Dark Age: Exploring New York’s Forgotten Worlds after 9/11
By William Launder
(Unpublished Article. Copyright William Launder 2006)
Ten stories above the East River inside the Hellgate railroad bridge rafters, Steve Duncan fiddles with the shutter of his digital Canon SLR while friend Moses Gates poses inside the bridge rigging, the glowing skyline of Manhattan framing the photos they have walked, climbed, and crawled here for in the middle of this cold December night.
Duncan’s hard-won photos will serve as proof of the evening’s escapade, one of many bridge climbing and tunnel spelunking adventures that define the urban explorer’s craft: a mix of urban archeology and trespassing where adherents break into city structures closed to the public in order to rediscover unfrequented parts of New York and other cities worldwide. From the Paris catacombs to derelict Moscow subway stations and abandoned Colorado missile silos, urban explorers are tapping the city’s forgotten labyrinths in search of novel experiences.
“If there is a common thread bonding all urban explorers, it’s about being on top of something,” says Duncan, 27, whose first excursions as a sophomore at Columbia University involved exploring steam tunnels beneath campus. “We have these anthills called cities, and if you can understand them better by seeing them from above or below, you earn a chance to be on top of them physically and metaphorically.”
The risks of this renegade exploration are not insignificant --- Duncan almost drowned exploring a Brooklyn tunnel that flash flooded during a rain storm. Julia Solis, whose burgundy-dyed hair and seductive dark looks have drawn more than one comparison to the heroines of film-noire classics, nearly impaled herself sliding past jagged metal debris in a water tunnel. Electrocution by unmarked live wires or subway rails is conceivable too.
“We lose a few dozen people per year, mostly homeless people, who are decapitated in the subway tunnels,” says David Sussman, community affairs director for the Metropolitan Transit Authority responsible for the subway system and many municipal bridges. “I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone doing this. It is not only dangerous, but it is also illegal.”
Duncan and Gates, who consider themselves core participants in the New York explorers community with about 20 active participants and dozens of armchair wanna-be’s, say they’ve never heard of anyone being seriously injured or killed so far. The real risk for competent explorers, they say, is a New York City Police Department increasingly paranoid about trespassing of all kinds and charged with fortifying the city against terrorism.
“The underground is being policed like never before. Hatches have been sealed, subaquatic tunnels are guarded, and cameras have been installed,” Solis begins her urban exploration book, “New York Underground: The Anatomy of a City.” “Information is disappearing off Web sites, archives are closing to the public, and photographers of infrastructure are increasingly met with suspicion.”
The increased security isn’t entirely unwarranted: in November 2003, NYPD officers arrested two men photographing rail tracks outside a Queens’ tunnel who said they were “exploring.” Later questioning with the help of a Farsi-interpreter helped identify the two men as Iranian intelligence operatives. They were deported 10 days later.
Authorities say the possibility of such incidents demands that police respond to all cases of trespassing aggressively.
“Quite frankly, I think a lot of law enforcement agencies are directed to shoot on sight or at least arrest and ask questions later,” says Sussman. Police shootings of trespassers in subway tunnels and on bridge tops are infrequent, but veteran urban explorers know to anticipate possible overnight stays in Central Booking and a court summons if they are caught prowling. The NYPD can use discretion when busting subway trespassers, it says, arresting suspicious lawbreakers and reprimanding others with court appearances tickets that can lead to probation and fines.
“Bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure are there for transportation and other essential services, not for the entertainment of dilatants,” says Police Department spokesman Paul J. Browne. “The threat of terrorism only heightens police concern in this regard.”
That doesn’t seem to bother explorers like Duncan and Gates, who spend late nights prowling atop the flying-saucer shaped, 1964-World Fair Towers in Queens or seeking out entrance points to city Water Tunnel Number Three --- a 300 foot deep waterway that’s one of the deepest point below New York City and the prize mission of New York explorers.
They say increasing security risks add a new intrigue to the pursuit of forbidden New York City locales, and Gates even claims his ultimate exploration fantasy is to have sex in an alcove above the Williamsburg Bridge.
“I’m not going to climb the Williamsburg until I can find someone who will have sex with me on top,” he says enthusiastically. “Lots of girls think it’s a cool idea, but then they get cold feet at the last minute.” Getting atop the Williamsburg Bridge (best done at night) requires walking the bridge’s length starting in Brooklyn, then climbing multiple stories of steel scaffolding visible to passing cars and pedestrians.
