Urban Cowboys Urban Cowboys

Urban Cowboys

by William Wheeler Joshua Yaffa Steve Duncan

March 17, 2009

Photo by Steve Duncan At any hour of day or night, urban explorers risk their safety (and their criminal records) to plow though subways, scale tall buildings, and sneak into long-abandoned tunnels. Naturally, we decided to tag along.Just before one o'clock in the morning, Steve Duncan ducks off Heward Street in Brooklyn, and down into the Broadway station of the G train. He swipes his Metrocard at the turnstile and heads toward the southbound platform, a nylon camping backpack slung over his right shoulder and a camera tripod tucked under his left arm. Steve is 30, and has a fuzzy beard, a thinning tuft of unkempt blond hair, and a pair of darting blue eyes.Alongside him walks Moses Gates, a 33-year-old urban planner and part-time tour guide, who has been a close friend of Duncan's ever since they scaled the Williamsburg Savings Bank building together four years ago. Two years later, they were arrested in Paris, when, after climbing Notre Dame, Gates decided to ring the cathedral bell.
Photo by Steve Duncan
Inside the station, the tile lining the walls is cracked and damp, and a misspelled sign announces the stop as "Brodaway." The 70-year-old station is a little-used outpost on the G train, New York City's least-traveled subway line, and the only underground route that never touches Manhattan. Besides the lone agent manning his ticket booth, and a homeless man asleep on a bench, Duncan and Gates have the place to themselves.They pass the subway platform's wooden benches, where, within hours, the borough's morning commuters will be waiting for a ride to work. Duncan reaches the platform edge, a white wall tinted green with mildew. He pauses, takes a last glance around the station, and with a quick step heads onto a ledge above the track. He starts down the narrow footpath that runs along the inside of the tunnel. He darts left, through the gap in a chain-link fence, and disappears into the darkness.He is headed into one of New York's many architectural oddities, a barely-hidden fold in the city's fabric. Duncan calls himself a "guerilla historian of Gotham," a narrator of the city's forgotten and forbidden places. He is one of an untold number of urban explorers around the world, a loosely organized subculture, otherwise described as "creeping," "infiltration," "urban spelunking," or "reality hacking."For those with the right kind of eyes, cities like New York, Moscow, or Paris, offer a metal and brick simulacrum of nature, their tunnels, sewers, and bridges inheriting the role of the caves, rivers, and cliffs that have lured adventurers for centuries.Duncan, like many urban explorers, is something of a troublemaker and an autodidact. His adventures have taken him from catacombs to skyscrapers in a half-dozen countries, and landed him with a broken hip, an arrest record, and several brushes with death. He first explored the tunnels beneath Columbia University as an undergraduate 10 years ago. Now he is working on a book about hidden spaces in the city, which is why he is here tonight, in a ghost station built in the 1930s to host a train line that was never finished.Gates follows behind Duncan, into a hallway lit by an exposed light bulb that glows a soft, dusty blue. At the end of the passage, Gates picks up a rickety wooden ladder from the dirt and leans it against a cement ledge. They put on headlamps and climb into the cavern overhead. At the top, Duncan emerges into a dark chamber. He pans his beam around the soccer-field sized room, illuminating rows of steel arches and four empty train track beds-what would have been the South 4th Street station.The station was designed as a major hub for the Second System, a network of routes that would have run from Manhattan's Upper West Side to Brooklyn, here at South 4th Street and Broadway. Officials unveiled the plans in the fall of 1929, boasting that the extension would bring subway service to within a half-mile of every resident's front door. But weeks later, on Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed, erasing the prosperity of the 1920s, and taking along with it most of the municipal funding for the Second System.Duncan drops to a knee, and unzips a compartment of his backpack that is full of lenses and flashes. Underground, where ambient light is scarce, he uses long exposure shots, some of which can stretch to several minutes. In the station, he clicks the shutter and paces back and forth along the platform, painting the interior with a flashlight. In the middle of one shot, a train approaches on the track below. The hollow space is filled with a low, guttural rumble."Watch it with the lights," Duncan says. For a few moments, it is silent again as the train passes. Then Gates opens a beer, and the crisp, metallic thwack echoes off the station walls.
