Lost in the Sewer: Steve Duncan, Urban Explorer

Steve Duncan in NYC's Croton Aqueduct, 2006 (photo by Duncan, from NPR)

Despite a popular modern attitude of disparagement regarding cities, placing the urban at odds with that which is natural, the promotion of the urban is one of my greatest interests.  A while back on my and Greg’s former blog, Criticism As Inspiration, I decided to write a short series of posts concerning some of my favourite [non-trespassing] adventures from Los Angeles (beginning with parts of Griffith Park  with the intention of becoming more unconventional/climactic as the series progressed).  I ultimately aborted the series  after the initial post because I realised it wasn’t exactly suitable content for the CAI blog.  Even so, one of my most favourite pastimes is ‘urban exploration’ – exploring that which is typically overlooked, ignored and shunned for being banal, strictly functional and ugly.

The popularity of urban exploration is on the rise and I suspect that many incredibly curious city-dwellers have been doing this sort of thing for a long time (I’m pretty certain Fagin knew all the good underground routes in London).  Among contemporary urban explorers, 32-year-old Steve Duncan is one of the most notable.  Duncan is not merely a thrill-seeker, but is deeply concerned with urban history  and development (he’s currently working on his PhD in urban history at the University of California, Riverside) and preserving these urban sites he so cherishes.

This past weekend I caught All Things Considered on NPR and was pleasantly surprised by a story about this hero of mine: ‘Into the Tunnels: Exploring the Underside of NYC‘.  For this story, NPR’s Jacki Lyden  and producer Brent Baughman join Duncan for [most of] a 25-mile excursion beneath New York City, wading through raw sewage, crawling among rats and cockroaches, jumping over third rails and evading police.  Duncan, Lyden and Baughman are joined by world-famous Norwegian adventurer, explorer and author Erling Kagge (he’s climbed Everest, hiked to the South Pole, and became the first person to walk alone to the North Pole, just to name a few of his accomplishments).

I strongly urge you to read the article and listen to the 20-minute broadcast if you have not already!

Duncan was also recently joined for an adventure under NYC by HDSLR director/cinematographer Andrew Wonder, which is documented in this 30-minute video entitled ‘UNDERCITY’, which is definitely worth a view.


6 thoughts on “Lost in the Sewer: Steve Duncan, Urban Explorer”

  1. Sorry for hijacking your blog but I went and investigated in my own backyard, found some interesting things and got my mind blown by one.

    Warsaw is naturally quite different from NYC, the subway was only built in the 90s so there’s nothing that special in that respect (the Soviets gave us a choice between building us a subway or the Palace of Culture as a symbol of Polish-Soviet friendship and we were stupid enough to choose a Palace of Culture, the exact same useless hideousness as you can find in all major soviet cities, and were stuck with no subway till the 90s). But there’s many miles of underground tunnels in Warsaw that come from long before that – the 18th and 19th century. And also an underground river that dried up in mid-19th century.

    There’s a rather large community of urban explorers interested in abandoned buildings etc but I was more intrigued by the underground exploration. So apparently there’s only two people high profile enough to be easily found with my poor research skills: Zbigniew Rekuć and Artur Ponikiewski. Neither as young or as attractive as Steve Duncan unfortunately but interesting still (Ponikiewski is passionate enough to have explored a total of 170 sites and published a book about underground Warsaw). Here’s some of what they found:

    Closest to where I live – underneath Prague there’s 2km of explored and more of unexplored tunnels shared by a steel and arms factory and an energy plant. They’ve been rebuilt several times and used for transporting goods and test shooting new and repaired firearms.

    Speaking of firearms – in the 19th cent. the Russian Tsar built Fort Warsaw – including a complex of seven underground two-level fortresses. If I knew all the vocabulary and what it actually signifies I would tell you a lot more of the apparently very exciting things about the fortresses…

    There’s also a lot of industrial underground spaces. Multiple underground levels beneath the Warsaw Brewery. The water filtering hall from the 19th century that looks more like a temple than an industrial space – it’s made up of a dozen connected chambers with granite columns holding up a brick ceiling, all of this always glistening from the moisture.

    Now this is what blew my mind:

    The oldest underground site in Warsaw is the Freemason Eliseum and the underground Gucin Park, built in the 70s of the 18th century by the last Polish king’s brother beneath his garden. The Gucin Park was built as a place to bury freemasons who had had a dispute with the Church. Now the corridors are flooded so it’s very dangerous to enter, I haven’t found any information on plans to rebuild it.

    There were some plans to rebuild the Eliseum in the 90s but nothing was ever done and it’s been left as it is, completely ruined and not easily accessible. There’s a park by the Książęca street with a monument to a Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa. Behind the monument there’s a small wooden door – that’s the entrance. There actually exists a description of the Eliseum by a British traveler and historian William Coxe: “We went down a winding underground corridor lit now and again by a weak lamp until we reached a small wooden door that looked like an entrance to a peasant’s house. When we went through it we found ourselves in a magnificent, brightly lit hall. It was round with a dome of beautiful symmetry. Around it, between columns of fake marble were four open chambers with comfortable sofas and frescoes.”

    What?! There’s a Freemason hall underground, completely forgotten?! This type of thing can only happen east of the German border. I just need to find someone who’ll come with me…

    1. I wish there was a “like” button for comments. This was REALLY cool! (As was Elijah’s post, which should go without saying. I never read a post of his I didn’t like!)

      Feel free to hijack any time!!

  2. (This isn’t all there is either, there’s more corridor complexes ex. under the castle/palaces or a lot of flooded tunnels underneath Prague where they STARTED to build a subway in the 50s… I thought I knew SOMETHING about this city.)

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