Barring bridge-top lovemaking, Duncan and Gates say the best excursions occur when the chances of being caught in a high profile location are high, but capture is ultimately avoided.
“Your heart rate starts to rise a little, you feel a little tingle. That’s when life starts to get exciting,” Duncan explains one evening while riding back and forth past the 148th Street subway station, eyes glued to the gritty train windows as he scans the tunnel walls for a graffiti-covered passageway he wants to explore and photograph. “It's a cheap thrill. Running from security is always the highlight of the day, just like the car crashes are the highlight of a car race, Duncan says. “Although it's not what one does it for, of course.”
Understanding and discovering city history and architecture is the primary motivation behind exploration, Duncan and Gates say; and the adrenaline rush that comes from sneaking past police and security guards only adds to the allure. Spend an evening driving past unknown city streets while Duncan and Gates point out anonymous, dilapidated factories or tunnel entrances, or poring over a map as the two explain the history and various access points to the pre-Civil War Croton Aqueduct, and their enthusiasm and knowledge of forgotten city locations become clear.
“Most people live in a kind of two-dimensional world: driving across the bridge or sitting in the subway reading, they are not looking simultaneously at what is above and below them,” says Duncan, 27, a Maryland native who in addition to running a fledgling New York City map publishing business sells photos from his adventures online. “Taking cool images of these things and showing people something other than a two-dimensional framework, you can show them a new world of fantastic rooftops and pipes below.”
Thrill-seeking history buffs aren’t the only ones attracted into the fold. Miru Kim, 25, a Korean native with a sullen face and a faraway expression, has traveled abandoned buildings and subway tunnels, to shoot nude self-portraits for a digital media and photography project she’s completing at the Pratt Institute.
“Basically, I go into abandoned spaces and get naked,” she explains, languidly pulling long black hair behind her ears and smiling nervously between sips of coffee. Kim often works alone and at night, sometimes encountering homeless people living inside the tunnels and buildings she is photographing.
Her portfolio includes computer-manipulated images of pig cadavers decaying inside New York City subway stations, rubble-strewn factory landscapes, and color drawings of white, furry rats. During her show at Pratt this winter, guests hovered over plastic cups of cabernet and brie while eyeing nude shots of Kim reposing suggestively inside Parisian tunnel pathways and walking across glass-covered concrete in an abandoned sugar refinery.
“One more thing I like to do is compare digging into urban ruins with exploring one's psyche,” Kim says of the project she titled “Naked City Spleen,” a tribute to Baudelaire's macabre account of urban isolation in the Parisian underworld, “Paris Spleen.” “I find that these abandoned urban structures become different reflections of this emptiness within me, the hollow feeling created by urban life.”
Her prize shot from a trip to the Paris catacombs features Kim reposing atop a mountain of discarded, browning femurs deep inside a hand-carved limestone ossuary --- the catacomb chambers used to store bones uprooted from Parisian cemeteries over the centuries. Kim’s eyes are closed, and a half-buried light illuminates her pale breasts and the graffiti covered walls.
Always eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm, Duncan has branded himself a spokesman for urban exploration in New York, entertaining media interest and self-promoting to whomever possible. In 2004, he co-hosted a five-part Discovery Channel mini-series that takes explorers inside an abandoned missal silo in Colorado and wandering a decrepit Milwaukee brewery.
Duncan was chosen as the group’s “urban historian” after Hoggard Films, who produced the series for Discovery, stumbled across his urban exploration Web site http://www.undercity.org. The Web site includes multiple images showing off Duncan’s photography skills, mostly long-exposure, darkly-lit shots of underground tunnels, bridges and rooftops.
Discovery cancelled the urban exploration series after filming half a season, but the six-month project inspired Duncan’s faith in urban exploration (and bank account) enough that he’s devoted himself full-time to mapmaking and other publishing projects for his company “Opus,” which he runs from the bedroom of a Brooklyn loft space shared with a group of artists and students.
