The Subway Issue (Winter 2006)
"Urban Archeology: Steve Duncan for Milkshake Chocolate" [interview]
By Patricia Yague
Online at http://milkshakechocolate.net/subwayNYCsduncan.htm
Text of Interview:
Steve Duncan for Milkshake Chocolate
* How and why did you start to explore the hidden parts of the cities?
I started pretty much as soon as i came to New York.
I came to NYC for school, and fell in love with the city right away. For the first few months here, i kept on "discovering" things that everyone knows about-- I was really excited to find out i could walk across the Brooklyn Bridge; I biked around the city and wandered around the abandoned piers on the west side of Manhattan; and sometimes when i was around industrial parts of the city i'd go into random buildings and see if I could get onto the rooftops, just to be able to see the city laid out and see how the blocks connected.And i was in college, at Columbia University, which is a century-old campus which was actually built on the site of a former insane asylum (the Bloomingdale Insane asylum was there in the 19th century). Like most universities, all the buildings on campus are connected to each other with a series of utility tunnels that carry steam, water, and phone and data lines. But because it's a fairly old university built in New York, the tunnels range greatly in age, and there are even one or two tunnels that incorporate old stone foundations from the insane asylum that used to be there. So I became fascinated when i realized that you could literally see the past by going underground. Also at the time it was a huge adventure to try to find ways into the closed-off sections of the tunnels... The challenge was really exciting, and it was also exciting to realize that there were these relatively unknown and hidden spaces that were closed off to most people, just hidden away behind locked doors and the walls of ignorance that most people have about the world around them.
* What was the first "discovery" you made and how came?
There were two "discoveries" i made that really excited me, although of course they had long since been discovered and even researched by other people, and it was simply the fact that I had to work to find them myself that made them feel like discoveries.
The first was the "mole people" tunnel, a huge old freight train tunnel on Manhattan's Upper West Side that was home to a colony of 200 or so homeless during the 1980s and early 1990s.
By the time i heard about it, in 1997, Amtrak had taken it over and started running trains through it and in the process, along with Guiliani's city government, had kicked out almost everyone who had previously lived in the tunnel. But there were still a few people living down there, and i heard that some of them got in by digging tunnels underneath the wall that formed the side of the tunnel in Riverside Park. I decided to do the same thing, and spent a long, very tiring night digging before eventually breaking through into the tunnel, where I found huge painted murals in the darkness-- some upwards of 20 feet high-- left over from the era when there had been a real community down there. Graffiti artists had come down and painted murals specifically for the community down there. I was really excited, but later on I was chagrined to find out that if i'd just walked a half-mile north i could have gotten in through the wide-open tunnel entrance... Although actually that too was a bit of an education in the way that the multi-layeredness of the city makes even relatively accessible spaces hidden and hard to find.
The other "discovery" I made was at Columbia University-- I was still in school there-- and I'd heard for years that the origins of the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic bomb, had taken place at the physics building on campus and had utilized the tunnels for some of the transport of materials. In researching the history, I eventually found out that the first time the atom had been split in the United States-- the first step in making the atomic bomb-- had been at Columbia University, using a primitive particle accelerator called a cyclotron. Between a bit of research and a lot of poking around, I eventually found the remnants of that original cyclotron, hidden away in a basement section of the physics building. It had been left there, and even walled off from the main tunnel system, because it was still slightly radioactive. That hooked me-- if these vital bits of american history were just hidden away and forgotten about, I realized what i really wanted to do was to find them-- to seek them out and try to share with other people both the historical stories and the thrill of researching and finding these objects and spaces that were a direct link to the history of the city.
* What's the relation between urban archaeologists and police department? are your explorations seen as "dangerous" as graffiti, for example?
There are a lot of different opinions on this from different people who consider themselves "urban explorers" or "urban archeologists."
My own opinion is that urban exploration and historic preservation are two sides of the same coin-- and i think that generally "urban explorers" are people who love cities, who are interested in history, and who simply want to see and understand more of the city. And of course we urban explorers are not trying to leave their mark in the way that graffiti artist do. So my opinion is that the authorities-- the police and the municipal governments-- should welcome, or at least respect and appreciate, people who want to explore the city and its history.
