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Underground With San Diego’s Rave Scene

In recent years, the city's tunnel parties have found their home under South Bay's freeway underpasses & abandoned places
A group of people dancing in masks and costumes at one of San Diego's underground sewer raves
Photo Credit: Jeremy Sazon

The thumping starts in my chest, taking over my own heartbeat. It radiates through my sternum, eventually reaching the tips of my ribs. My temples start pulsing. Soon enough, the rest of my body gives way, swaying and bouncing to the bass emanating from speakers all around me, pounding at somewhere around 135 beats-per-minute. I glance up at the concrete slab above me, which is a freeway underpass somewhere in Imperial Beach. None of us are supposed to be here, yet here we are.

A woman on her phone sitting on top of a man's shoulders at a San Diego  underground sewer tunnel rave
Photo Credit: Jeremy Sazon

For the last several years, a slew of underground raves have been popping up across the South Bay in a variety of public places: sewers, freeway underpasses, seemingly abandoned fields, bunkers. There’s a lot of city, county, and federal land that doesn’t get used much, and in this economy, in this town, “free” space is currency. If you build it, they will come—and if you don’t, they will come even harder. The parties are run by a techno-and-bass-oriented group that would like to stay unnamed, owing to the less-than lawful nature of their activities. But they’re not hard to find.

A large group of people dancing and listening to music at a San Diego underground sewer rave featuring techno DJ group Pirate Panda
Photo Credit: Jeremy Sazon

Around me, all sorts of loving exchanges are happening—one of the reasons I love partying so much. What are likely club drugs discreetly (and not-so-discreetly) change hands. Bottles of water are shared. Weed and vape clouds waft through the air, stuck between the concrete above and below and the mass of humanity in between. Full-body hugs abound, and more than a handful of people are making out and grinding. Everyone is grooving in their own way. Some have their hands in the air, chopping to the rhythm, their eyes closed. Quiet smiles line the faces of more than one raver.

Over the hours, the turntables welcome new DJs, each with their own distinctive styles. Some thrash to heavy techno; others scratch out the dirtiest, heaviest beats the crowd’s bodies can handle. At some point, the black sky starts to lighten up, eventually turning a light shade of pink, and a cold breeze rushes in. It’s daytime now, and the music stops. Fuzzy-booted partygoers trek to their cars, parked miles away. In their places, a crew of homeless people files in, hired and paid by the party organizers to clean. Shortly after, any sign of life has been wiped from the underpass. It’s almost like it never even happened. But it’s a physical reality that energy doesn’t disappear, it simply transmutes. Later the next day, when I finally wake up, I still feel the beating in my chest, that telltale heart.

By Jackie Bryant

Jackie is San Diego Magazine's content strategist. Prior to that, she was its managing editor. Before her SDM career, she was a long-time freelance journalist covering cannabis, food/restaurants, travel, labor, wine, spirits, arts & culture, design, and other topics.

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