and leave the secret entrance and have their lunch on the steps of the building. So it can’t be all that much of a top secret.

Let’s say that, for whatever the reason, the MTA needed to have a subway entrance at that particular location. Perhaps, then, they thought that it should be aesthetically pleasing, that it blend in with the surrounding buildings and not be an eyesore. All that is reasonable enough.

Yes, the MTA used both security and aesthetics to justify the project. All the same, unless city workers have souls of mud, the clandestine project must have really intrigued them, even if they could not admit it, for fear of having the expenditures for the faux building scrutinized by the taxpayers. Perhaps, they thought to themselves: “Wow! We’re building a secret subway entrance, disguised to look like a brownstone. Holy James Bond! This is super cool!”

The secret entrance certainly evokes images from spy stories, as well as films of intrigue. One can imagine Orson Welles emerging out of the brownstone, like he emerged from the secret entrance that led from the sewers of Vienna, in the film “The Third Man.”

Evoking Appearance and Reality

The deeper question here is not about the motives of the MTA. It’s really about why secret entrances — and all things disguised — engender a certain thrilling sense of wonderment and perplexity? They seem to tap into the fundamental metaphysical belief that things are not what they seem. Indeed, it evokes the appearance/reality distinction, that lies at the heart of philosophy, mysticism, and paranoia. The notion that we are sleepwalkers in a dream — one from which, with great effort, we can awaken — is a very old notion. We find it in the ancient Hindu Upanishads and in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in The Republic.

If the defining moment of ancient philosophy was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the seminal moment of modern philosophy was Descartes’ metaphysical doubt, which he resolved — perhaps a bit too facilely — by his realization “I think, therefore I am.” And we find this same doubt expressed in films like The Matrix, and The Truman Show.

Odd though it may seem, everyone suspects that things are not what…

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