Less exhibitionist but equally passionate, Gates, 30, moonlights as a guide for City Sights Bus Tours tours, studying urban planning at Hunter College and operating his own tour company that specializes in off-the-beat city themes ranging from the Mafia to Jewish New York and Hip Hop history. A mix between a “starry eyed kid from the Midwest” still fascinated by New York and a Brooklyn Jew (he has relatives throughout the city) Gates says he excels at painting a unique view of New York for visitors. South Bronx tours are particularly popular with European audiences, he says, and if the crowd is agreeable or offers to pay for drinks afterwards, Gates will sometimes conduct the tours for free.
“This city is like traveling, except that you don’t have to go anywhere,” he says. His first urban exploration outing took him to a campus rooftop as a student at the University of Wisconsin, a defining moment and memory that Gates has carried with him to exploring in New York. “This city is a great passion for me as well as my school and work,” says Gates. “Urban exploring is a way for me to broaden my knowledge of New York.”
Gates and Duncan first met through Jinx, an online urban exploration magazine and social forum based on the idea of Victorian-era, gentleman’s exploration clubs. Instead of tramping Indian jungles or Himalayan peaks, members of the New York explorers group have sometimes donned suits and sunglasses before striking out incognito to infiltrate rooftops and bridge walkways.
“I’ve always been into peculiar, offbeat things and weird subcultures,” says Lefty Liebowitz, a smiley, clean-shaven advertising executive who helped found Jinx in 1998. “We wanted to have an adventure magazine, and struck upon the idea that there is a whole environment around us in the city and that we could find the spirit of adventure in our own backyard,” he says.
Liebowitz, 32, who says his childhood nickname has nothing to do with his golf swing or political leanings, first started exploring as a teenager when he and a friend snuck atop the now-renovated Grand Central Station to peer down at departing passengers and shopkeepers. The two were arrested 15 minutes later, but faced little more than reprimands from a disinterested police officer. The escapade sparked a lasting interest in quirky adventures.
In 2000, the Jinx project evolved into a Random House book deal for Liebowitz and Jinx partner L.B. Deyo, an espionage-styled memoir about Jinx adventures around New York. “Invisible Frontier: Exploring the Tunnels, Ruins, and Rooftops of Hidden New York,” sold out its original 6000 copy print, with a second smaller batch now available.
Clubs like Jinx exist around the country, with at least half a dozen similar organizations active in New York City alone. Club outings vary from one group to another and depend as much on local terrain and structures as on group motivations. In New England, explorers often document the eerie insides of abandoned asylums like the North Street Mental Institution in Northampton, Mass, while their counterparts in California chose from abandoned coastal navy bunkers and ghost towns like Drawbridge, a prohibition-era boom town that’s slowly being swallowed by an encroaching marsh.
Jinx meets each month in the somewhat dingy, aqua-painted basement of Lolita Bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Gatherings here tend to focus almost entirely on cocktail-fueled debates and small talk instead of urban exploration. For Liebowitz, the suits-and-sunglasses era of building infiltration is over, and he’s moved away from Jinx activities because of his busy work schedule. Duncan and Gates are rare fixtures at the Jinx meetings as well, and say they prefer independent exploration to chatting about club activities over drinks.
Tonight’s escapade begins with an hour-long drive through Queens, where Duncan and Gates crisscross Astoria and Long Island City below the Hellgate, searching simultaneously for the bridge terminus that will provide an entry point to the high steel girders they want to climb, and a liquor store where Duncan hopes he can fetch a small bottle of whiskey.
“Just something to keep warm, and take the edge off a little,” Duncan says, admitting that the entire process of breaking into public property and climbing steel bridge beams at two in the morning makes him nervous, even though he’s already been arrested three times on exploration outings.
The liquor stores are closed, to Gates relief. He has managed to avoid capture on all of his exploratory outings and disapproves of Duncan’s requests for alcohol. Gates has fidgeted anxiously for the duration of the drive, talking non-stop and pouring over one of Duncan’s city maps. With his brown beard, faintly thinning hair, and fast chatter, he’s the polar opposite of Duncan, whose quiet composure and slow speech reveal only the faintest southern drawl.
They say their contrasting qualities allow them to work well together. “I get him off the couch, and he gets me over the fence,” Gates says, referring to his skill at motivating Duncan for late-night adventures, and Duncan’s ability to force him into action and accept the risks of exploration once they are underway. The symbiotic relationship seems already well at work tonight.
