Underground Man

Underground Man

Something wicked this way comes? Tibbets Brook, the Bronx. (Steve Duncan)

The life of a subterranean urban explorer may be fascinating and full of thrills, but glamorous it is not. “You know you’re not in a museum when you’re stomping through a wad of toilet paper,” said Steve Duncan, who showed photos of his travels through the world’s sewers to a packed room at New York’s Center for Architecture late last month.

Duncan’s penchant for underground exploration dates back to his college years in the mid-1990s, when he discovered the network of tunnels crisscrossing beneath Columbia University. It didn’t take long before he was following manholes down to the hidden labyrinths beneath New York City–and then to other places like Paris, London, Naples, Rome, and Stockholm. Now he photographs his explorations, and has hosted Urban Explorers on the Discovery Channel, while keeping a website stocked with tales from his travels.

Nope. It's just Steve Duncan. Sawmill River, Yonkers. (Steve Duncan)

“In our daily lives we deal with the city as a two-dimensional thing,” Duncan said before leading his audience, via a series of photographs, through New York’s third dimension: downwards. Starting atop the Queensborough Bridge, the photographic trail dropped through layers of infrastructure directly below the bridge’s base: subway tunnels, storm drains, and sewers. Then Duncan added yet another dimension: back in time, to the never-finished 2nd Avenue subway line, fallout shelters, and the ruins of a long-abandoned smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island.

In Duncan’s underground, the beautiful and grotesque coexist without contradiction. One moment he was vividly describing the stench of the sewers, or the millions of rotting corpses stuffed into the catacombs under Paris in the 1800s. Then he was showing otherworldly waterfalls beneath Minneapolis and describing the quietude and stillness of the world just a few feet below Manhattan’s streets.

I sure hope it doesn't rain. Dry sewer in Queens. (Steve Duncan)

His photos reveal a fascination with the way our cities grew out of the earth: from the caves below Paris, hollowed out over the years to build the city’s limestone churches, to the underground streams whose power fueled the industrial revolution.

Those tangles of roots used to be a much more visible part of our cities than they are now, Duncan said, before industry evolved and we decked over our rivers and streams–Canal Street used to be an open sewer, he noted. He’s hoping to call our attention to them partly for practical reasons: Sewage and drainage systems are enormous capital investments, and we can’t afford any mistakes. “We have over 200 years of sewer systems, not built according to any plan,” he warned. A wrong move, and we’re knee-deep in sludge.

Come towards the light. Linden Brook, Astoria. (Steve Duncan)

But there’s also a more lyrical purpose behind Duncan’s quest. He’s urging architects and planners to celebrate those roots, to “open them up and communicate them, show that beauty of the natural topography that still exists.” It makes a lot of sense to daylight some of our streams now, he said, especially since many regions of our cities are evolving from industrial use to residential.

There might be such a thing as becoming too successful in his quest, however, for this die-hard spelunker. “I’m not particularly an advocate of daylighting all these rivers,” Duncan said. “I like tunnels.”