The Las Vegas “Underground”

In researching Las Vegas while writing Quorum, I was amazed to discover the existence of a hidden world beneath the city’s streets: the (officially) abandoned drainage tunnel network, which would prove critical to Jimmy and Peeps during their surreptitious return to the city. (Jimmy even gives a shout-out to one of several articles that introduced me to the subject.)

Originally conceived as a way to prevent flooding (which had become more common as Las Vegas construction intensified), some of the drainage channels date back to the mid-1970s. But the Hydro Conduit Corporation expanded the tunnels in the 1990s; the plan was to construct nearly 1,000 miles of tunnels over the next decades, but as costs increased, the project was scuttled. At present, there are about 300 miles of tunnels, out of about 450 miles of flood channels overall.

In 2002, murder suspect Timmy “T.J.” Weber used the tunnels in an attempt to evade police after murdering his girlfriend, a weeks-long manhunt that drew widespread public attention to the tunnels’ existence. This in turn prompted a series of articles on the tunnels — and the staggering homeless population that seek shelter there — by author Matthew O’Brien. O’Brien went on to write the book Beyond the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, and launched the Shine a Light Foundation to help the underserved population of the Las Vegas tunnel system.

There are, in fact, hundreds of homeless people living underneath the brightly lit streets of Las Vegas. An entire neighborhood culture has formed, with residents helping each other and forming communication networks to warn against the very real danger of flash flooding. But as is unfortunately common among the homeless nationwide, mental illness and addiction are all-too-prevalent afflictions, and civil and police oversight is effectively nonexistent. The world beneath the city is truly a world unto itself, almost entirely divorced from that of the streets above.

Curiously enough, the idea of accessing the casinos directly from the tunnels is not a bit of creative invention. Though the casinos rarely like to draw attention to the fact, the reality is that many of these tunnel exits offer near-direct access (though they are also frequently protected by motion sensors). And many of the tunnel denizens do venture up into the casinos in a nightly attempt to scavenge unclaimed slot-machine winnings (frequently gathering an average of $50 per day).

The character of Crunchy isn’t modeled on any particular person, but is an amalgam of various people whose stories were brought to light by O’Brien and others. One thing that struck me was how so many of these people tended to remain (on balance) positive, despite their circumstances. How they worked to form a community rather than pursuing self-interest at others’ expense. In a story populated by nefarious characters and pessimistic outlooks, I thought it might be a welcome break to take a brief interlude, to focus on the positive in spite of apparent adversity. Crunchy may be downtrodden, but he maintains his sanguine perspective throughout his time with Jimmy and Peeps. And that may leave a lasting impression on Jimmy that will prove significant in his adventures to come.

~William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

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