“I’m always anxious before doing one of these things,” Gates exclaims, straining his neck and smiling from the passenger seat. “I’ve never pussied out, but I need the mental process of sketching beforehand to make me do it.”
The two eventually navigate their way beneath the Hellgate underpass where they can access the bridge, parking Duncan’s four-wheel-drive Mazda station wagon and crawling beneath a gap in an adjacent chain-link fence that leads onto the railroad bridge.
Finally in action, Duncan and Gates are decidedly nonchalant. With his watch cap, pea coat and jeans, Gates looks part J. Crew catalog model, part high-seas adventurer, but he’s hardly dressed for sleuthing past potential security guards and trampling through garbage-filled hallways in sub-freezing temperatures. He hasn’t even brought a flashlight.
Duncan, on the other hand, looks like he walked off the movie set for Mad Max: his uncut, straw-blond hair is held tight off his gaunt face with a miner’s headlamp. A slight limp reveals a successful bout with bone cancer two years ago, and he’s dressed completely in black and carrying a climber’s pack filled with photography gear.
“For urban exploring, you have to wear either black or brown,” Duncan says of the night-colored Carhartt dungarees, heavy work boots, and parkas that make up his daily uniform. “And you can’t wear brown in New York City. Too unfashionable.”
Recovering from lean times when he worked at a Brooklyn deli after taking time off from college, Duncan decided to replenish his badly depleted wardrobe entirely in black. Much of the technical sportswear Duncan is wearing tonight is provided by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia, who sponsored the Discovery Channel mini-series.
After 15 minutes of walking towards the stone-towered midpoint that holds the Hellgate above the East River, a rumbling Amtrak liner sends Duncan and Gates running to hide behind piles of scrap iron by the bridge guardrail. The bridge is sufficiently wide enough to deter any fears of a being hit, but being spotted by the train driver will almost certainly result in an encounter with the police or security guards.
Gates spots a set of handrails anchored into the steel beams, and believes the banisters should provide reasonable enough protection to permit safe passage onto the bridge apex and red safety beacon that Gates and Duncan hope to take a look at.
“Yes, I think this will take us to the top,” Duncan says moments later, directing his light on a rusting spiral staircase. Cautiously, the two work their way upward past missing hand rails and steps flexing beneath their weight. The staircase hasn’t been renovated since the bridge’s construction in 1917, when the Hellgate set the record as the longest steel arch bridge in the world. The groaning supports sound like they could collapse at any moment.
Duncan shines his light into the abyss leading deep into the bridge’s submerged bowels below, and Gates drops an errant bottle into the glum, waiting seconds before a faint splash confirms the river’s presence inside the bridge supports below. The two pause silently for another moment, then two continue upward.
The stairs finally lead out to the maintenance railway, an upward sloping pathway leading to the blinking safety beacon that looms 200 feet above the uninvitingly curved bridge arc. Not counting the wind-chill, it’s 17 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and Duncan and Gates’ hands turn numb as they death grip the steel bridge railings and climb to the bridge’s apex.
At the top, they soak in the views of what seems like an endless, glowing sprawl --- Manhattan radiating bright to the west, and below the jumbled chaos of Queen’s row houses and factory smokestacks exhaling into the night. Duncan sets up his tripod and suggests Gates pose for a souvenir shot.
“I don’t want to be silhouetted by the red light,” Gates says, “I think someone could see us up here.” A garbage-laden barge cuts the icy river below, and headlights shoot back and forth across the adjacent Triborough Bridge, reminding the two trespassers that even high above New York in the dark of winter, the city is never far away. Gates obliges for the photos, and then turns back down the bridge arc and into the sheltered concrete alcove that provides some relief from the wind and gaping exposure.
Duncan remains fixed on the bridge top, taking advantage of the clear, dry air for quality photographs. From the relative warmth of the rooftop vestibule, Duncan’s total comfort in the severe surroundings and immersion in his photography suggests an artist working desperately to capture a moment in time, but also the peace of a mountaineer savoring views of a hard-earned summit. Whatever it is, Duncan has shed the nervous energy that’s fueled tonight’s exploration in favor of a new, unexpected calm. He lingers behind Gates as the two return to the car after their descent, rolling a cigarette and absorbing the Manhattan lights as he treads through the inky night gloom.
