Guerrilla History & Urban Exploration

"An Urban Spelunker Pursues His Vision," The Westsider, June 18 2009, Front Page

"An Urban Spelunker Pursues His Vision" 
The Westsider
June 18 2009, Front Page
Article by Ryann Liebenthal, front page photo by Steve Duncan

Website of the Week at the Evening Leader Newspaper, North Wales

So I was in Russia, running through tunnels under Moscow and being terrified of the militisia (sort of the federal police), when I got this email:
to: steve@undercity.org
date: Fri, Jun 5, 2009 at 6:10 PM
subject: Website of the week

Hi Steve,
Your site has made it onto our website of the week column at the Evening Leader newspaper in North Wales...Keep up the good work. My editor particularly loves your New York photography.
 I gotta admit, I was definitely a bit excited about this. North Wales is one of those areas that seemed more legend than reality when I was reading about it as a child. It contained the kingdom of Gwynedd, the Llŷn Peninsula, and has a mountain range called Snowdonia. Rivers have names like the River Dyfrdwy, the River Conwy, and the River Dyfi. Anyone who ever read Lloyd Alexander as a child and fell in love with Princess Eilonwy will doubtless understand my excitement over this part of the world.

Anyway, regardless of my love of Welsh names, I know I'm in good company because Mark's "Best of the Web" column, in follwing weeks, also included things like Alias' excellent photography (mostly of sites in the UK) at http://www.guerillaphotography.fotopic.net/, and Tom Kirsch's - AKA Motts - beautiful photos (primarily from sites in the NYC region) at http://www.opacity.us.

NYC: The World's Fair Observation Towers

Relics of the World of Tomorrow: Climbing the Astro-View Observation Towers in Queens

