Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas

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Overview

The catacombs of ancient Rome served as houses of worship for Christians. When surveyed in the early 1800s, the sewers of Paris yielded gold, jewels and relics of the revolution. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a slave trade thrived in underground chambers along Portland, Oregon's waterfront. And thousands of street people lived in the subway and train tunnels of ...
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Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas

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Overview

The catacombs of ancient Rome served as houses of worship for Christians. When surveyed in the early 1800s, the sewers of Paris yielded gold, jewels and relics of the revolution. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a slave trade thrived in underground chambers along Portland, Oregon's waterfront. And thousands of street people lived in the subway and train tunnels of New York City in the 1980s and '90s.

What secrets do the Las Vegas storm drains keep? What discoveries wait in the dark? What's beneath the neon?

Armed with a flashlight, a tape recorder and an expandable baton, Las Vegas CityLife writer-editor Matthew O'Brien explored the Las Vegas flood-control system for more than four years.

Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas chronicles O'Brien's adventures in subterranean Las Vegas. He follows the footsteps of a psycho killer. He braces against a raging flood. He parties with naked crackheads. He learns how to make meth, that art is most beautiful where it's least expected, that in many ways, he prefers underground Las Vegas to aboveground Vegas, and that there are no pots of gold under the neon rainbow.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In 2002, as managing editor of the alternative weekly, Las Vegas CityLife, O'Brien was intrigued when a murderer eluded police by vanishing into the Vegas flood-control system. After O'Brien and CityLife contributor Josh Ellis explored half a dozen storm drains, their adventures attracted such attention on the Internet that the publication's Web site scored a million hits in a day. By then, O'Brien was convinced "there were secrets to be discovered beneath the neon." His first discovery was that, despite the dangers, homeless men and women were living in the tunnels. How did they wind up there? Returning with a tape recorder and flashlight, he interviewed the storm-drain denizens, finding one sleeping in an elevated bed suspended above the watery floor, another residing in a plywood hut and some in the cool tunnels just to escape the heat. The photos capture the inhabitants of these bleak encampments. Continually contrasting the sparkling casinos above with the dank, cobwebbed catacombs below, the observant O'Brien writes with a noirish flair, but his compassion is also evident as he illuminates the lives of these shadowy subterranean dwellers. (June 1)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Underneath Las Vegas, human beings live in dark catacombs-a practice not uncommon in large cities. Las Vegas-based journalist O'Brien offers an engaging if slapdash account of exploring the city's storm drains and meeting the people living in them. In 2002, O'Brien and fellow writer Josh Ellis went wandering through the drains and emerged with stories. O'Brien's book (with moody, too-sparsely-used photos by Danny Mollohan) uses that adventure as a starting point for his return during a 2004 sabbatical from his day job, editing the local alt-weekly. Armed with a tape recorder and a couple failing flashlights, O'Brien covers the underground, chatting up the dozens of folks he comes across. They're a mostly welcoming crowd-many Vietnam vets, most with gambling and drug problems, all with a story to tell. Less friendly are the crack-addled street kids who advise O'Brien to stay clear. There are wonders to be found in the gloom, including a woman who came all the way to Vegas just to bring gifts to her tunnel-dweller son and make sure he's okay, and a graffiti art gallery that surpasses anything in the glittering city above. There's also danger: During heavy rains, the area can fill with floodwater at the rate of a foot per minute. O'Brien brings an explorer's passion to his lively work, which suffers, nevertheless, from a certain thinness of research.
E! Online - Anonymous Blogger
“Nothing short of fascinating… With stark black and white photography, a noir-ish narrative voice and the unrelenting creepiness of the world beneath the Las Vegas Strip and beyond, O’Brien has crafted a compelling debut.”
Publishers Weekly - Anonymous Editor
"The photos capture the inhabitants of these bleak encampments. Continually contrasting the sparkling casinos above with the dank, cobwebbed catacombs below, the observant O’Brien writes with a noirish flair, but his compassion is also evident as he illuminates the lives of these shadowy subterranean dwellers."
The Write Stuff - Alan Petrucelli
“O’Brien’s notes from the Vegas underground have a resonance, beauty and humanity seldom felt as strongly, or described and illustrated so well. These drains, like the catacombs of ancient Rome, have stories that will make you smile and break your heart.”
beautifuldecay.com - Beautiful Decay
"[O'Brien] takes you on a dizzying trip through the various drains to meet the people that live, party, and sometimes die in the tunnels. This is a must-read for anyone who has ever broken into an abandoned building, explored dirty sewers, hopped freights across the country, or enjoys a late-night stroll into the unknown. More than just a documentation of one's experience in the storm drains, Beneath the Neon is equal parts Las Vegas history book, drunken biography, and psychological thriller."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780929712390
  • Publisher: Huntington Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2007
  • Pages: 281
  • Sales rank: 486,400
  • Product dimensions: 7.10 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Matthew O’Brien is an author and journalist who’s lived in Las Vegas since 1997. His first book, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, chronicles his adventures in the city’s underground flood channels, which he explored for more than four years with a flashlight, tape recorder, and expandable baton for protection. His second book, My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas, is a creative-nonfiction collection set in off-the-beaten-path Vegas. He’s the founder of Shine a Light, a community project that provides housing, drug counseling, and other services to the people living in the drains. For more info on Matt and his books, visit www.beneaththeneon.com.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 33 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(24)