At the Neptune Diner in Astoria, Duncan and Gates unwind over early morning glasses of Jameson’s and cheeseburgers, the topic eventually turning to security in the post-September 11 dark age of New York City urban exploration.
“It was a very easy thing and probably 100 kids from Queens have gone up there every year since it was put up,” Duncan says of the evening’s adventure. “But after 9/11, suddenly it's scary. I was nervous we might get caught, and I put off going up there for a while because of that.”
Experience has taught Duncan to be afraid of the police’s response to exploration. At dawn two months after the World Trade Towers collapse, Duncan was kneeling before his tripod and telephoto lens atop the St. John’s Cathedral. Suspicious neighbors told police they had spotted a rocket-launcher-equipped terrorist on the church roof, and Duncan was escorted to One-Police Plaza by a NYPD Swat Team after dozens of police cars, fire engines, and a bomb-squad unit greeted him outside. A judge dropped charges of trespassing and reckless endangerment later in the day, but not without scaring Duncan into recognizing the new risks of exploration after September 11.
“With all the terrorist paranoia, the assumption seems to be that once you are labeled a terrorist type, you are guilty until proven innocent,” Duncan says. “That makes for some scary issues about how the police would perceive it if they did a home search and found research on underground places and photos of city infrastructure.” In addition to the photos, “how to” tips and legal advice that Duncan publishes on his Web site, his apartment contains a multitude of books, maps, and documents on city structures. Numerous crates of caving gear, bolt cutters and high powered flashlights compete for wall spaces with inventory boxes of Opus maps and publishing materials. Duncan hopes to use his most outlandish of piece of equipment, a crude iron hook fashioned by a metal worker friend, as an aid for climbing bridges and fences. “I’ve always wanted an excuse to use a grappling hook,” he says, proudly unveiling the mediaeval-looking gadget from his gear chest.
As for the Hellgate, Duncan and Gates say they don’t think the bridge poses significant enough a terrorist threat to warrant surveillance cameras or guards, making the bridge an easy, but still heady exploration outing. The city is most vulnerable to terrorism from underground, they estimate, and that’s where they think the police should target their surveillance efforts. “If terrorists want to blow something up, they will go into a subway cars or tunnels,” says Gates. “That’s the dirty little secret.”
Even after terrorist bombings in the London subway killed 52 last July and sent New Yorkers into a panic about the safety of their own system, the tunnels remain open for exploration. Would-be subway explorers need only walk behind the train platform and onto the tracks late at night to reach the endless tunnel system --- and the abundance of graffiti and photos online from deep inside the tunnels prove how easy infiltrating the system really is.
No urban exploration personality has demonstrated broader infiltration and knowledge of the subways than “Revs,” the iconic graffiti artist who created over 200 journal-like murals in the tunnels as part of a personal mission to create one diary page for each day of the year. “Revs” has always kept his identity secret, partly in fear of the city’s anti-graffiti task force, which landed him in court for the subway murals in 2000. But his reputation remains in tact, and carefully observing commuters can still catch glimpses of the whitewashed tunnel walls and scrawled diary entries he spray-painted in tunnels across the city. His “powerful need for personal expression,” as Duncan calls it, is further proof of the tunnel’s vulnerability to anyone willing to brave darkness, rats, and electrocution from the charged subway rails.
Artistic motivation and courage might not be enough anymore though. In August 2005, the MTA announced a $212 million contract with Lockheed Martin to build “a state of the art Integrated Electronic Security System/Command, Communication and Control” system that would fortify New York bridges and tunnels from trespassing and terrorist attacks. $495 million security remains in the MTA security budget awarded by the state and federal government to fortify the system from terrorism.
The MTA says its plan to install 3000 motion sensors and 1000 video cameras as well as “intelligent video” software that can recognize baggage or individuals scampering in tunnels by comparing past and present video images from inside the system.
For some New York City explorers, the announcement of security upgrades was symbolic of something they already knew: that urban exploration in New York had peaked when suit-clad Jinx members stormed atop the George Washington Bridge before September 11, and that such antics were no longer even thinkable.
“They are all going to get caught,” Solis refers to anyone braving the system once the security updates are complete. Solis says she has already stopped exploring, partly because of police interest in her book and research that she didn’t want to speak about. “I am not motivated to do anything that has to do with police surveillance, she says. “And I’m not interested in breaking the law.”