         It was near midnight in late October, and I was in the Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, staring up at three concrete towers. They look something like three closely-spaced castle spires, with a flying saucer landed atop each one. The flying saucers are in fact huge round observation platforms, 64 feet in diameter; they were built for the 1964 World's Fair as the Astro-View Observation Towers of the New York State Pavilion's attractions.
         Visitors to the Fair packed into the streamlined Sky-Streak elevators that ascended on the outside of the towers, getting off at one of the three saucer-like platforms. From there, they looked out over an historic and unique display of mankind's greatest achievements, ranging from Michelangelo's Pieta to the world’s first public display of controlled nuclear fusion. Though the exhibits are now long gone, I desperately wanted to experience the view as well. At least I would be able to clearly see the centerpiece of the Fair, which had also been left standing: the striking 140-foot-tall stainless-steel globe called the Unisphere.
         Since the fair's end in 1965, however, the Astro-View Towers have been closed. The fair's governing body, the World's Fair Corporation, collapsed into bankruptcy, leaving the many plans for re-use of the pavilion structures unrealized. Now, decades later, weeds, bushes, and even trees grow around the Astro-View towers, and the rims and railings of the observation decks are thick with rust that is visible even from the ground. One of the Sky-Streak elevators remains, but it is stuck two-thirds of the way up the tower, with all the color faded out of its paint and pieces of its once-sleek shell slowly falling off.
         A tall fence with a locked gate surrounds the base of the towers, but I had discovered a slit cut low in the chain-link in an area hidden by thick bushes. I crawled through, trying to stay hidden as people came and went from the nearby Queens Theater in the Park. The theater too was part of the Fair's New York State Pavilion, and it is one of the few structures from the fair that is still used. Adjacent to the towers is the third structure of the Pavilion, the Tent of Tomorrow, a huge round arena that originally had a suspended roof of colorful panels supported by 98-foot-high concrete columns. Like the observation towers, it is long-abandoned, though the huge concrete columns remain, along with the giant terrazzo map of New York State embedded in its floor.
         From my spot in the bushes, I examined the three towers just as I had on previous visits, looking for a way up. There is a vertical slot in the side of each tower, like a tall narrow window, but the bottom of this window only starts at about third-floor level. Below that slot, there is nothing but blank and featureless concrete. Through the slot in one of the towers, I could see the framework of a stairway.
         There was a door in this tower, but it was firmly shut with not one, but two massive locks. Other than the door, the only possible way into the structure was through the slot-like window, but there was no way to climb up to it. A ladder would have solved the problem-but even if I had a ladder long enough, and managed to transport it via cab or subway, there was no way I could have set it up without attracting attention from people at the theater or from one of the police patrols that made frequent rounds in the park. There was only one solution I could think of: a grappling hook.
         I knew that it would be harder to use a grappling hook in real life than the movies make it seem. In the Hollywood conception of a grappling hook, the hero throws the hook, pulls at it until it catches firmly on something, and then climbs up the slender rope attached to the hook. But it's very difficult to climb straight up a slender rope; it needs to be as thick as a ship's hawser to give a good grip, and then it's too heavy to throw. I compromised by picking out a mid-size rope—5/16", about as thick as a standard rock-climber's safety rope—and then knotting it every two feet. It wasn't actual climbing gear, just a nylon rope I bought from the hardware store; it was not intended to support a person, but knew it would hold me for the short time I needed it to.
         The hook was harder. When I looked up "grappling hooks" on the web, I found everything from cheap ninja-styled toy hooks to antique grappling hooks collected by military enthusiasts. The most exciting thing I found was a $4,000 grappling-hook launcher, looking something like a bazooka, that could send a hook and trailing line nearly 500 feet. The ad copy didn't say, however, how the person who launched it from 500 feet away could see whether or not the hook had caught on anything solid before trusting his life to it. I needed something cheaper anyway. I decided it was time to call on some real talent, and I headed downstairs from my apartment to talk to Dan, the welder who lived on the bottom floor of our converted Brooklyn warehouse. He had once been a bridge-welder, and he had showed me a souvenir of his certification test: a chunk of a weld three inches thick between two steel beams, cut open to make sure there were no air pockets or defects through the entire thickness of the weld. After seeing that, I knew I could trust his skill.
         He told me it would be easy enough, but that I needed to find the steel. A few days later I was back with some rusty steel bars—nearly 3/4" thick—that I had scavenged from a construction site.
         The most challenging part of the project turned out to be making the eyelet for the rope. In order to make the whole thing as strong as possible, Dan wanted to make this out of the same bar that made the main hook, instead of attaching separate pieces of metal. He heated half the bar until with an oxy-acetylene torch until it was glowing cherry-red, and the air around it shimmered. Then, wearing huge leather gloves and welder's aprons, the two of us heaved at it together like medieval blacksmiths, trying to curl it around the vice that held one end. We even broke the vice loose, but Dan repaired it and we kept on, alternating between heaving at it and re-heating it. The hook end went more quickly. The finished product was not pretty, and heavy as a cannonball, but I was thrilled. I picked it up to admire it but it was still incredibly hot and it burned me even through my welder's glove. We dropped it into a bucket of water to cool, and the water steamed and bubbled.
         Three nights later, I was back at the old World's Fair site, and once again I was hiding in the bushes. The parking lot was full of cars. A friend, Jeremy, was with me. I'd lured him out with the promise of the most spectacular view of the night skyline he'd ever seen, and he had come with me even though it was November and the temperature was well below freezing, with one of those driving winds that can make New York in winter seem like the coldest place on earth. Now he looked both cold and worried.
         "I thought you said there was no one at the theater this week," he whispered to me.
         I had checked the theater's schedule, and had picked a night when there was no show scheduled. I hadn't thought about rehearsals, however, or any of the hundred other things that goes into a preparing a theater for future shows. We waited until past midnight, but the activity showed no signs of abating. It was far too cold to keep on waiting any longer, and we decided to go for it anyway. We would just have to stay inconspicuous and quiet. After crawling from our hiding place, I coiled the rope carefully, and then swung the hook and released it in a perfect underhand throw towards the window slot.
         It got less than halfway to the window before the weight of the rope caught at it, and the hook crashed back to the ground in an aborted arc that sent loud clangs of metal-on-stone echoing out into the night. We dove back into the bushes, and waited to make sure no one had heard. A police car came by, and for moment we both thought it was coming for us; but as it went on past us we realized it was just the normal park patrol. Jeremy tried throwing it next, with an equally useless result, and then we took turns: one person throwing it, and the other trying to catch it on the way down before it clattered on the concrete. We mostly failed—it's not easy to catch a falling chunk of heavy metal bars, especially one that falls unpredictably because of the rope drag—and we spent a lot of time diving back into the bushes and waiting to make sure no one had heard us.
         Finally, with Jeremy throwing the hook and me throwing the coil of rope behind it, it found the slot. I pulled on the rope and could feel the hook sliding in the interior of the pillar, and then it caught on something solid; the framework of the stairs, I thought. I tugged at it, and then started up hand-over-hand along the knots I'd tied.
         I think the hardest part about climbing a rope up a wall is near the top, where my own bodyweight tensions the rope and pulls it so close to the wall that it's hard to get a hand around it. (Lower on the rope, the angle is shallower, and so it's much easier to keep the rope away from the wall.) This climb was doubly difficult because I was worried about pulling the hook free if I changed the angle on the rope or moved it too much. I was able to make it almost to the top, though, without moving the rope, and I reached out for the smooth concrete sill at the bottom of the slot. I was about to breathe a sigh of relief when my foot slipped on a knot. My reaching hand slid uselessly off the smooth concrete, and the full weight of my body came down with a jerk onto my rope hand, mashing it painfully between the knot and the wall. In the first moment I was terrified I was going to fall from the rope. As I caught myself, I was even more frightened that the jerk of my arrest would pull the hook loose from its anchor. I glanced down; I was already much higher than I was accustomed to climbing without a harness and safety gear, and suddenly felt very, very nervous.
         I took a deep breath and carefully hooked my fingertips over the edge of the concrete again, before pulling myself up until I got one forearm, and then the other, onto it. There was still nothing to hold on to and I had to keep squirming forward, relying on friction, with my legs and most of my torso still hanging over nothing, before I could get a grip on an inner corner and pull myself all the way in. As I slid through the narrow gap and onto the stairs, I saw for the first time what had been serving as an anchor for my grappling hook and my life: a tiny, rusted electrical box, that looked like it might give way at any moment.
         Close up, the staircase inside the tower was a frightening wreck, with some of the metal treads rusted completely off. The framework at least was still mostly intact, although shaky and bent in places. I tied off the rope, leaned out the window, and whistled for Jeremy to tie my camera bag to the rope so I could haul it up. Then I dropped the rope back down again for him to climb. Slowly, and with great effort, he climbed about two-thirds of the way up, and then I could see him pause, trying to gather strength for the rest, before deciding on retreat instead. He made it most of the way back down before his grip weakened and he started to slip, sliding down the rest in a sort of controlled fall that left him sprawled on the concrete. He tried again, using his feet to better advantage, but with his arms already tired from the first attempt it was a hopeless task.
         "Go on," he called up to me. "I'll wait."
         My disappointment that he wasn't with me was quickly forgotten as I took stock of my situation and realized that I was actually in this thing. Above me was the first of the three platforms, and I started up.