However, urban exploration is basically a very niche activity that few people think of as a real activity or hobby, and most police and authorities have never even thought about people doing things like that. So if someone like me gets caught climbing around some abandoned historic building, or peering down a manhole to try to find an underground river, the cops usually just assume that we're either graffiti artists, vandals, thieves, or even misguided terrorists. I've spent plenty of time trying to explain to very puzzled security guards why in the world i would want to take pictures of some abandoned, fallen-down building or why i am interested in tunnels.
* Is there any special clothing you use? Any special tools or equipment?
It really all depends on what specific thing i'm doing. One of the most expensive, but also most reassuring pieces of gear i have is an air-sensor, which checks for toxic gases, flammable gases, and also for low oxygen content. It's the sort of thing that sewer workers use. It's really reassuring to have it in abandoned mines, sewer tunnels, underground rivers, and any other place where i'm not sure what the air quality is like. (Although in fact it's actually very rare to run across bad air, but it's always something to worry about.)
Other than that, common issues in old buildings include asbestos and the dangers of falling through floors; some people use high-quality respirators when exploring or photographing old buildings that still have asbestos inside, but i don't usually worry about it.
* Tell us about the Franklin Roosevelt elevator in Grand Central Station in NYC
In order to conceal his infirmity, Franklin Roosevelt would try to avoid reporters and the public when traveling to NYC from Washington. He had a private train car, which would pull up into a special track underneath Grand Central. (Grand Central has two major levels underground, and each level has many lines and platforms; in addition there are other spaces between and around those two train-track levels). Once there, underneath Grand Central, he would take a secret elevator which would take him to the road level, just across the street from the Waldorf-Astoria.
* What has been the best and the worst experience as an urban explorer?
Definitely one of my worst experiences was being almost trapped and drowned in a storm drain underneath Queens; it was a drain with an outlet below the level of high tide, and through some incredibly bad planning, i was exploring it just prior to the arrival of a big storm that flooded parts of Queens. I was with one other person, and we hadn't known that the entrance would be blocked by the high tide until it started coming in. We were still about a mile from the exit, but to get there we had to fight the incoming current, and due to both the rain and the tide the water was rising rapidly-- we realized quickly we didn't have any chance of making it to the exit in time. For a while we thought that we would have to go back further inland and wait out the tide, while hoping that the rain wouldn't raise the level of water in the tunnel to the point of taking away all our airspace; but we were also checking out every side tunnel we could before the water rose too much, and eventually we were able to get out of a manhole onto a street. The water had been up to our chest level and moving so fast that we could barely stand in it, and it was utterly bizarre to look down the manhole shaft into the black and terrifying current of the water, nearly filling up the pipe, and then look up at the street and buildings and cars passing around us in the rain, with everything looking so normal.
On the other hand, that kind of terrifying experience also really illustrated part of what i love about this stuff-- that you can be in another world, a totally different environment, having some crazy adventure and far separate from the normal life of the city-- while still being physically no more than a few dozen feet above or below the workaday city that we know on a daily basis. If nothing else, it proves that you don't have to go far away to have adventures-- you don't have to travel to Mount Everest to challenge yourself-- if you look hard enough, you can find adventure and excitement in your own backyard.
* Is there any favorite city for urban explorers around the world and for you in special? why?
Paris is definitely well-known for its underground-- a network of over 200 miles of old quarry tunnels stretches underneath the southern half of the city. It's a labyrinth with parts dating as far back as the 12th century. They're usually called the Catacombs because during the 18th and 19th centuries a few parts were used to deposit the bones of upwards of 7 million people-- but that's only a fraction of what is to be found down there; you can also find places ranging from wine cellars from centuries ago to bunkers used during World War II. I particularly love underground spaces, so that city definitely is one of my favorites.
In the States, the twin cities of Minneapolis/St Paul actually have what i think is the most extensive underground system in the US, because of a fortuitous combination of a rich industrial heritage and a soft sandstone layer that's easy to tunnel through. Up to seven different systems of tunnels, from electric to sewer, interconnect underneath St Paul.
New York doesn't have nearly as extensive an underground, and our underground structures also aren't connected to each other, so you can't really travel from one underground space to another through the city. But New York is a unique city and the spaces here resonant with all of the amazing history of this place, so I still think of New York as my favorite city.
* Is there any urban archaeologist whose discoveries you follow? why?
Not as such... I talk with a lot of people around the world who have similar interests, especially others who are involved in photography, but we all share information and ideas. In terms of research, i find myself reading a lot from a lot of different urban historians, most of whom are far better historians than i ever will be, but few people seem to be involved in exactly the same sort of urban archeology that i love.