Solis now directs her creative interests to a film project titled “American Ruins” and a preservation group called Ars Subterranea that shares historically-significant abandoned spaces with the public. Like Duncan, she’s also hoping to launch her own publishing business.
Liebowitz has also stopped exploring. “After September 11, we decided to cool it on the high profile locations,” he says. “It wasn’t that I was so worried about getting caught, but I knew the response could be more significant, and didn’t want to divert the authorities from saving people in real emergencies.”
Jinx lives on as a debate society, but nobody at last February’s meeting said they had ever been on an urban exploration mission, although most were familiar with Duncan’s photos and thought urban exploration was an interesting idea.
“They think its cool, but not a lot of people have the balls to go out and do it,” Gates says of the Jinx meetings.
Even the iconoclastic Revs has abandoned the tunnels for more legitimate expression, and his graffiti-inspired steel sculptures, some installed with city and building owner’s permission, can be found in various neighborhoods from Dumbo to the Meatpacking District.
Duncan and Gates remain committed, or perhaps they just don’t care about the new risks and consequences. “We still have to get on top of the 59 Street Bridge,” Gates says, eyeing an elaborate network of razor wire, video cameras and security stations set up around the bridge entrance. “And we are definitely going to get arrested on that one.”
With the final days of easy access reaching their potential end, Duncan and Gates look abroad at other urban exploration groups and activities for new adventures.
They mention the impeccably organized “Cave Clan,” with chapters in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia, which enjoys a positive public reputation and careful distinction from graffiti artists intent on “bombing the system,” as subway tagging has been called.
Another source for their inspiration is the Moscow-based exploration group “Diggers of the Underground Planet.” They first leapt to the public spotlight in 1994 after discovering the fabled “Metro 2” system, a Stalin-era, multi-tiered subway designed to evacuate top Kremlin officials in the case of emergency and long denied to exist by the government. It wasn’t until October 2002 though, when “Digger” Vadim Mikhailov led police inside the Moscow theatre via a little-known passageway to rescue 922 spectators held hostage by Chechen rebels, that the group gained wide-scale recognition and praise by the media.
It’s these types of stories that led Duncan and Gates to Paris last January, where 200 miles of millennia-old quarries and catacombs provide a near-infinite playground for Parisian urban explorers. They team up with Kim, busy shooting her photo project inside the tunnels, and organize guided tours with local “cataphiles” who know how to navigate the complex tunnel systems.
“The catacombs are part of Paris, and I love Paris,” explains Raphael Urowitz, 25, a dark-haired, petite Parisian who has tattooed a row of indigo-colored stars behind her ear. She’s offered to guide Duncan, Gates, and a group of local artist friends inside the catacombs, which she has been exploring on a weekly basis for over 10 years. “It’s totally unique. It’s anarchy down there, and there is no control.”
She arrives promptly at eight one evening at the Penetry metro stop in Montparnasse, rolling up the legs of her designer jeans and exchanging patent leather ballet slippers for a pair of knee-high rubber boots before walking towards an unsealed manhole on a side street.
After hefting the steel plate with a crowbar, Urowitz and her newly formed, multi-national group descend into the humid tunnel murk 75 feet below the city streets, subway, and sewers. They ask a bewildered passerby to reseal the chamber after they fit inside, enveloping the explorers inside the lightless, stale-aired vertical tunnel leading to the catacombs.
Inside the limestone caverns, marred with graffiti and blocked in parts by deep puddles of standing water, the cataphiles walk silently for over an hour, ducking under collapsing stone pillars and passages carved into the stone hundreds of years before with adzes and water.
“It’s important to point out the difference between the ‘tagguer’ and ‘frotteur,’” Urowitz explains. The two types of cataphile are engaged in an ongoing war beneath the city’s surface; the taggers spraying names and designs with aerosol paints across the tunnel walls, and the preservationist-minded cleaners following with brushes and soap to remove the drawings and restore the caverns to their natural state. “Sometimes it even leads to fist-fights,” Urowitz explains while her friend paints a cubist inspired pink toaster across a mortar-caked stone partition.
The group remains underground for eight hours, pausing occasionally in more spacious galleries they illuminate with penny candles to munch oranges, smoke, and sip beers. Without the unofficially circulated map that Urowitz is carrying in her purse, finding ones way in and out of the catacombs would likely prove impossible.
