Guerrilla History & Urban Exploration

Travel & Leisure: Coolest Underground Travel Spots

"Coolest Underground Travel Spots"
By Jennifer Bain
Travel & Leisure online, December 12, 2008
None of my photos are in the article; I am only quoted.


Also carried on:

Urban Unconscious: Photography Auction Gala

Thank you to Miru Kim for including me in the November 1, 2008 auction/show, "Urban Unconscious."


One Week in a Hospital - Hazards of exploring underground rivers & sewers

Wading through an underground river last week, which still has the irregular, rocky bottom of a natural streambed, I slipped. As I went down I caught myself with my right hand. I wasn't wearing a glove, and as my hand plunged into the water in search of a hold I felt a shock. Yanking it out I felt something tear. Something-- metal, glass, or stone-- had pierced deep into my palm near the heel of my hand. The pain was incredible and I later learned it was because it had pierced the Carpel Tunnel, that bundle of nerves through the wrist, and had damaged the Ulnar nerve which controls the last two fingers.
The pain died down after a while but I still wanted to make sure it was OK. At the emergency room at the NYU Hospital Center, they took x-rays and said nothing was broken, but that even after cleaning there was some foreign material still embedded inside. "We'll suture it up loosely," said the resident, who I was pleased with at the time but who I now realize was a dangerous idiot. "Any dirt will be able to work its way out. It will be swollen and hurt tonight, but it should start getting better by tomorrow."

That was Monday. By Tuesday morning it was red and swollen and painful. By the time I got back to the hospital it was red and swollen to the elbow. By the time they officially checked me into the emergency room three hours later, it was red to the shoulder and I found that if I squeezed my grotesquely swollen wrist, pus would flow out of the wound on my palm.
"Stop that!" the ER nurse told me, but I felt like it was better out than in.
The pain was truly incredible, and it kept getting rapidly worse. By the time they got the hand surgeon down there, nasty streaks of infection were beginning to become visible on my chest as well.

They rushed me to surgery and cut open my hand and wrist to clean out the infection from its source. I was in-patient at the hospital for a week, on intense IV antibiotics. The surgeons removed the "foreign material" that had been in there, and upon culturing it found that the infection was three things:
Staph bacteria (occurs all over the place)
Enterobacter (bacteria often found in human feces)
Aeromonas Hydrophila (a hardy waterborne bacteria often found in leeches)

"It's exactly what we would have expected to find, knowing you were where you were when you got it," said one of the Infecious Diseases doctors, with a tone that I think showed both disapproval and a little awe. They don't often get walking laboratories of pathogens like this, I imagine.

Sadly I have no pictures of the early stages; I was too busy moaning from the pain, screaming for morphine, and praying for my arm to fall off and release me from the agony. But the picture at the top of this post shows it just after I got out of the hospital, after seven days of antibiotics and healing.

Conflux 2008 Project & Tour: Underground Streams

I led a couple walking tours at Conflux 2008 as part of my project "Looking for...", a quest to find out about New York City's lost waterways. See my website on the project here: http://watercourses.typepad.com/

Information on the Conflux event: http://confluxfestival.org/conflux2008/looking-for/

Before New York was developed, there were literally hundreds of streams running through the area now in the five boroughs, dozens large enough to be named and to function as important sources of freshwater. There were also springs that welled up from the ground, feeding streams or marshy areas. As the city grew, wells were dug to tap the water as well.

Most of these were covered over and forgotten; some of them still remain, merely hidden. Many more are referenced now by street names and symbols like street layouts and neighborhood names; most of the time these symbols, however, remain uninterpreted. I’d like to interpret them.

I will lead one or more walking tours (i’m thinking two, on two different days) and will point out some of these symbolic references to the pre-urban topography. I will also have packets of materials for different regions of NYC (things like copies from “Streams and Wells of Manhattan and the Bronx” and sections of the Viele Water map). These I will give to interested participants… and anyone who finds any clue, however recondite or obvious, to some ancient watercourse, will then email it in to a blog where it will post immediately. I hope by the end of the four days that we’ll both amass an informational archive, and be able to read oft-unread urban symbols of the past.

