Appreciating the City: Steve Duncan’s Undercity

Steve Duncan has turned into quite the city celebrity this past week, landing a New York Times profile, a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered, and a film of some of his recent expeditions by Andrew Wonder. It’s no surprise that Duncan is the subject of such interest. Peeks into the city’s off-limits spaces are, without fail, fascinating. His curiosity about the city is contagious, his photographs are beautiful and he certainly has guts — his casual rundown of the many ways he or his fellow urban spelunkers could die are… unsettling.

But, while the accounts of the reporters’ voyages with Duncan are intriguing to read and hear, his motivations and methods of exploring raise valuable questions about the way that we inhabit, and are permitted to occupy, our city’s spaces that, unfortunately, are only touched on in any of this week’s stories.

For those of you who haven’t seen the aforementioned pieces, a brief recap. The Times and NPR accompanied Duncan and Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge on an expedition through a number of the city’s sewers and tunnels over the course of five days. Each offers a story of a day in the life of a tunnel explorer, spending the night on an abandoned subway platform and standing watch by pothole covers for suspicious cops (more on that later).

Nobody seems to understand why I want to see these amazing structures. There’s so much suspicion around just appreciating the city. In UNDERCITY, Andrew Wonder’s excellent video (embedded above), Duncan and the filmmaker not only run through subway tunnels and wade into sewers, but climb bridges too. Duncan throws in a few city history lessons (did you know that the above-ground waterway that ran along what is now Canal Street was turned into the city’s first sewer?), and the pair visit some tunnel residents, including Miguel, a 6-year tunnel resident who tells a tale of scaring the bejeezus out of a few urban explorers and graffiti artists, and Brooklyn, who has lived in the tunnels since 1982. A climb up to the top of the Williamsburg Bridge, to a breathtaking yet terrifying view of the city, was delayed — but not thwarted — by a car accident that brought cops swarming.

Wonder’s film is fascinating to watch, and entertaining in a special kind of anxious humor way. Nonchalance seems to be Duncan’s secret — Don’t mind me, I’m just holding a large crowbar while standing near a sewer entrance in the middle of the night. He even hums a little tune while waiting for a clear moment to hop into a tunnel. Of course, his escapades don’t always go unnoticed by authorities. In the film, Duncan relates a story of an attempt to climb to the top of Notre Dame and his subsequent arrest:

“What was really different about being arrested in Paris was that they seem to understand the value of the urban infrastructure. The police essentially told us, Notre Dame is a fantastic and beautiful thing and we understand exactly why you would want to climb to the top. We just have to arrest you for it. Whereas here in New York, nobody really seems to understand why I want to see these amazing structures. It kinda makes me sad that there’s so much suspicion around just appreciating the city.”

An appreciation of the city is fundamental to this site’s existence. Urban Omnibus was made for an audience of interested, curious, engaged urban explorers — some might limit their explorations to reading, watching or listening rather than dodging the third rail, but explorers they still are. And we, too, find it sad when appreciation of our built environment raises eyebrows instead of enthusiasm.

But while this site is evidence that an audience exists for such urban appreciation, Duncan’s observations are valid and extend beyond sewer diving. Street photography, amateur or professional, is an easy example of innocent action regularly met with distrust. Despite repeated rulings that photography of public spaces is covered by the First Amendment — including the exterior of federal buildings, as supported by a recent lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union — photographers regularly report confrontations with police officers who insist otherwise. This is not a problem limited to New York City, as evidenced by the UK campaign I’m a Photographer, Not a Terrorist.

Yes, taking a photograph of the Javits Center from the sidewalk and climbing to the top of the Williamsburg Bridge are two very different matters. But, as Duncan points out, the criminal charges that could potentially be lodged against him here in New York are out of proportion to what he’s doing — appreciating the city in his own way. His methods may be extreme (he acknowledges, as he prepares to run down one of the Williamsburg Bridge cables sans-safety harness, “This is idiotic. Please don’t do this at home.”), but his motivations are benign and uncomplicated — after he and Wonder successfully reach the top of the Bridge’s tower, Duncan’s response to their climb is a simple, “Nice view, eh?”

For the All Things Considered piece, Jacki Lyden asked Duncan about the morality of his actions — he is, after all, engaging in sometimes-illegal activity. Duncan replied:

“Some of what I do involves trespassing. I think that we have, in the US, a kind of legal tradition that really stresses sacrosanct qualities of private property — if it’s not yours, you shouldn’t be there. A lot of these places are really public structures, they’re part of what make the city function. So if we switch our mentality and say “Well, you can be there, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody,” I think that would open up a lot of parts of the city that people would love to see.”

Public access to — and the related potential for us to increase our understanding of — the systems and places that make this city run is a topic that recently came up in our interview with Stanley Greenberg, a photographer of hidden systems, infrastructure and technologies. Greenberg pursues formal permission to access the sites he photographs, but acknowledges that today, for some of those locations,  permission might not be so easy to obtain. Greenberg said, in his Omnibus interview:

“I’m saddened that so many of the places I photographed for the first two books have been removed from the public’s eye. I still think that when there’s more public access, places are safer, for a number of reasons. Neighborhoods, for example, are always safer when more people are outside and active. You can’t possibly police all sensitive locations, and you have to have the public take ownership of its property seriously. I haven’t trespassed (much) to get pictures, since my equipment doesn’t allow for it — and in most of my projects, I haven’t needed to. But I support the idea that sometimes the public’s right to know trumps rules of access.”

So, where does that leave us? I certainly don’t advocate opening our sewers, bridges and tunnels to unrestricted access, all in an effort to help citizens better understand infrastructure. But a healthy spirit of inquiry is something to be encouraged. The popular curiosity about these systems indicates, naturally, that we don’t know enough about them to begin with. If we don’t understand what makes our city run, can we ever fully appreciate their value?


Varick Shute served as a founding editor of Urban Omnibus from its inception to 2015.