Undercity: Subterranean, bridge-scaling urban exploration in NYC

I found this short documentary via Good Problem.

Undercity is an exciting glimpse into what is probably the most important part of Steve Duncan’s world–a version of urban exploration that is as much a traveling, tactile history lesson as it is a dangerous and mutated version of  spelunking. One of the many intriguing aspects of the project is its direct response to the lived environment: Rather than arriving in Vietnam to journey throughout it’s vast cave system or venturing to Tanzania to conquer Mt. Kilimanjaro, Duncan explores a territory specifically man-made and readily available–yet, infrequently chartered.

In a sense, Duncan’s explorations take place in areas designed to be accessible. “Manholes” are called just that, as they are made and placed to accommodate the admittance of a person, essentially apertures in the grid of public works. Albeit, Ducan excursions bring him to extremely “off-limits”, restricted territories in the city, constructions which serve as integral forms of infrastructure; illegal to trespass, wholly uninviting and, most importantly, undetected and concealed.

…Nobody really seems to understand why I want to see these amazing structures…It kind of makes me sad that there’s so much suspicion around just appreciating the city.


I wonder what, if anything, the exposure of these expeditions will do to alter the myriad factors involved in urban planning and exploration. A New York Times’ article entitled “The Wilderness Beneath Your Feet”, at one point, questions whether or not Duncan’s travels have turned into a “media event”. In a New York full of post-9-11 fears, I wonder how the Department of Environmental Protection might feel about the research of Steve Duncan; or, better yet, how might the Department of Homeland Security respond to learning of it’s vulnerabilities in the nation’s most populated city?

In the opposite direction, is there a potential for the growth of this specific brand of city engagement? Imagine a new form of recreation, it’s  axis being the study of urban anatomy via tunnels traversed by foot. Checkpoints and hostels existing in the underground, along routes mapped out for their historic significance and architectural qualities.

As a note, I couldn’t mention the underground tunnels of New York without thinking of Dark Days, a documentary worth watching about people that lived underground in abandoned parts of the city’s railway system.


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