Gallery Show - Stage of Exploration: The World of Steve Duncan

Stage of Exploration: The World of Steve Duncan
Reception October 3rd, 2008
Curated by Pierrette Kulpa
Wine provided by Kalin Cellars
Gallery space provided by Dan Regard and the Dupont Circle Art Galleries First Friday program

Click here to see images from this show

Italo-Americano Homeless Edition, New York City with Fabio Volo

Italo-Americano Homeless Edition, New York City
Italian MTV
Original airdate July 24 2008 (In english, subtitled)
On-Camera & Location guide

In the spring I had a great time working with Fabio Volo and an Italian MTV crew. They wanted to meet some underground residents, so we spent the day walking through an old train tunnel. I'm in the first five minutes or so of the segment.

As of late 2008, the episode is available on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDYzqVX92vE

Monsterquest: Super Rats (History Channel)

Had a fun time working with the Monsterquest crew a few months back, and the episode aired on the History Channel for the first time on July 3, 2008, followed by July 5 and I think a few other dates. (Monsterquest is a series on the History Channel.)

From the TV Guide listing:
MonsterQuest : Super Rats Airs on Saturday July 05 09:00 PM

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that common rats once grew to massive sizes. Are these huge rodents making a comeback? Claims of huge rat sightings are being reported in startling numbers. Animal experts believe that these mutant rodents are getting bigger and bolder. Journey into the sewers with rat experts and meet witnesses who tell of cat-sized rats that have appetites for just about anything--including human flesh!

SUPER RATS is the most skin-crawling MONSTERQUEST yet!

I was originally hired to be a locations guide for them but I ended up being filmed and they used a bit of it-- their original plan of attaching cameras to rats to get the rodent-eye view (seriously!) didn't work out so well, and so I got a bigger part.

You can actually order this episode from them: http://store.aetv.com/html/product/index.jhtml?id=138750&name=Super+Rats+DVD

Tide & Current Taxi, with Marie Lorenz

The wonderful artist, boatmaker, and adventurer Marie Lorenz took me on a boat trip to check out some things on the Harlem River. My favorite moment? When she said, with a calm indifference as if she was commenting on the blueness of the sky, "Let's be careful with these waves. These are the same kind of waves that sank my boat last time."


Seattle: Searching for the Underground

A story of Seattle's underground, around the old downtown of Pioneer Square. Written in 2000.

Seattle's history is a story of conflagratory destruction and socioeconomic rebirth; a story of a city rising above ashes and tideflats, and leaving behind forgotten subterranean interstitices.

            The great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed 25 square blocks of the old wooden downtown around pioneer square, a downtown built on mud that had continually suffered near-flooding from high tides and rainfall. (The story goes that flush toilets were being installed in the 1880s, and every time there was a particularly high tide, the water level would rise so much that the toilets would back up and overflow).

            After the fire, the city fathers mandated that new construction must be in brick, not wood. But more importantly, they decided to solve the problem of sewerage for downtown. In order to make sure that the new construction was above the level of the tideflats, they raised all the streets one story above the old ground level, with eight-foot retaining walls on each side of the roads and landfill between. It was an impressive project and it must have looked quite crazy. (Although they weren’t the only city to do it—Chicago actually did something very similar, raising its streets and buildings slightly to accommodate a new sewer system in the late 19th century.) The new higher streets meant that sewers could slope down to the level of the ocean water, which meant no more fountaining toilets. But it also meant that all the old ground-level entrances of the buildings were now one story below street level.

            Another gold rush-- towards the Yukon, in 1897-- brought money and excitement to the rebuilt frontier town. The city and companies downtown built sidewalks from the new street level to what had been second-floor windows. Old ground floors became basements, and the old sidewalks became tunnels.

