Tag Archives: New York

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.


Future Trash and Landfills Seen from Space

[Image: Fresh Kills in 1990. Stephen Ferry/Getty Images]


Found this really interesting interview [via Good] conducted by Believer with the New York City Department of Sanitation anthropologist-in-residence Robin Nagle. Her concept of “future trash” is as simple as it is austere, it’s anthropological extract, once adopted, amounting to an altered, all-encompassing perception of material culture.

Among many of the questions raised by Nagle, one of the more striking inquires delved into an examination of consumer-culture and societies perpetuated by waste.

“Why have we developed, or, rather, why have we found ourselves implicated in a system that not only generates so much trash, but relies upon the accelerating production of waste for its own perpetuation?”

An easy example of this kind of practical dilemma would be the controversy surrounding the creation of a “Do Not Mail” list, essentially a reserve of addresses, not unlike the already instated “Do Not Call” list, whose respective tenants and owners do not wish to receive advertisements and solicitations via mail. This problem is complicated by the economics of the United States Postal Service who are in opposition to such a list being generated as a substantial amount of their revenue is derived from these mailings. Albeit, the vast majority of this junk mail ends up in landfills. [For a story on an elderly man buried in junk mail, read this]

While discussing sweltering piles of garbage and waste produced by an ecologically careless/capitalist/consumer culture, it’s worth mentioning the physical phenomena that is Fresh Kills. Located on Staten Island, Fresh kills is one of the only man-made structures massive enough to be visible from earth’s orbit”. Presently closed-down and slated to eventually become phased into a public park, Fresh Kills used to be the largest landfill in the world, the Puente Hills Landfill of Los Angeles County now currently being the largest functioning landfill in the country. The Center for Land Use Interpretation did a tour out there that you can hear about here.

[Image: The Mountain of Plastic has now become a popular Bangkok spot/Young lovers come here/and leave behind plastic bottles/as monuments of their love. Film stills from Citizen Dog, 2004.]


What would be interesting to see is how forthcoming generations will deal with their massive inheritance of waste, chaotic heaps of discarded materials and non-biodegradable matter. One can only speculate as to what sort of relics will come to indentify our current culture for generations in a distant future, our leftover laptops and discarded electronics submerged in an island of plastics. As Nagle points out, citing William Rathje, the pioneer of Tucson, Arizona based “Garbage Project”, “garbage is a highly visible problem that we choose to make invisible.”

[Image: The Mountain now reaches all the way up the moon. Film still from Citizen Dog, 2004.]


The surreal notion of the volume of our material output makes me wonder if this stuff will eventually become part of the landscape in a more apparent way, ala the Thai film Citizen Dog, where a mountain of plastic bottles in the city of Bangkok becomes a recreational attraction in the urban environment, a majestic retreat for lovers interjected into the skyline. It seems unavoidable that all this “stuff” will eventually force itself into our lives in a way in which we can no longer hide it in rural landfills and other areas under-populated by humans, like the ocean, unless we make serious changes in our lifestyle choices and develop creative solutions to such problems. As we are already turning our landfills into parks, perhaps the future will lead us into creating a new topography defined less by natural environmental forces and more by the scraps and discards of the everyday.

To read a really awesome New York Magazine article  about the reclamation of Fresh Kills into “a new paradigm for a park”, click here. I highly recommend the further reading in relation to the ideas presented in this post.