Steve Duncan: Urban Explorer
June 19, 2008
When Steve Duncan found out about ‘The Tide and Current Taxi’ he asked if I had ever seen any tunnels on the Manhattan side of the rivers, any openings that seemed to go under the city.
He is a photographer and urban historian and he has a special interest in exploring underground waterways in cities. He hopes to some day find evidence of an underground river in Manhattan and he has extensive notes and maps that point out possible locations to find them.
“There was one tunnel that I saw,” I said, “on the Harlem River. Amanda Huron and I went there one day and she was able to walk into it a little way. It smelled like a sewer and there were rats. She didn’t go very far before turning around.”
To Steve Duncan this sounded like a perfect Sunday afternoon. So we went out to see if we could find the hole again.
He poked around in all the holes along the way.
And kept notes about where each tunnel was.
“You realize Steve,” I said “we could put these pictures out of order on my website and make it look like we had discovered a huge secret underground passageway. It would drive people nuts.”
“We don’t even need to put them out of order,” he said.
“These are underground passageways.”
Each one tells about the history of the city.
I like underground waterways too and have always looked for caves and tunnels in my boat rides around Providence, San Fransisco, St. Petersburg, Savanna, New Haven, and New York.
But I must say, that at some point when it seemed like I would never come across anything like the secret caves in ‘Goonies’ and I kind of lost interest in tunnels.
But that is not the case with Steve Duncan
Every passageway and walled off entrance is part of a large picture of what things used to be like, how the city has changed, and how people have manipulated the landscape.
“Is that an entrance?” I said.
“Not entrances.” he said, “Clues.”
But my boat wouldn’t fit into any of the clues,
and I started to worry that the hole I saw with Amanda was covered over by the tide.
But then we came around a bend,
and we floated right into a tunnel that was just as wide as the boat.
Steve got his equipment ready.
And we said goodbye to the daylight.
The air was heavy with condensation and it smelled like a sewer.
A deep feeling in my stomach told me not to go any further into the tunnel.
There was the roaring sound of rushing water coming from everywhere and it took everything I had to keep walking. “That is the sound of another sewer tunnel running past overhead.” said Steve. “Nothing to worry about.”
We came to a place where the tunnel made a turn and seemed to head up at an incline.
Steve packed his gear,
and headed into the new tunnel alone.
I sat there in the dark and waited.
I wondered if it was possible to be overcome by sewer vapors and pass out.
I saw Steve’s light coming back down the tunnel.
“Where does it go?” I asked.
“I climbed out of a manhole cover into Highbridge Park.” he said. “You were hanging out in a park?” I asked.
“Not hanging out.” Steve said. “I had to see where I was in case i want to come back without a boat.”
Steve set up his tripod and took some pictures in the dark.
He sang quietly as he worked.
He leaves the shutter open and lights the space with flashlights and headlamps.
He took pictures of the sewer and I took pictures of him,
and then we headed back out to the river.
The light was astonishingly bright and the air smelled dry and good.
Waves from a wake had pushed the boat further into the tunnel.
Steve was covered with mud. Or whatever lines the walls of sewers.
Steve wanted to look at some entrances on the Bronx side too.
Places that he can come back to with friends.
On the way back the tide was moving quickly in our direction. It had turned around while we were in the tunnel.
Steve pointed out some features in the landscape on the way back,
and told me what all the holes used to be.
He took meticulous notes about exactly where we had been and what we had seen.
He told stories of explorations that he and his friends have taken,
and we talked about books and about people that it turns out we know in common.
A few days later Steve sent me an email and said that being out on the Harlem River in a boat was one of his favorite days in New York.
You have to consider that this is coming from a famous urban explorer, someone who really does a lot of interesting things in New York.
But then, I think that he does most of his exploring at night. (to see more about Steve Duncan and his photographs look at undercity.org