            Throughout the Pioneer Square area, you can see grids of little glass squares inset into the sidewalks. These were the skylights into the lower-level sidewalks, which become a physical avatar of the sub-pression of skid-row pestilence in Victorian-era gold-rush urbanization: rats and opium dealers, cheap whiskey and cheaper hookers, golddiggers gone broke in darksome vaults, diseases and empty bottles of booze. Somewhere along the road between prospecting and pestilence, in 1907, there was an outbreak of Bubonic Plague, which is of course carried by the fleas on the lithe and lean Rattus Rattus. The underground was officially closed by the city and only the desperate and downtrodden remained.

            Bill Spiedal, a historian and salesman of Seattle fact and fiction, led the first public tour of the underground in 1965. This was connected with the effort to declare the Pioneer Square area an Historic District, which was a good thing to do, if you will grant that banal and tawdry tourism is a better than banal and destructive modernism. I think it is.

            For the past years, the underground has been a forgotten sub-basement and a rubbish-heap for earthquake debris. The tour is awfully insipid, but it’s easier than sneaking in.

Bill Spiedel's Underground Tour, (206) 682-4646



            I took the Bill Spiedel’s tour of the underground and vowed to come back to the underground later. There’s more to it than what they show you, of course. And what they show you, just because they show it to you, is boring.

             I’d heard a rumor that the transient and homeless population of Seattle had taken to the underground, which makes a lot of sense in a cold and rainy climate. I decided to find some transient denizen of the underground and beg or bribe them to show me some way in. 

            They had a free keg of beer at the Green Tortoise hostel that evening, so I didn’t leave to roam the streets until late at night. I had a pint of whisky in my pocket but I left my camera behind. It’s a little more friable than I am. And breaking and entering while drunk, or climbing through intoxicated ratholes, is no time to be carrying something friable.

            On Post Avenue I stopped in at a basement bar. It was carved halfway under the sidewalk, near a blanked-out skylight grid. I had a beer and asked the bartender about the underground. “Are a lot of places built out under the sidewalk, into the old spaces, like this bar is?”

            He told me he didn’t know, and looked at me with that look that urban people give to strangers who seem overly friendly and conversational-like. The woman next to me overheard us, though. “You want to know about the underground tour?” She said. “They give a tour of it. It’s up there somewhere.” She pointed vaguely toward Pioneer Square. “I know,” I said, “but they don’t show very much of it. I was curious about the rest. Is most of it already built up, like it is here? Or can you still run around down there?”

            “Whoah,” she said, with kind of a glazed look in her eyes. Actually the glazed look was probably already there, she was pretty drunk. “wow…that’d be pretty cool... all those tunnels underground... Can you get into them?”

            “That’s what I'm trying to find out.”

            “Whoah,” she said again. She told me some long story, about how she’d explored some abandoned bunker out on Vashon Island, and how cool it was. I finished my beer and left.

            I found Dave on some street corner a bit south of Pioneer Square, a nondescript bum with his backpack and his dog, asking for spare change. I gave him a dollar and made my bid. “Hey man, what’s you’re name? I’m Steve.”


            “Hey, I heard that there’s some places here where there are tunnels under the sidewalk. You know of any way to get into ‘em without going down with the tour?”

            He looked at me blankly. “There’s a tour that’ll take you down there.”

            “I know, I took the tour. But it doesn’t show much of it. I’m a photographer, I want to find a way to go down and take some pictures outside of the tour.”

            He looked at me blankly, like he wasn’t sure if i was crazy or not.

            “Look, guy,” I said, “someone told me that a lot of people went down there to, you know, get out of the rain and all that. You know anything about that? You know, a dry place to sleep or whatever? I just want to take some pictures.”

            He shook his head slowly, suspiciously. “I dunno about that,” he said.

            Shit. I’m sounding like a crazy person, I thought. “You wanna drink?” I asked him, proffering the bottle. He took it and took a swig. “I don’t want to bug you or anything. I’m from New York, though, not around here. Where do people sleep around here when they don’t have any money?”

            He brightened up and took another swig. “Oh, I'm not from around here either. I’m from Michigan. But you know, there’re a few places. There’s Freeway park, right? But the cops hassle you there. We did a big thing, once, with this tent city sort of thing in Volunteer park, to publicize....”

