On a chilly October night, I met Steve Duncan on Church Street and Canal. He held a bottle of whiskey wrapped in a black plastic bag. “Do you want some?” I couldn’t refuse. That night Duncan, who is an urban explorer, wanted to show me an abandoned subway station.
As we jumped over the fence from the bike lane on the Manhattan Bridge onto the train tracks, an adrenaline rush made me forget what I was doing. A train passed just after we crossed: We hid in the middle of the steel pillars dividing the tracks.
We walked down the bridge into the tunnel, and after 300 yards Steve crossed the tracks to the other side. I could hear another train coming, hidden behind a curve. It was too late to follow Steve across the tracks. I jumped from the train tracks to a narrow path. Too late, I saw the sign: “no clearance.”
The headlights of the train got closer. I closed my eyes and flattened myself on the ground, dipping my face in the pitch-black dust. As the train came closer and closer, I kept asking myself: “Why am I here?” I couldn’t find a reasonable answer. I felt my jacket being brushed by the train as it slowed and stopped just next to me. The driver had spotted me.
“We reported you — they’re coming to get you,” said the conductor, opening the window and showing an orange pair of glasses sitting on his bald head. I waited for the train to move and realized that Steve was gone. I ran toward the bridge, feeling my heart beating in my throat. I climbed the iron structure and jumped over the fence. I was out!
“The fear of the dark, that childhood fear, is holding you back from going around that corner into a world of excitement and interest and it shouldn’t,” said Duncan 15 minutes later. We were back on the sidewalk. On Canal Street everything seemed calm and ordinary. I was still regretting not having seen the abandoned station yet I was happy of being far from the terrifying moments I had experienced a couple of yards underground
For Duncan, 34, moments like mine are routine. He has been an “urban explorer” since he was a Columbia engineering undergrad. He climbs on bridges, breaks into abandoned subway stops, trespasses into old power plants. At the beginning, he said, trespassing was a way to fulfill his curiosity. Later, as he extensively explored, the underground acquired a great importance: “We need to make people aware that these places exist so that we can take better care of them,” he said. Duncan has made the public aware of the underground by talking to reporters. A lot of attention has been given to the city’s underground because of his effort.
“Not many journalists accept to come with me in the subway” he said, explaining that most of them just get the interview and are afraid of venturing in subway tunnels.
Duncan sees the city as a living being: “The city is the machine on which we rely on every day,” he said, explaining that we should all understand better the city in which we live. “People don’t know where the water comes from when they open their sinks,” he said. What is under the concrete is as important as everything above it.
He sat on the sidewalk puffing on a rolled-up cigarette exhaling clouds of smoke. “People right now think that if you go out and look at birds and flowers and mountains that’s good, that’s healthy, normal. Nobody would ask them why they think that flowers are beautiful. But with what I do it’s different. People feel the need to ask me if I am crazy.” But for him the city is as natural as a flower and infinitely more fascinating.
Many people say that what Duncan does is dangerous. For him, danger and fear are connected, but very different: “You cannot mix up fear and danger,” he said “We are about to cross the street now. I count every three seconds there are 30 cars passing. There is a potential for death in each one of them. But we are trained from the age of 2 to understand this risk. The risk underground is the same or even lower, but you are not as well trained.”
Sometimes Duncan goes into the underbelly of the city with friends like Moses Gates, 34, who is an urban planner for a nonprofit. Gates has climbed the Egyptian pyramids, he has been down in the Parisian catacombs and he is in contact with a network of urban explorers all over the world: “It’s much less about social discovery and much more about personal discovery” he said, “It’s about seeing and experiencing the city on your own terms.”
Shane Perez, another friend, was always interested in industrial sites, factories, subway tunnels and bridges. For him, exploring is a learning experience: “To understand things I have to get up there and touch them and feel them and see them in person and interact with them,” he said. “I can have an abstract understanding of things, but until I see them in person, it’s not real to me.”
Perez also said that in these spaces normal codes of behavior don’t apply: “You are outside the limits of the city and even of the social construct,” he said. For him, urban exploring is a fundamental part of his life; his first drive, he said, is curiosity: “I want to understand what the limits are. I want to see if there is an edge beyond the edge”.