         Because the treads were so weakened with rust, I straddled the stairs, with one foot on each side of the frame. In a few minutes I stepped out onto the first platform, which had originally been a cafeteria; I imaged hundreds of people, laughing, eating, and admiring the brilliant spectacle of the fair.
         I crossed to where the platform intersected the next tower, and continued up its equally deteriorated stairway. There was more and more damage as I went further up, and I was glad for the gloves that protected my hands from the rusted railings that I gripped tightly, in case something under my feet gave way. As awkward as my straddle-legged climbing was, I fell into a rhythm and was surprised when I quickly came out onto the second platform. This was much higher than the first; I stayed well away from the edge, wondering just how sturdy this old concrete was, and crossed over to the tallest tower.
         For most of its height, this tallest tower holds only the elevator and electrical wiring, but from the second to the third platform it's the only way up and so the access stairs are built into it. A short climb brought me directly beneath the top platform. Under each of the platforms, I noticed, the stairs were in slightly better shape; the deck itself must have protected the metal stairs from the rain that caused the rust.
         The top platform is double-decked, with the upper deck about 15 feet above the lower. The stairs between the two levels were deteriorated almost to the point of non-existence, and I had jump to avoid falling as two of the treads broke loose under my feet and crashed to the deck below. But then I was at the very top, and all around me was New York City, seen in rare and magnificent form.
         To the north, I could see the Unisphere, with Shea stadium and the National Tennis Center stadium behind it, and further away the green necklaces of the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges. As I watched I could see the lights of circling planes, too, waiting to land at LaGuardia. To the south, there was the alien-looking bulk of the Tent of Tomorrow and past that the Long Island Expressway, a great glowing stream of cars, and beyond that Meadow Lake and then Willow Lake, each one reflecting all the lights around it. Just to the east, I saw the Queens Theater building. Far to the west the skyline of Manhattan was nothing but tiny shapes of light in the distance, the buildings recognizable only by their relative heights, and all around me the vast city rippled and twinkled under the moon. I was mesmerized. I don't know how long I was up there, but eventually I realized that I was so cold that I couldn't stop shivering, and I started back down.