Photo by Steve Duncan
Steve Duncan grew up in Cheverly, a small town in the Maryland suburbs, just outside of College Park. At 18, he left for New York to start college at Columbia University, where he planned to major in English. Late one night in the first semester of his freshman year, he found himself locked out of the school's math building. He needed to get the computer lab to finish a take-home calculus exam due the next day. Stuck, he remembered hearing stories about extensive tunnels crisscrossing beneath the school.The oldest of Columbia's tunnels were built in the early 19th century, on the grounds of what was then the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, a mental hospital that took up most of the school's present-day campus. In time, the university built more tunnels to hold steam pipes and electrical cables, and now the underground network is the third-largest such system in the world, after those under the Kremlin and MIT.That night, through an unlocked door, Steve walked down a pitch-black staircase, following a line of steam pipes until he eventually emerged into the basement of the math building. His curiosity grew, and by his sophomore year, when he studied with Kenneth Jackson, a popular professor of urban studies, he was hooked. Jackson tells all his students that the city is like a body, with the most interesting and important functions hidden inside. "New York is filled with ghosts," he says. "The ghosts of people that lived there, and the ghosts of buildings that used to be there."It was a cheap thrill, running from building to building underground, but it also stirred his curiosity. Beneath the school, Duncan found the stone foundation of the old mental hospital, and the original Manhattan Project cyclotron, the 1930s-era particle accelerator used to develop the atomic bomb. Before long, Duncan had worked his way through most of the school's tunnel network, and he moved on to bigger sites, like the remnants of the High Line railroad in Chelsea and the so-called "Mole People" train tunnel. On the internet, he discovered a like-minded group of explorers in Minneapolis-"a bunch of college dorks like me having adventures and writing about them," he says-and then found his way to an urban exploration forum in Toronto. There, Duncan learned about other groups wandering through the sewers of Naples and Melbourne, the catacombs of Paris, and the Stalin-era bunkers underneath Moscow.
Steve Duncan's adventures have taken him from catacombs to skyscrapers in a half-dozen countries, and landed him with a broken arm, an arrest record, and several brushes with death.
Back in New York, Steve began exploring with Lefty Leibowitz and L.B. Deyo, two screwball adventurers who, in 1997, founded Jinx Magazine, a clearinghouse of information on the growing subculture. In the online pages of Jinx, a worldwide cast of contributors chronicled their journeys beneath the city.In those early days, urban exploration had a certain fun house quality. It was the age of grand dinner parties underground and elaborate performance art pieces staged in abandoned mental hospitals. Explorers gave themselves mysterious aliases and dressed up in dark suits and wrap-around sunglasses, resembling the form-shifting agents from The Matrix.But after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, the police began to take a less forgiving look at anyone caught running around where they weren't supposed to be, and the city moved to lock down unprotected entrances to bridges and the subway. It became harder to go on explorations, and the New York scene began to splinter. Deyo took off for Austin, and of late, Lefty Leibowitz has been devoting most of his energies to the Gotham Girls Roller Derby, a campy spectacle of buxom women crashing into one another on skates.That leaves Duncan, who started his own map publishing business five years ago. He makes maps of New York City from his apartment in Brooklyn, but he still spends most of his time researching and organizing explorations. "Steve's quest, and I don't think he's ever actually accomplished it, is to capture in a picture the feeling of actually being there," says Gates.With his book, Duncan wants to popularize this view of history, to allow people to experience, if even vicariously, the seductive beauty of the city tucked just out of view. Over the years, he has gone through 10 possible titles for the book, which is still largely unfinished. He writes drafts, then rips them up and starts over. "Really, the book is a love story about me and New York," he says. "That's the one relationship I've been able to keep."A few months back, he broke up with his girlfriend of four years. Sometimes he wonders if New York is the only lover that won't bore him. "In the city, everything you look at has this incredible unfolding of stories," he says. To Steve, the city is a series of layers built on top of layers, with apartment buildings stacked atop sewers and subway tunnels crossing under bridges. Unraveling that patchwork, he says, is "just another turn on, another piece of clothing to take off."
