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Exploring Providence's real underground

Photographer Peter Goldberg documents the subterranean world of the Combined Sewage Overflow project
By  |  November 13, 2008

ICONIC: Flinty workers, such as the sand hogs of "Providence Underground," are a staple of photojournalism.

It was September 2004 when Pawtucket photographer Peter Goldberg first descended into the sewer overflow tunnel that the Narragansett Bay Commission was digging under Providence to keep crap — literally — from overflowing city pipes during heavy storms.

At a construction trailer on Allens Avenue, he was given a half-hour safety orientation and issued a hard hat, goggles, ear plugs, tall rubber boots, and a backpack holding a breathing apparatus in case — heaven forbid — something went horribly wrong. And, of course, he was required to sign the usual waivers. Then he climbed into a metal cage and a crane lowered it down a circular shaft some 300 feet (30 stories) into the earth.

"It's just cement-lined most of the way, until you get down to the very bottom. Then it opens up into like the Batcave," Goldberg, 43, tells me. "It was September, so it was warm up top. And you go down there, I think it's always a constant 60 degrees. It's dark. It's damp. The sounds you hear are air-moving generators. There's all these industrial sounds. And then you hear the whistle of a train. You're like, 'Wait a minute, there's a train down here?' There's grinding. There's a conveyer belt that's carrying all the dirt up to the top."

The raw, exposed black sandstone and shale shined in what light there was. Off to the side, a concrete-lined tunnel ran horizontally away through the earth. Goldberg boarded a train that ran along tracks sitting in a foot of water at the bottom of the tunnel. It deposited him a mile off, where a 300-foot-long, 700-ton boring machine was chewing through rock. With his 35mm Nikon camera wrapped in plastic bags to protect it from drips, he snapped photos of the tunnel and the men digging it.

Prints of these photos — and shots Goldberg took on four subsequent trips to middle-earth — line the walls of his studio in an old mill complex on Pawtucket Avenue in Pawtucket when I visited.

And they'll be featured in his exhibit "Providence Underground" at the Gail Cahalan Gallery (200 Allens Avenue, Providence,, through November 24. (The Narragansett Bay Commission chipped in $2000 toward the exhibit.) The scenes look like something teleported from another era — those iconic shots of manual laborers that worked in our factories and built this country's infrastructure in the first half of the 20th-century.

Twists and turns
Goldberg has been a fixture in Providence photography circles since he graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1988. Early on, he freelanced, shooting portraits and politics for the Providence Phoenix, Providence Business News, and Rhode Island Monthly. And he began picking up "commercial" gigs — photographing for RISD, St. Joseph Hospital, and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.

In his free time, he shot images skeptically examining what you might call the American pageant — demolition derbies, parades and tourist sites. "I'm looking for a little irony, a little humor," Goldberg says. "I try to take a little of an outsider's view, step outside ourselves and look back through the lens, and try to see things in a different way."

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