4 Star

(4)

3 Star

(2)

2 Star

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1 Star

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 33 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 16, 2010

    An Amazing Book

    This book was absolutely amazing. It was impossible to put it down. The book draws you in even more with every character thats introduced. I would recommend it to everyone. Very good book.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Beneath the Neon

    I was looking forward to reading this book because I have visited Las Vegas and had no idea what lay beneath this amazing city. Also because I am moving to Las Vegas in the near future. I have worked in the field of Social Services and have been aware of and concerned about the plight of homeless people for many years. I have seen the homeless in many cities such as New York, Chicago, Las Angeles, and Washington, as well as Tampa where I am from. Much of it is out in the open and there have been many approaches to try to deal with this growing problem. It appears that Las Vegas offers a unique and hidden, albeit very dangerous and illegal, solution to the problem of homelessness. The author does extensive research on how the tunnels under the city came to be and much of this research entailed his own experience exploring the tunnels and interviewing the homeless people that he found there. Each of these people that he interviewed had their own unique story and some very interesting attitudes and outlooks. It is worth noting that they are examples of how little people really need to survive and make a home for themselves, if they are so inclined. This is just a fascinating glimpse into a world most of us will never see and couldn't even imagine, and there it is right below one of the most exotic, popular, and exciting cities in the world.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 16, 2010

    A remarkable book!

    Las Vegas has always been portrayed as glamorous. However, Matthew O'Brien discovered that there are people living below that glamorous life in Las Vegas. Matthew O'Brien did amazing work for this book. Matthew focused on the people who fell on hard times and who struggle to survive while living underground! A must read that will open your heart to the less fortunate. Each persons' story is one not soon forgotten. Matthew O'Brien's fairness and nonjudgmental personality adds to the spirit of Beneath the Neon.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 9, 2010

    Beneath the Neon is worth the read

    Entertaining, informative and factual book by Matthew O'Brien, who wrote with realism (which some people might interpret as noir), humour and a drop of innocence. O'Brien did shock a bit - but he tells us he was writing what he saw. He managed to remain a reporter 'on point', conveying facts without judging the tunnel inhabitants, faithfully letting them tell us just what secrets they wanted us to know. As I read I saw the tunnels with O'Brien's eyes and they seemed to swallow, comfort and fool those that willed it, some into thinking they could get away with murder. I'd recommend this book, especially to anyone who casually mentions they want to make a trip out to Las Vegas. The book wouldn't dampen spirits, especially since it seems O'Brien is one of those rare men who lends a hand if he can. The book would get a casual visitor to think about what or who they might be walking over....

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 9, 2011

    Skeletons in Society's Close

    Las Vegas, the city of lights, glamour and excess, carries with it, skeletons in its closet, the existence of an acknowledged world of homelessness; the dark drainage tunnels is the abode of solace for these forgotten souls.
    The author's approach was refreshing. His fascination stemmed from his interest to trace that the steps of a wanted criminal who hid in the drain tunnels to escape from authorities. The author, a reporter when he started this investigative work, was successful in his attempt to objectively tell the tale of each character that he had encounter each time he went to the drain.
    As the book progresses, one can sense the author's naïveté as he describes his personal feelings, perceptions, and expectations of what/whom he might come across, a ghost, some drug addict or mentally ill person who will mug him ... he was scared. In fact he thoughtfully acknowledged that he led a sheltered life. I think this honesty was one of the strengths of this book. As his words take you deeper into the darkness, you can sense his fear, smell the stagnant water and slowly recognize that these, people although homeless, are not zombies, but are misunderstood humans. Each person had a story, some speak of their art and talent, family, struggles, success, failures and just like us, and they too have dreams. It cannot be denied that their state is a reflection of the ills of today's society. The pictures in the book also provided an excellent insight to the eerie cryptic art, new age graffiti that so beautifully adorn the tunnel walls as well as lend to the reality and the humanness of the characters interviewed. The skeletons that Las Vegas wants to hide, the only difference is that these people either chose to leave the conventionalities of today's world and live freely according to their own terms and without judgment; or hide under the shelter of darkness, hoping to find solace from consequences of choices that they have made (crime, addictions, society etc). One has to be reflective and sensitive to human psychology in order to considerately experience and write about this without bias. The author presented its readers with a new perspective of why this underground world somehow needs to exist to create that yin and yang/balance in society. The best part of the book I think is how the reader can sense the author's growth as a person and as a writer. He started out fearing the dark tunnels and a little wary of how these underground dwellers would receive him, being an intruder. After publishing this book, his experience and the people he met had offered him a deeper understanding of how and why they chose to live underground. His life changing experience is manifested on his visits in the tunnel to check up on these dwellers as well as his non profit organization that benefits the homeless. As the book progresses the readers can easily notice how he had developed from a reporter into an effective storyteller.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 1, 2011

    Revolutionary

    No Vegas Guidebook shows this part of town.