Photo by Steve Duncan  The Knickerbocker sewer is a 12-foot wide intestinal tract that runs beneath the streets of Brooklyn. Flashlight beams falter at 50 feet against the tunnel's swirling vapors. Wading knee-deep through the bacterial wash, it's difficult not to imagine what, exactly, constitutes the inches of silt between the sole of one's rubber boot and the sewer floor. It is here, where the city breathes and belches, where Steve feels most at home.As he wades upstream one winter night, he runs his hand along the sewer's red masonry walls, a 120-year-old vestige of a time when New York was a city built in brick. Duncan is wearing hip-high rubber boots, a headlamp and a respirator to protect him from the fumes. He also brought his tripod, a camera bag and Shane Perez, a 26-year-old photographer with a mohawk, whose personal interest in urban exploration centers on shooting nude women in abandoned industrial plants.Duncan and Perez found one another on an internet forum for urban explorers, where they also came across a mention of old architectural blueprints for tonight's mission, a section of sewer built in the late 19th century.For years, Newtown Creek, which separates Brooklyn from Queens, was the endpoint of an open sewer that dumped muck from 2,800 acres of flood-prone lowland. It gave rise to a growing number of complaints from local residents, so, in 1885, the city undertook a $600,000 construction project to carry sewage from homes around Newtown Creek to the rocky banks of the East River, nearly one mile away. But, as Duncan explains, the plan of digging one long trench was deemed too dangerous."Because the area was already built up, they didn't want houses collapsing on it," he says, as he slogs deeper into the tunnel. A rat runs along the surface of the wall, slipping as it loses its grip on the wet brick. "So they couldn't do the cut-and-cover," Duncan continues, shouting over the rumble, indifferent to the frothy mess running up to his knees. Instead, he goes on to explain, engineers sunk deep shafts every few hundred feet, and tunneled towards the adjacent shaft in either direction. Duncan's voice becomes more excited, and his speech quickens. "At the same time they were pioneering new bridge building techniques on the Brooklyn Bridge, and learning how to build deep piers for the first time, the guys down here were using new tunneling methods."His speech is interrupted by a shout from Perez. "Fore!" he yells, pointing to a dark blob in the water. "We've got a floater!"

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a pastime that often involves breaking locks, climbing fences, and running along stretches of active subway tracks, urban exploration can land its practitioners in the hospital or in jail.

Duncan has been in both. A few years ago, he nearly drowned in a storm-flooded sewer in Queens. With rainwater filling the tunnel around him, he swam through the neck-high current until he could find a spot to pop a manhole cover, and he emerged on the street above, heaving and soggy. Another time, a crumbling staircase at a former smallpox hospital gave way, sending him crashing down to the floor below. He keeps a rusted chunk of the stairs framed above his bed. "It's a reminder not to be an idiot," he says.He heard similar advice from a Manhattan district court judge. In November, 2001, just two months after September 11, Duncan, dressed in dark clothing and carrying a camera bag on his shoulder, mounted the scaffolding around the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 110th Street in Manhattan. He climbed his way to the roof, where he set up his tripod and started panning his camera around the city, more than a hundred feet below. Within a few minutes, he was startled by the squawk of a police radio. He looked down to see dozens of squad cars and paddy wagons, with a team of SWAT officers climbing after him. "They thought I was a sniper," he recalls. He was charged with reckless endangerment and criminal trespassing. After a night in jail, the judge looked at Duncan and told him, "You're a good kid. Stop acting like an idiot."For a while, Duncan complied. He limited his expeditions to walking miles of abandoned train tracks in Queens, and using rappelling gear to scale vacant apartment buildings. But soon enough, he felt the inevitable pull of the city's underworld. He called some old friends, and picked up where he left off with his book project. For Duncan, it's a calculus of risks versus rewards, and the high always seems to linger longer than the consequences. In hindsight, he admits, the close call never feels as close. "I've gotten away a lot more than I've gotten caught," he says.
After the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, the police began to take a less forgiving look at anyone caught running around where they weren't supposed to be.
Of course, being the de facto spokesperson for urban exploration in New York has made Duncan a target for city authorities, who view him less as an amateur historian and more as a trespasser and vandal. In March, 2006, Steve took The New York Times columnist Dan Barry on an hours-long tour through the Croton Aqueduct, the city's first source of fresh water, built in the 1830s. Within two months of the article's publication, the Department of Environmental Protection had sealed up several of manhole covers and other possible entry points along the aqueduct's 41-mile span. "It's as if an art collector had a Picasso in a ground-floor room, and then got annoyed at people stopping to look at it," Duncan says.To explorers, what's hidden is public, and an abandoned subway station is no less a space for contemplation and study than a national park. "There are the historians that sit in the library, reading books and writing about it," says Joe Anastasio, an elder statesmen among New York's explorers.  "But we are the troops on the ground, going out and finding these places that have never been documented."That's how Duncan sees himself. A couple years back, he and Gates traveled to Europe to meet with explorers there. They went on joint missions in the Paris catacombs, and the world's oldest active sewer in Rome, Italy. In Germany, they met with urban historians at the Berliner Unterwelten e.V., the Berlin Underworld Society.Underneath the city, Duncan gets to be guide and narrator, and one gets the sense that it wouldn't be nearly as fun if a bunch of strangers actually started showing up. There is an undeniable sense of boyish enthusiasm that underscores most of his explorations. In one moment, he can be giving a subterranean lecture on this history of bridge engineering, the next telling scatological jokes next to a frothing sewer pipe.What motivates other urban explorers is as varied as the cities they explore. Some prefer the quiet of the underground, others like the adrenaline rush of free-climbing bridges and towers. But all share a certain love for the city's mechanical innards."Most people drive over a bridge and don't think anything of it," Perez says. "But I see a bridge and I start thinking. I want to know what its suspension cables look like. I want to know what its control room looks like. I want to know what it feels like to walk across the top."