         The towers I climbed, along with the Unisphere, the Queens Theater, and the Tent of Tomorrow, are some of the most obvious relics of the Fair. In fact, though, much of the landscape that I'd seen from the towers-Meadow Lake, Willow Lake, the entire 1,255 acres of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and most of the highways-was also a legacy of the '64 World's Fair and of its predecessor on the site, the 1939 World's Fair.
         Thematically, both of the fairs expressed a belief in mankind's ability to change the world for the better through technology, and the history of the site itself gives strong support to this belief. Originally, Flushing Meadows and its environs were dotted with marshes, supplied by streams that flowed into the Flushing River and Flushing Bay. It was impossible to build in the marshy ground, and so as the surrounding area urbanized, the meadows became a landfill. By the 1920s, it was a giant ash dump, run by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company under a man called "Fishhooks" McCarthy. With the entire city running on coal heating, the area was described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the novel The Great Gatsby as a vast desolate, hellish "valley of ashes" that stretched as far as the eye could see.
         When the 1939 World's Fair was being planned, the Commissioner of the Parks Department was Robert Moses, a visionary whose single-minded focus on rebuilding the city to fit his visions was both horrifying and wonderful: horrifying sometimes for what he destroyed to make room for his visions, but wonderful for what he created. In the desolate landscape of the ash dump, where generations' worth of garbage had created hills over a hundred feet high, he saw the possibility of a green and fertile landscape for the Fair—a vast tract of land that, once landscaped, would continue to serve as a city park for generations to come.
         Unlike many visionaries, Robert Moses was very good at getting things done. In just three years, between 1936 and 1939, his workers filled in the marshes; re-channeled the Flushing River and built huge sewer tunnels to contain its tributary streams; created the 84-acre Meadow Lake, the largest in the city, as well as the smaller Willow Lake; and landscaped the entire 1,200 acres of newly-habitable land. Moses wrote that his teams "leveled the ash mountains, and rats big enough to wear saddles, with white whiskers a foot long, gazed wistfully at the bulldozers and [those] who disturbed their ancient solitary reign." By 1939, it had become the perfect setting for the fair, the theme of which was, appropriately, "Creating the World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today."
         The 1939 Fair was a tremendous success, and in a multitude of exhibits it expressed the same potent, supremely self-confident spirit that had led to the transformation of the site. At the center of the fair, visitors could enter the huge globe of the Perisphere and see, from a god's-eye view, an intricate model for a futuristic urban utopia called "Democracity." Even more fantastic, for many visitors, were the real scientific and engineering accomplishments introduced at the fair: technologies like television, air conditioning, nylon, color photography, and an early electric calculator.
         Twenty-five years later, the 1964 World's Fair was held in the same place. Robert Moses was the driving force behind this fair, even more so than he had been in 1939, and he became the chairman of the World's Fair Corporation. Like its predecessor, the 1964 Fair was a dazzling display that celebrated mankind's progress; there were artistic and historical treasures and technological wonders, including a display of early computers. Many exhibits—like the Apollo rockets that would soon take mankind to the moon—promised more wonders to come.
         It was not, however, an unqualified success. Attempting to increase revenue, Moses and the World's Fair Corporation charged fees to exhibitors and also opened it for two successive years, both of which violated standards set by the governing body for World's Fairs, the Bureau International des Expositions. Due to this, very few other nations participated, and so the major pavilions in 1964 were those of American companies, which of course had commercial rather than cultural goals.
         In the end, it was a financial disaster. The 50 million visitors were only about two-thirds of what had been anticipated, and at the end of the Fair the bankrupt corporation defaulted on a $24 million loan from the city and paid its other creditors only pennies on the dollar. The majority of the fair's pavilions were demolished as planned, but there was little money available to convert the remainder to permanent uses, and some—like the New York State Pavilion structures—were left to rot.
         When I think about the fair, though, these faults seem almost inconsequential. What is most important about both of the World's Fairs is the powerful and hopeful belief they expressed in the ability of mankind to create positive change in the world. The towering relics of the fair are reminders of this, but it is perhaps best shown in the fairground site itself: in what was first an uninhabitable swamp and then a desolate dump, the city created a shining vision of utopia; a place where nearly 100 million visitors came to see the future.