News & Politics

Steve Duncan, Urban Explorer, on the Secrets Underneath the Cities

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Earlier this month we posted a video of Steve Duncan exploring the abandoned Bowery subway station at Spring Street between Bowery and Elizabeth. Because we’re generally fascinated by the mystery of what’s beyond the face of New York City that we see everyday, we got in touch with him to find out more about how he got started “going underground,” what he’s seen, and why he can’t help being drawn in by urban environments — whether he’s in New York, Los Angeles, or climbing to the top of Notre Dame.

Does it seem like people’s interest in the layers beneath the surface of the city has picked up in recent years?
For some years there, it was not as cool, but I’ve been getting the sense that there’s a real interest in the historical layering of New York, from the blossoming of Open House New York to various art and other projects involved in digging around in the city and understanding it better. I was surprised at the reaction to my recent video. Sometimes people misinterpret curiosity for more vandal-like poking around, but all the responses I’ve gotten have understood where we were coming from. It’s about love of the city and interest in uncovering its mysteries.

In New York there’s also the history of graffiti since the ’70s, the idea of treating the city as a playground or something to have fun with. There’s a tendency to slot that into juvenile delinquents making trouble. But it seems now there’s more of a willingness to see the urban environment as more of natural environment.

When did you start “urban exploring”?
I came to New York for college in ’96. I grew up in suburban Maryland, and when I came to New York I immediately fell in love. I had a sheltered childhood, so I thought going to a restaurant in Queens was crazy. I started poking around more and, like a lot of people, I started becoming fascinated by the layers and mythologies of the city and how it all combines.

People ask when I started going underground. I think it was ’97 when I realized there was actual historical stuff hidden away and untouched. I was going to Columbia University and I was running behind, and needed computers in the math lab, but the building was closed. I went to a born and bred New York friend, and he said, “I’ll take you to the tunnels [underneath the university].” He took me to a basement and set me loose.

How did that feel?
There I was in the dark, and it was awesome. You really don’t know what’s around the corner, there’s that sense of wonder and excitement. I realized that there were more of those spaces.

At Columbia?
At Columbia there are pedestrian and utility tunnels. These had been instrumental in the ’68 student riots, when students used them to supply the people holding Hamilton Hall. They’ve since been kind of closed off but are accessible. Not that many people are inclined to go poking around sub-basements, so the first bit of it was realizing it was there.

I’d heard stories about the Manhattan Project, stories about how the tunnels were used. It was 90 percent myth, but the reality is that the first atom split in the U.S. was done in 1939 at Columbia University as part of the Manhattan Project, and they stashed the radioactive particle accelerator in this sub-basement of Columbia.

Is it still there?
My understanding is that they’ve been redoing the physics building and they’ve taken it out.

But before Columbia was there it was an insane asylum. There are a couple of small sections of utility tunnels, left from that. That’s a total microcosm of what happens in any urban environment, and that just kind of got me started. If all that was there on an acre on the Upper West Side, there must be a lot more in the biggest and best and oldest really vital city in the country.

You’re out in L.A. now though, right?
I’ve been in L.A. for grad school the past couple of years. There’s still this layered infrastructure and city, but if New York is, say, 15, L.A. is basically 2 or 3. Of course, the big issue in the entire L.A. region is water. It used to be there were all these streams running, and there’s this intricate network of storm drains. I thought, How interesting can that be? But Los Angeles has been really vital and dynamic despite itself. They built the drainage system they needed and have ended up with this labyrinthian network, all these tunnels running parallel that are 30 or 50 years old, plus new ones built by the county and others built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s been a blast trying to find my way around.

I finally found something in L.A. that I’ve been looking for for a long time, which is a manhole I can pop out of and there’s a bar right there.

Ha! Do you have trouble with the cops?
The biggest problem I run into is more a matter of misunderstandings than me clashing with authorities. Federally, navigable waterways are public access. But when streams or rivers are underground, it’s hard to explain “I’m just boating on this stream underground.” One time in New Jersey, on a Sunday afternoon, I thought I was being discreet, but it turned out that more than 20 people (I suspect grandmothers) had reported me, and three cop cars came flying in and screeched to a halt. I started rambling, and they realized I was weird, but harmless. They kept me at the police station until they could run me by the FBI.

Duncan exploring an underground stream in Kissena Park, Queens.

Another time I was on a rooftop — this was the year after September 11 — taking pics at dawn, and someone reported me as a sniper with a rifle. They were putting me in a squad car when all the little kids in the neighborhood were headed off to school. But more often what happens is I’ll be poking around some area, like an old power plant, and somebody will find me. I’ll explain my interest, and the night engineers or local neighbors, who are also fascinated by the structures, realize that I share that fascination. Half the time I’ll get a tour.

I was arrested in Paris — a friend and I climbed the top of Notre Dame, and he decided to ring the bell. The police came and said, basically, we have to arrest you, but we understand why you did this.

What did they understand, do you think?
Just a few years ago, the U.N. determined that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. Urban environments are our major environments. It’s important to explore them a little bit. I’ve become more and more fascinated by sewage and drainage systems, and waterways, how they exist in the city today. I had to, when I started this, kind of poke around without permission. Now I can go to a city agency and ask. I’m trying to do this stuff more legitimately and tell stories about cities.

Are people always asking you to take them underground, or for tips on how to do it themselves?
I don’t want to give any advice to people that will get them in trouble or endanger them. Sometimes people are just naive…I got an email from someone who wanted to have a bachelorette party in an abandoned subway station. Much more intriguing to me is when people are interested in some kind of dialogue.

Do you have crazy insurance?
I have crazy insurance for my camera! I’m sometimes a little bit clumsy. I do end up in the hospital sometimes…but I think the same thing would happen if I were hiking around in the mountains. Yeah, underground is dirtier, but there’s not as far to fall…

What kind of accidents have you been in?
I almost lost my hand. I got a deep puncture wound, and I thought I was being really mature and adult by going to my doctor. He said, “Yeah, you should go to the hospital,” and I did, and they cleaned it out. I then got stinking drunk. I woke up when the booze didn’t keep me asleep anymore and my hand was the size of a football. If I didn’t have faith in modern medicine, I would have happily had them cut off my hand. They told me another 12 hours and I wouldn’t have lived.

What do girlfriends say about your hobby?
At the time I had a girlfriend who was horrified. I had someone else call her and tell her I was O.K. She eventually got sick of the urban side of things, dumped me, and married a cowboy! I think I’m doing much better with my current girlfriend: Our first date was climbing a bridge.

For more, check Duncan’s website, Undercity.org.

[JDoll / @thisisjendoll]

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