Photo by Steve Duncan Late one night, Duncan and Gates are in Duncan's car, driving south through Brooklyn, passing a section of old warehouses converted into condominium lofts, then over the Gowanus Canal and past a long row of red-brick housing projects. A few minutes later, they merge onto Flatbush Avenue, and cross over the Marine Parkway Bridge. In the passenger seat, Gates cranes his neck to check out the bridge's two metal towers, rising 10 stories into the dark sky. In the early 1930s, Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City, announced his plan to create a bridge connecting Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to the Rockaways, an outlying beach community in Queens. When it opened in 1937, the bridge's vertical span was the largest in the world."I heard Sane died on this bridge," says Gates, referring to the graffiti artist who was one of the city's most prolific and notorious taggers. In 1990, his body was found floating in the waters off Brooklyn. For their attraction to the darkness, and antagonism for city authorities, graffiti writers and urban explorers share a certain kinship, and often run into one another underground.Duncan parks the car on a side street just off the exit ramp on the Queens side of the bridge. It is almost two o'clock in the morning, and a low fog has settled over the bay, giving the surrounding marshland a hazy, spectral glow.They walk single file along the bridge's pedestrian walkway, stopping near the base of one of the towers. Duncan throws his leg over the thigh-high railing, and makes a dash up the staircase that hangs on the outside of the bridge. Gates waits for a car to pass and then hops over. From a platform that hangs above the car traffic on the bridge, a series of ladders stretch to the top of the tower, nearly a hundred feet above. They start climbing. After about half a dozen of these staircases, the opening to the last flight is blocked by a metal gate."You could stand there," Gates says, pointing to ledge, not much more than half a foot wide. Duncan climbs up on the ledge, stretches his leg over the gap, and takes a quick glance at the wobbly line of cars rushing below. Cautiously, he pulls his way over to a platform on the other side.The door there is locked. After a few minutes of feeling around for another way up, they find a narrow shaft wedged between the bridge's massive orange gears.  They stuff themselves inside, and start to slither their way up, pulling on the fat, greasy cables spooled around the metal cogs.When they come out, Duncan and Gates are standing on top of the bridge, just outside of the door to the control room. They go inside, and head for the window. Outside, the yellow lights of the bridge drown out the few stars in the sky. Beyond the black silhouette of Jamaica Bay, the city glows in the distance. Duncan starts to unpack his camera. He opens a window, letting in a burst of cold air. Faintly, he can hear the distant bleat of an alarm.Duncan points toward a metal sensor at the top of the doorframe. Their entrance had triggered the alarm. "We're out of here," he says. For a moment, Gates argues that they should stay put, that the police would never chase them up a ladder. Duncan knows better, and is already throwing his equipment back together. They launch themselves back into the wheel well, and race down the ladder. At the bottom, they vault over the railing back onto the walkway. They run awkwardly, like two people who didn't want to look like they are running.When they get back to the car, Gates opens the trunk, and takes out a beer. They wonder how long it will take for the police to show up. Ten minutes later, they have their answer, as a lone police cruiser drives up to the bridge, its lights bouncing off the rusty metal frame.  Duncan uses a paper towel to wipe the grease from the bridge of his hands and arms. "By tomorrow," he says, smiling, "I'll forget how close we were to getting caught."Duncan starts the car, and heads east down Beach Channel Drive, away from the bridge. The thrill is already fading. He noses the car back toward Brooklyn, and, before long, the conversation turns to the 145-foot high monument at Fort Greene Park. Duncan and Gates want to go climb it. "You're up above everything," Duncan says. "You can see all the bridges, the whole city skyline, lights everywhere."
Photo by Steve Duncan  For more reading and photographs, visit Steve Duncan's site at undercity.org, Moses Gates' site at allcitynewyork.com, and Shane Perez's site at shaneperez.com.
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Urban Cowboys