“If you don’t know Paris and the tunnels, you could really get lost and die,” says David Babinet, a long-time catacomb explorer and co-author of “The Catacombs of Paris.”
Access to the tunnels was officially ended in 1955, but generations of Parisians have explored and celebrated inside the tunnels with wine, elaborate meals, and even large scale, underground rock concerts and performances attended by thousands of Parisians in the catacomb’s largest chambers. Legends abound, from the French resistance who used tiny notes tapped inside stone walls to communicate during the German occupation (a practice still honored today by cataphile club members who leave notes for their friends), to the “catacycliste,” a solitary old man who traverses the crooked, dark tunnel passageways alone and by bicycle.
No catacomb spectacle has achieved more profound media status and attention in recent years than the “catacinema,” a giant, projector-equipped screening room deep inside the catacombs across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, and outfitted with a well stocked bar, electricity, toilets, and seating designed for a seven-week summer screening session airing films like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rumble Fish,” and David Lynch’s “Eraserhead.” A baffled police force discovered the cinema during a routine inspection of the tunnels and sealed access completely in summer 2004.
Days later, a catacomb group calling itself “Mexicans of the Perforation,” claimed responsibility for the Chaillot Cinema, as it is called, and the catacombs received new police attention and press as far away as China.
While the cinema is now closed and a special police force is charged with patrolling its passageways and handing out finds to trespassers, the catacomb tradition lives on, and Urowitz and Babinet, like Duncan and Gates in New York, seem to think the risk of penalty (about the equivalent of $100 fine) is worth the experience.
“I started doing it because I was annoyed with life, and I like things that are prohibited,” Babinet waxes philosophical one evening, a group activity more prevalent than the act of exploration itself on both sides of the Atlantic.
Babinet and Duncan are quick to justify urban exploration as a means of achieving original experiences in a world where they feel closed in by laws, work, and standards of behavior that prohibit free-spirited activities like climbing bridges or exploring tunnels.
They link their activities to the French Situationist movement popularized by sociologist Guy Debord in the 1950’s. The Situationists saw modern society as a series of commercialized events that dictated behavior and attitude, cutting the individual off from any unique, original experience. They combated their disgruntlement with popular society by organizing scavenger hunts and activities around Paris where, for example, participants might travel the entire city dictated by their sense of smell alone, following the odor of baking bread, then the fumes of a bus, or the smoke of a cigarette as they walked otherwise aimlessly from one neighborhood an another. The student riots of 1968 inherited much of this discontent with commercialized society, and the Situationist message is still reflected by urban explorers.
We are “creating zones of free artistic expression,” Lazar Kunstmann, a spokesman for the Mexicans of the Perforation told Le Monde following the discovery of the Chaillot Cinema. “Secrecy is the only way for us to remain independent.”
Less artful but still firmly convinced, Duncan agrees. “People have mediated experiences. You go to a museum to learn about history and you look at something behind a piece of glass. Going up on a rooftop or into a tunnel and finding a unique piece of history and touching it is much more exciting. Urban exploring is about that unmediated experience.”
Finding ways to legitimize urban exploration, as Solis, Liebowitz, and Babinet have done with their books and photography, and Duncan and Gates with television work and tour guiding, remains a constant preoccupation for the most passionate urban explorers, those who see the pursuit as much more than a hobby or thrill-seeking adventure. Increased police scrutiny has only made the already marginal word of exploring more difficult to be a part of.
Could ironically, the NYPD and MTA team up with urban explorers like Duncan and Gates, relying on their expertise of city structures to secure the city against more realistic terrorist threats? Mikhailov’s guiding of Russian Police Department into the Moscow theatre begs the question, as does the progressive attitude of Jean-Claude Saratte, leader of the French Police Department’s catacomb task force.
“Risks of major cracks, robbery and terrorism: we have every intention of guarding good relations with the cataphiles so that they will report to us what they see,” Saratte told Le Monde. “As a result, they call us frequently.”
Sussman says the MTA welcomes tips about unsecured locations, but would probably continue relying on security experts and engineers to assess high risk locations.
“I don’t think there is a huge market for any of this,” Duncan says of his publishing dreams for urban exploration texts.” Perhaps the MTA, still sitting on a $495 million, could provide the market he is looking for.