In the underbellies and canopies of New York City neighborhoods, a small group of hobbyists, known colloquially as urban explorers, wander through subways and sewers, climb bridges and cathedrals, and journey through culverts and tunnels with or without the consent of the law.
Of the urban explorers–it’s called urbex for short–Steven Duncan is perhaps the most famous. A little over a year ago, cinemetographer Andrew Wonder filmed Duncan as he explored the infrastructure of New York City. The resulting 30-minute film, called Undercity, will remind you of your middle school days toilet-papering houses–except that Duncan and Wonder faced the serious charge of criminal trespassing. The documentary shows them sneaking through subways and sewers and avoiding patrolmen and construction workers, to say nothing of the fast-hurtling subway trains themselves.
Duncan, who has a website dedicated to urban exploration, views it as something approaching a craft or an art form. In the video, he leads Wonder and his camera into ancient, two-centuries old sewer ducts, into disused subway terminals, and atop towering bridges. A student of public history, he tells of the stories of the places, describing the technical infrastructure. At one point, for example, standing in one of the original transit stations–now unused–Duncan says, “This is a very beautiful curve, but the trains are too long to use it now. It makes you wish they built more stations like this.”
This he says just after warning Wonder that, “The first thing to watch out for is not hitting the third rail. That’ll kill you quick. The next thing to watch out for is not getting hit by trains.”
In a later segment of the documentary, the urban explorers venture into the Freedom Tunnel, so named because of the art painted there by graffiti artist Chris “Freedom” Pape. Located beneath Riverside Park, Manhattan, the tunnel, abandoned by Amtrak, became home to a subterranean shanty town, sheltering hundreds of homeless. In 1991, Amtrak reopened the tunnel, evicting the homeless and bulldozing their makeshift homes. Today, the tunnel is once again vacant, except for a few homeless folk–encountered in the Undercity documentary–who’ve returned.
Of course, Duncan is not the only urban explorer. Many do it legally, getting permission to go into the nether-regions of the city. Moses Gates, who admittedly cut his teeth tresspassing on urban exploration jaunts, no longer breaks the law. An urban planner, Moses takes an approach that is both professional and hands on, setting about the city to learn about its infrastructure, the trusses and beams on which the tons of cement, metal and humanity sit. He has an information-rich website here.
Most recently, Brian Patrick Eha, a journalist and writer based out of New York City, gave a narrative account of his urban exploration adventure with Steven Lynch, an urban exploration enthusiast, in Outside Magazine. His ten-page exposition, published July 9, gives a comprehensive review of urban exploration, telling the grass-roots history of the movement, profiling several of the hobby’s aficionados, and telling the backstory of his own urban exploring. Check the article out here.
In addtion, urbex enthusiasts like Wes Moldes have created a network of sites wherein the underground hobby gains momentum and thrives. Moldes’s site contains everything from his own stories to a how-to guide for urban exploration.