What is cooler than exploring forgotten urban underground constructions? Almost nothing. A while ago, we blogged about the “Freedom Tunnel” underneath Manhattan’s Upper West Side, that had turned into an ‘underground metropolis’ with organized homeless communities, as well as a haven for graffiti artists.
This fascinating video details a trip they made earlier (the hopping besides the metro tracks is nervewracking; they also meet tunnel residents):
IT must have been the third or fourth day — time, by that point, had started to dissolve — when I stood in camping gear on Fifth Avenue, waiting as my companions went to purchase waterproof waders at the Orvis store. We had already hiked through sewers in the Bronx, slept in a basement boiler room, passed a dusty evening in a train tunnel; we were soiled and sleep-deprived, and we smelled of rotting socks. Yet no one on that sidewalk seemed to notice. As I stood among the businessmen and fashionable women, it dawned on me that New Yorkers — an ostensibly perceptive lot — sometimes see only what’s directly in front of their eyes.
I suppose that’s not a bad way to think about the urban expedition we were on: a taxing, baffling, five-day journey into New York’s underground, the purpose of which, its planners said, was to expose the city’s skeleton, to render visible its invisible marvels. The trip’s conceiver, Erling Kagge, a 47-year-old Norwegian adventurer, had ascended Mount Everest and trekked on foot to both the North and South poles. His partner, Steve Duncan, a 32-year-old student of public history, had logged more than a decade exploring subways, sewers and storm drains. Last month, the two of them forged a new frontier: an extended exploration of the subterranean city, during which they lived inside the subsurface infrastructure, sleeping on the trail, as it were.
Amazing. The sounds down here are even more impressive than the sights and smells: the Niagara-like crash of water spilling in from side drains; the rumble of the subway; the guh-DUNK! of cars hitting manhole covers overhead, like two jabs on a heavy bag. Steve says we’re only 12 feet beneath the surface, but it feels far deeper. The familiar world is gone: only sewage now, the press of surrounding earth, the anxious dance of headlamps on the water. Every 100 feet or so, an archway appears and we can see a parallel channel gurgling beside us with a coffee-colored murk. I shine my headlamp down and watch a condom and gooey scraps of toilet paper float by. I check the air meter constantly: no trace of gas, and the oxygen level is a healthy 20.9 percent. I ask Steve how he navigates down here; he laughs. “Hey, Erling,” he calls out, “you’re taking care of the navigation, right?” Funny.
Riverside Park, Manhattan
We just crossed the 125th Street off-ramp of the West Side Highway and plan to spend the night in an Amtrak tunnel in Riverside Park. Steve knows a woman who lives there — a “mole person” named Brooklyn. Today is Brooklyn’s birthday: she is 50. Erling met Brooklyn in August, on a scouting trip with Steve, and she asked him to return for a party. He has brought her chocolates — all the way from Norway — handmade by his daughters.
Brooklyn’s home is on the other side: dirt floors, concrete walls, a mattress and a milk-crate nightstand, burning candles, a poster of Lance Armstrong. A bicycle lies at the foot of her bed; clothing hangs from makeshift hooks. Beneath Lance Armstrong, there are newspaper clippings marking the death of Michael Jackson. Beside the bed, a huge pile of bottles — hundreds, it appears. Brooklyn describes these as her savings account: when money runs low, she redeems them for cash.
She is a wiry woman in a headband, stunned and pleased to see us. “I can’t believe y’all came for my birthday!” Gifts are given, whiskey passed around. Once again, we are a large group and sing “Happy Birthday.”
A strange news conference then ensues. Andrew, the videographer, directs: arranges Brooklyn in the candlelight, tells the NPR producer where to place his boom. Brooklyn tells her story to the cameras: her stint in the Marine Corps; the death of her parents; the loss of her house upstate; how she lived in the subway and was beaten by marauding kids; how she lived in a box until it was set on fire; how she found herself alone, on a bench in the park, and was lured to the tunnel by friendly cats. She has lived down here since 1982, she says, with six cats and a boyfriend known as B. K.
The party continues on the far side of the wall. More people arrive: Will the spotter, Will’s cousin and a guy named Moe. They, like Steve, are self-styled urban explorers. They talk of climbing bridges, running in subways. At one point, Moe confesses: “I really want to stop doing this. I’m 35. I want to be married and serious.” He sighs. “Then again, I’m saying this in a train tunnel. …”