The Subterranean Society
By Marcus Key / photo by Tiffany Brown
Las Vegas is known for attracting people to its neon lights and high-stakes gambling. Former GSU basketball player Matthew O'Brien is no exception.
"The casino culture and sports betting sparked my curiosity," O'Brien says. "So without ever visiting the place, or knowing anyone out here, I packed my stuff up in Atlanta and moved. Plus, it just seemed like a good place to set short stories and novels."
Prior to leaving Atlanta, the former Decatur High School basketball star made a name for himself at Georgia State. The sharp-shooting point guard currently holds the record at GSU for highest free throw percentage in a season at .876 percent. O'Brien was also part of the first Georgia State basketball team to reach the NCAA tournament in 1991 under coach Bob Reinhart.
"It was truly awesome," O'Brien said. "We were the first out of only of two Panther teams to ever make it that far, so playing in the NCAA tournament was definitely the highlight of my career at GSU."
With slim chances of making it to the NBA, O'Brien began to focus his attention on writing. As a history major, he developed an interest in the process of researching and writing term papers.
"That's how it started," O’Brien said. "Around graduation time, I became burned out on basketball and began to take writing seriously."
After migrating west, O'Brien quickly immersed himself into the counterculture of Sin City. He began freelancing for the Las Vegas City Life, an alternative weekly paper, and eventually worked his way up to managing editor. While at City Life, O'Brien followed a lead on a strange news story into the dark underside of Las Vegas.
"I had heard about a murderer that used the underground flood channels to evade the police, and that sparked my curiosity," O'Brien said. "So I went down and explored the tunnels and found some interesting stuff and began to write about my experiences."
Armed with a flashlight, tape recorder and an expandable baton for protection, O'Brien ventured into the uncharted underworld. What he discovered was a vast subterranean world existing beneath the bright lights and bustle of the Las Vegas Strip. Built to protect the city from flash floods, the underground tunnels stretch for 200 miles and are home to hundreds of the city's homeless.
"People know about the neon lights and the big pleasure palaces on the strip, but they don't know that right underneath that are these dark tunnels where people are living off the scraps of the city," O'Brien said.
After years of exploring the tunnels and hearing stories from dozens of people that live underground, O'Brien chronicled his adventures in his first book, "Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in The Tunnels of Las Vegas," released in 2007.
With the publication of "Beneath the Neon," the irony of homelessness existing right underneath the lavish casinos of the Las Vegas Strip captured the attention of many media outlets. Since, O'Brien has been featured on CNN, BBC, "Nightline" and the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric."
"There just seemed to be this fascination with the other side of Las Vegas," O'Brien said. "I get one or two media requests a week from around the world just curious about the tunnels."
O'Brien has also published a second book, a collection of creative-nonfiction stories set in the off-the-beaten path of Vegas entitled "My Week at the Blue Angel: And Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs, and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas."
In addition to being a journalist, O'Brien is also the founder of the Shine a Light foundation. Shine a Light is a community-based project in which O'Brien escorts social workers from Help of Southern Nevada, an outreach organization, into the storm drains to offer blankets, food, water and counseling to the homeless. The organization has helped place over a hundred people from the tunnels into transitional housing.
"Part of the reason I wrote 'Beneath the Neon' was to call attention to the fact that people were living down there," O'Brien said. "There really was no coordinated effort to help the people in the tunnels, so I reached out to a local organization called Help of Southern Nevada and we collaborated to offer assistance."
O'Brien is currently working on his third novel which follows the same off-the-beaten path of Vegas as his previous books, but with an international twist. He still continues to visit the tunnels to try and unearth their mystery and to give hope to the hundreds of people still living in the shadows beneath the neon.