    This book makes visible some of the various aspects of our lives, relationships, and social policies that to often go unnoticed. This is a great investigation of the real world accounts of the structural inequalities inherent within every society, and exposes the outcomes of what happens when we alienate aspects of society that we deem to be unfavorable. It also brings into consciousness the systemic impacts that hail from the lives of those in impoverished situations. I would personally put it up their with the works of Paulo Freire, Bell Hooks, Angela Davis, William V. Spanos, and Mumia Abu Jamal.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 22, 2010

    An informed approach to an invisible part of Las Vegas

    What a summer!

    I received the book yesterday and started reading it at about 6:00pm. It is now 1:30am and I just finished reading it. I only stopped a couple of times but I really could not put it down. Bravo!

    I don't believe Matthew O'Brien when he says that he more an author and journalist than an explorer. It is true that he was motivated because of a felon escape story, but a regular journo would have stopped after reenacting the escape and a regular author would have relied more on fiction. O'Brien created a chronicle about what lies beneath, not only Las Vegas but beneath many other metropolitan areas around the world.

    Throughout the whole book he kept mentioning the baton. I really hope it always stayed in its sheat.

    I also liked his wrinting style, the waythe flashbacks keep connection with the narration of the present time and especially enjoyed the historical facts about the use of tunnels, caves and their explorers throughout the history of mankind.

    O'Brien was able to uncover the real people that lives in the drains, and showed us that even if forgotten, ignored or simply at large, they are not the monsters that people think hide in the dark and humid corners of the undercity. And the author goes beyond simply writing a book by helping those in need through his foundation.

    Thanks for writing that book, for telling the story of those people living underground and for helping them out.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 7, 2010

    O'Brien brings new perspectives to the strip.

    Now after reading this book it opened my eyes when driving down Tropicana and see the storm drains I now think who may be living down there. Matt who spent so much time to discover the paths of murderers, people who chased the dream but ended up chasing the dragon to satisfy their drug needs, people who are just looking somewhere to get away from the hustle and heat in Vegas. Some of these interviews will make you be happy and appreciate what you have.

    I highly recommend this book to anyone!!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2010

    Good Job

    We go to Las Vegas a lot and didn't not know any of the things he discovered. Now when we go we will be thinking of the tunnels. It is kind of scary and he did a good job that I wouldn't think of. Good book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2010

    Living under the streets in Las Vegas and storm tunnels.

    I bought this book for my husband, which he sat down and read in one day
    which told me he liked the book and it did hold his interest because he
    does not sit and read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2010

    An engrossing read

    While reading Beneath the Neon I found myself walking the drains with Matthew, seeing and feeling and smelling all he was encountering. He brought his book to life in a way many have not. The empathy and dedication he gave to these people was what stood out to me in his writings.
    This is a must read for everyone. The homeless are there, everywhere...in places we never would ordinarily dream of. Matthew has helped bring that knowledge to many in a very excellent book, and hopefully through books like his, they will be better understood.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 9, 2012

    Excellent eye-opening account of hidden Vegas

    Matt O'Brien's gripping narrative of the shadowy lives being led under the Las Vegas Strip is as interesting and compelling as it is sobering. This is subject matter that sorely needed to be brought to light and the author does a terrific job of describing a scene that few of us could otherwise imagine. Suspenseful, well-written, and moving, this first-person account gives the reader an entirely new perspective on the culture of Las Vegas.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2011

    Just awesome.

    Like a showgirl as she's undressing in the morning, wiping off her face without really washing the colors off. I could not look away, or stop reading once I started. Would highly recommend to anyone with eyes.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 30, 2009

    Terrific Read!

    This is a great book, providing the reader with a different view of the glittery city of Las Vegas, one that most don't know exists. The book is hard to put down. The stories are very detailed and allow the reader to almost feel as if they are there with the author. Highly recommended!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 18, 2009

    Beneath the Neon

    This was an eye opening book. I grew up in Las Vegas, and never had any idea about people living like that. Even while writing about the wretched and dangerous conditions he saw, Matthew O'brien still managed to add some humor to the book. It's good for people to see that there is way more going on in Vegas besides what is seen in the tourist areas.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    Logan

    I think the same thing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    Calistill a jerk"

    God whyd i date u

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2009

    Amazing Tunnel Story

    I couldn't put the book down once I started it. Matt great story the book was amazing coming from someone that has walk and documented things from the tunnels. The book gives great view to what people do think twice about.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2008

    I want my money back.

    I must have read a different book from everyone else. This was horrible. Most of the time he talks about what the tunnels are like. They were all the same. Every person's story was the same. There was nothing that blew your mind about the homeless. Same story different state. And the writing itself was awful.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2007

    A reviewer

    This book tells in a real emotional way of how the unfortunate live under las vegas!! You feel bad even for the self-made losers. The writers of this book went out of their comfortable existence to tell the tales of these unfortunate souls. God bless them!!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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