It’s easy to find history. The hard part is to find a different perspective on it.
That’s the mantra behind the new 28-minute documentary, Undercity, by filmmaker Andrew Wonder and guerrilla historian/urban explorer Steve Duncan, who teamed together to take viewers through New York City from the view many have never seen–underground, through its tunnels, subways, and sewers. The journey is awe-inspiring: visiting an abandoned subway station, climbing through a manhole to look at the canal that Canal Street was named after, scaling the top of the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s a trip “through New York’s subconscious,” Duncan told NPR, a Discovery or History Channel series waiting to happen, and it only skims the surface of the hidden third dimensionality of city environments:
Undercity is nothing new for Duncan, a doctoral student in urban history at the University of California-Riverside who has logged over ten years of underground urban exploration. “As an urban historian and photographer, I try to peel back the layers of a city to see what’s underneath,” he wrote on his website. “From the tops of bridges to the depths of sewer tunnels, these explorations of the urban environment help me puzzle together the interconnected, multi-dimensional history and complexity of the great metropolises of the world.”
“When I first started exploring, it was all about the thrill,” Duncan told Columbia Magazine (also his alma mater), “but over time the stories behind the places became far more important. When I tell the story about going down to the underground rivers in Moscow, for example, the highlights are the moments of fear and of almost getting arrested. But what I think about is having been in this river underneath Red Square, having seen this thing that I had previously seen only on maps from 150 years ago, and that most people will never see. That deeper sense of seeing and understanding a city is what matters.”
It’s his respect for the city and his infrastructure that fuels Duncan to explore them, despite the risk of injury, death, or an arrest record. Many would stop in the face of arrests, but the reason why that doesn’t stop Duncan is that he honestly believes he’s not doing anything that is ethically wrong. “There’s a lot of really fantastic parts of the city’s infrastructure that are not morally bad to experience. I’m not doing immoral things down here, and I think these things help people see the city for what it is: a fascinating place that’s grown over time. But you try to explain that to a cop arresting you and you’re not going to get very far.”
“I see myself more like Robin Hood,” he said. “I do what’s right, even if it doesn’t necessarily conform to the law. It’s a crime not to look at these amazing views.”
And it’s a crime not to expose their history, because urbanity, and the infrastructure behind it, is what connects cities to each other, regardless of the country. Layers of life exist below each city, but their universality is lost on us because we can’t see it or even fathom its complexities, and so we’re blind to the interconnected and interactive ecologies that make up these manmade environments.
We know it’s there, but rarely do we consciously think about it. And in a time of urban ecological development, these subterranean gems offer entire courses on building sustainable city structures. “Relics of the past and remnants of previous layers of urban development make you realize that the built environment around us was not inevitable, that there are different ways it could have gone,” Duncan said, “which helps us realize that we have an agency in how our cities develop.”
Photo courtesy of Zach Klein via Flickr