            He told me about the adventures of homeless activism in Seattle, of SHARE-- Seattle Housing And Resource Effort-- and the tent city they’d been running on Beacon Hill. I listened raptly, distracted from my quest despite myself. “Did you know there are about seven thousand homeless people in Seattle?” he said.

            “Man, that’s a lot” I told him. “gimme the whisky.” He passed it over and I had took a burning gulp. “Look,” I said, “with so many people looking for a place out of the rain and cold, I'm sure some of ‘em have gotten underground, right? Look, I'd be willing to give someone five or ten bucks just to show me an entrance, you know? I'm not a cop or anything.”

            “Look, man, there’s nothing around here,” he told me. “I got some friends though who have this place down south a bit, by the water, there’s this old warehouse that you can get in through the wall, it’d be some good pictures, right?”

            “Yeah? how far away is it?”

            “like, a couple miles. it’s a long ways.”

            Shit. No way did I want to walk a couple miles, drunk and tired in this sullen gray night. I’d just gotten into town that morning after a twenty-two hour bus ride, and I was leaving the next day.

            “Look, Dave, I'm gonna try to find this shit that I think is around here,” I told him.  “If I don’t, maybe I'll find you again and you can introduce me to your friends.”

            We had another couple drinks and I gave him a couple bucks and went on, staggering. I climbed into a construction site and looked at where they were digging out the sidewalk for the foundation: nothing. I pulled at the grates of storm drains and kicked manhole covers. Nothing. Not even a hint that there might ever have been another level to this city.

            I listened to another bum with his guitar, singing the blues impressively well. I gave him a cigarette and asked him my questions. He didn’t know nuthin’. I found another guy and we talked it over. “No,” he said definitively. “There’s no places around here underground.” I pointed him to the evidence of the skylights inset in the sidewalk, but he was unconvinced. “If there was someplace down there, I'd know about it,” he told me angrily. I didn’t mention the tour that I'd taken, that had proved there was at least something down there. Such certitude should not be undermined.

            “But, man, I got some weed to sell,” he told me.

            “That’s ok, I don’t want to buy any.”

            “It’s good weed.”

            “I don’t want it.”

            “Man, it’s really fantastic stuff...”

            “Don’t want it.”

            “I’ll give it to you real cheap.”

            “I don’t want to carry any with me, see?”

            He paused, but only temporarily. With the look of a man who knows that he holds a king and all four aces up his sleeve, looked around slyly and pulled a baggie from his pocket. “Here, smell this.”

            It was so green and good-smelling, my resolution dissolved. “I really don’t want much,” I said, “but I'll give you a couple bucks for a joint.”

            He rolled one and I gave him a few bucks and we sat there somewhere on 1st Avenue and smoked it. We were in a niche underneath a construction awning with the century-old buildings looming around. Across the street, balding baby boomers and their fattening wives came out of a bar as it closed for the night.

            Shit. I had failed. I hadn’t found any way in. Maybe there wasn’t any more to this section of the city than what was above ground. No subterranean secrets lurking beyond the ken of normal men. I said goodbye to my new friend-- his name was Ronny or Donny or something-- and headed back. 

            And there, underneath my feet as I headed back, was a grating, locked down into the sidewalk next to Columbia Street. A flash of color caught my eye. I bent down to look-- there, on the concrete wall of this vault, ten feet down, was a huge spray-painted tag. I rattled the grating against lock that held it down, and then, like some drunken mouse scurrying for its hole, I searched the whole block for some other way down, but no luck. The painter must have come through a storm-drain mainline from somewhere else. Someone was underground, often enough to paint, and they’d come through the pipe from a few blocks away...

            I staggered back to the hostel, happy. There IS something down there.

The New York Moon: Living Deeply in New York

The New York Moon
"Living Deeply in New York"
February 2008
online at:

Resource Magazine: Undercity

Resource Magazine
February 2008
Text by Jonathan Melamed, Photos by Steve Duncan