This is the first part of a two-part article.
I used to believe that in all likelihood I'd been down every street in Wichita. But then I used believe all kinds of crazy things, like for instance that the right front wheel of any car I was driving was in imminent peril of flying off, or that none of the other guys in my graduating class at Goddard High School was circumcised. My reasoning, in the latter two examples, is too irregular to piece back together right now, but in the case of the first, there was at least some circumstantial (a word related to "circumcised," I just discovered) proof: I had a delivery job beginning when I was seventeen and later delivered the Eagle to addresses that had been missed by regular carriers, and these two jobs took me all over town. I was never the type to hang around at home anyway — I got tired of telling plainclothes policemen that my brother Bill wasn't home (it was my brother Tom they really wanted; his full name is William Thomas but "Tom" is what he's always gone by, and so when middle-aged men in business suits arrived at the house and very, very casually asked if Bill was around, the lies poured out of my head reflexively) or of the neighbors calling up to tell us that Dad was stuck on the roof . Dad got stuck up there all the time and it was always the neighbors who heard him yelling.
So instead of killing time at home, I drove around, burning still-inexpensive fossil fuels, and going anywhere.
Of course there were streets in Wichita that I'd never even noticed, much less driven down, but I was nonetheless well-traveled, in terms of the city, at any early age, and it began to feel small for me a long time ago. I used to dream sometimes that in the middle of familiar Wichita I'd found some new or overlooked neighborhood or thoroughfare; I loved these dreams until I awakened, and then they made the city seem even smaller than it was before I slept, a place that offered no surprise.
Wichita still feels small to me. But just recently I found out that it still holds some surprise when, in an unexpected way, one of those dreams came true.
The Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex
The explanation for how it is that I lived in Wichita for thirty-some years without ever having known about the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex is that only real entrance to it is as straight-faced and inconspicuousness as the rabbit hole that led to Wonderland. If you blink you miss it, and innumerable Wichitans drive past it daily without ever really taking note of the fact that it's there. This entrance, as you will have guessed, is New York Street itself, and although there are other a couple more places where you can gain access to the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex, New York Street is the only one I can tell you how to find in fewer than two thousand words. New York Street is the best entrance to the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex for aesthetic reasons too, because it's from this approach that the complex unfolds most mysteriously.
Before I tell you its exact location, I want to caution that the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex won't be the delight to everyone that it is to me. What I love about the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex is its ugliness and its weirdness, but there's something a little bit frightening about it, and I love this vague sense of menace, too. Since I discovered the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex last March, I've driven many of my friends through on it on tours, and while most have enjoyed it just as much as I do, some find nothing appealing in its ghastliness or are made uneasy by its cut-off-from-civilization feel.
Because — and I'll go on in a minute — the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex really does feel cut off from civilization, and this special way that it feels hidden in plain sight within the city that surrounds it is, for me, another of its major charms. There's a whole world of activity in the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex of which most of the city remains entirely unaware, and although you can look right into the heart of it from many locations in north Wichita, you never really see it until you know that it's there.
We're Not in Kansas Anymore
So here's how you get there: it's easiest if you're traveling west on 21 st Street. When you go under the Canal Route, you'll pass, on your right, the exit ramp for I-135, then a ditch or trench or gully or something, and then, before you get to where the Derby Refinery once stood, you'll see the green street sign reading " New York." Just turn right — north — and you're underway.
In a way this first stretch of New York Street probably corresponds pretty closely to what a lot of Kansans imagine when they picture New York: to the east is the ditch with its trash and its trickle of stagnating water — the East River — and to the west a Rust-Belt view of the remains of the refinery, where someone has apparently been given the job of scraping away a foot or two of topsoil for reasons I don't really even care to know. This, of course, would be New Jersey. Your view to the right, too, is terminated by the titan mass of the Canal Route, raucous and life-threatening at sixty miles per hour; to the left your view comprises wasteland to its farthest boundary.
Maybe it has to do with growing up in the 70s, but for my part I love an industrial landscape, and I see something Fellini-esque in the one that borders New York Street here — it's as though the set for the spaceship finale of 8½ were built here 43 years ago and left to disintegrate at its own rate. There's maybe a mile of this landscape and the road twists through it just enough to keep the driver's attention. There is no traffic and there are no homes or signs of domestic life — you won't see many people, in fact, on your drive. Instead there are disused machinery, mysterious structures, and poisonous dirt. You may have the sensation that you're moving farther from normal society as you travel up this stretch of New York Street, and I think the main reason for this is that you are.
Where the Sidewalk Ends
By this point some people are already frightened by the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex — mostly, I think, because it's under-populated — lonely, even — and its feeling of disuse makes it feel as though you shouldn't be there. (In fact it's never necessary to trespass when visiting the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex, and the roads I'm describing are public. Most, but not all, appear on city maps.) These people are invariably unhappy to see the PAVEMENT ENDS sign, but for me it heralds the tunnel, and once you've driven through the tunnel you're in the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex proper. Passing through it is thrilling, like being in a cart in the Wacky Shack as it rams through the first set of doors.
Initially the tunnel was my favorite part of Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex; it takes New York beneath the Canal Route — think of all the streets that don't cross the Canal Route — and the most attractive way to describe it is "unfinished looking," like something that was thrown together in an emergency or during a war. It's the kind of place in which you'd take cover in The War of the Worlds. This tunnel is an unadorned, rectangular tube of concrete, and if you can read graffiti tags, there's a whole novel written there.
Best, though, is the view through the tunnel: here the landscape changes from industrial to a uniquely urban-looking rural, so that looking east through the tunnel you get a snapshot of wildly overgrown vegetation that feels completely out of place in a city setting. In a city we expect nature to be tended and mown; it's a matter of public safety, I imagine, since wild beds of eight-foot weeds are probably ideal for concealing both violent and victimless crime. The tunnel feels like the gateway to another world, and it was the view through it that made one of my friends ask, "What are we doing here?"
And now you're driving through the tunnel and the Secret North New York Street Industrial Complex is waiting.
This is the first part of a two-part article.