Roaming The Forbidden Zones With NYC's Young Urban Explorers
I met Victor Thomas outside of a noodle restaurant in the Financial District on a recent Monday just before midnight. After we exchanged a cold handshake, he asked, "So, you ready to just go?" I nodded and we walked. At a set of subway turnstiles we waited for a crowd to exit and swapped Instagram handles. A few minutes later we were running down live track.
My first nervous strides were a blur as my eyes scrambled to adjust in the darkness. Thomas ran just a few feet ahead; I focused on his footfalls and the beams from the flashlights we'd brought to spot obstacles along the rails that might trip us up.
A few hundred feet into the tunnel, along a portion of J train track, Thomas led me over the third rail into a different tunnel. I watched him visibly relax, pulling off his soot-covered gloves and sliding his backpack off his shoulders to kneel down in the middle of the track. He carefully unpacked a DSLR camera, spare lens, and tripod, and set them in a neat row amidst the loose timbers and bits of caked rock. I jumped as a metallic snarl shot from behind me. A subway train had rounded a curve and was charging down the span of tracks we had just walked out of.
"This isn’t something a normal person would do,” he told me “But I just do it for my love of New York."
Thomas never looked up. "They can be loud sometimes, the trains," he grinned. "But look—" He kicked the third rail with his sneaker. Nothing. "This track here is really dead."
Thomas has been at this for a year. Since he quit taking film classes, the 23-year-old Brooklyn native and former skateboarder spends almost all of his free time accessing rooftops, subway tunnels, bridge beams, and abandoned spaces across New York City. “Going somewhere with no limits," he said, "that's the best part about it. When you can be that free in your mind, that’s the epitome of being a human being.”
As we walked farther down the derelict tunnel, he elaborated: "This isn’t something a normal person would do,” he told me “But I just do it for my love of New York."
Past the bright lights and white tile of MTA-sanctioned space lie over 200 miles of track, red signal lights give no glare; beams and bodies cast no shadow. Any lingering depth perception withers and your hearing loses its frames of reference as trains rumble like earthquakes seemingly just over your shoulder, despite being miles away on different tracks. In between these rumbles, it's deeply quiet; the air is stale and cool. "I really do love it down here," Thomas said. "I could stay down here forever."
After getting a few photos, we started back toward the platform. "This was great,” Thomas whispered, walking ahead of me. “We have to—“ his voice cut out and he froze in place.
“I see somebody down there.” Our flashlights shone against two reflective vests. “It’s workers. Let’s leave. Now.” We turned and ran like hell the other way.
Before that night I had done research on urban exploration in New York City, and came across an odd name: Leidschmudel Dreispul. In 1904 Dreispul, a Bronx resident, decided to walk through a subway tunnel on foot just a week after the system first opened—and was struck and killed by a southbound express train near the 137th street IRT station. As I sprinted along a track that Thomas and I had watched Q trains use only minutes earlier, my attempts at putting Dreispul out of my mind failed. “Keep going!” he yelled. “Go!” We ran for minutes that felt like hours, until finally a new shade of rusty orange light appeared on the tracks ahead.
“It’s the bridge!” Thomas whooped from over my shoulder.
Seconds later came the breathy whirr of passing traffic and I understood: we had unknowingly fled out onto the Manhattan Bridge. Chain link fences appeared to our left and right and I knew that we were safe. After climbing onto the pedestrian walkway, solid cement felt luxurious under my feet.
Asked about this sort of unauthorized activity, MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg says, "The best way to appreciate urban infrastructure is from the safe and legal vantage point of public property. People who go farther seem to enjoy talking about how they're risking life and limb, so I sure hope they get arrested before they get killed."
“It doesn’t feel right that there are such strangely beautiful places in New York that are hidden to the public."
The next morning I woke up bleary to a text message from Thomas: "Shots turned out real good. Want to go again tonight?" From there, the next week became a blur. Thomas led me to Underbelly, an empty subway station built in preparation for a cross-Brooklyn line that never materialized, where we saw the remnants of the underground art gallery that had been staged there in 2010.
We dashed down another track that runs along the much-beloved City Hall station and enjoyed its arched ceilings and ornate lights, saving ourselves the MTA's $50 tour fee. Another night took us through a Canal street apartment up onto a roof, and eventually down through an open duct into the abandoned Loew's Theater.
After my explorations, riding the subway to work became a brand new experience. I stood near the windows and studied the tunnels between stations, looking for doors and photogenic junctions. Once I'd left the train, my eyes automatically raced up fire escapes, checking for roof access. Thomas's reasons for spending so much time breaking the law—mental freedom, "no limits"—began to make sense. This is what urban exploration does to you: it reveals the city as something beautifully textured and full of possibilities, no entry fee required.
A week after my first foray underground, I watched an 18-year-old who goes by the alias Demidism slip into the Part C courtroom at 100 Center Street. He entered alone, wearing a grey jacket, black backpack, and the apologetic look of a teenager 20 minutes late to his criminal court date.
He quickly sat down to exchange whispers with his lawyer, but their conversation was cut short as he was called up to face the judge, along with his charges of trespassing and reckless endangerment. Answering questions in short, polite sentences he stood waiting for barely two minutes before hearing “Case is adjourned for hearing and trial."
Demidism is another young urban explorer—one facing legal trouble for his hobby of choice. Born in Latvia, he emigrated with his family at the age of 6, and splits his time between his mother in Queens and his grandmother in Brooklyn.
Short with a brown tuft of hair, he sits down in a coffee shop near the courthouse and nonchalantly rattles off some of his achievements: abandoned MTA stations at 18th Street, Worth Street, Canal Street, and Nevins Street, along with scaling the Queensboro Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, and countless rooftops across Manhattan. “It doesn’t feel right that there are such strangely beautiful places in New York that are hidden to the public,” he told me.
The biggest exposure Demidism has logged so far—the one that’s brought him fame as well as criminal charges—is his September 2014 scaling of 432 Park Avenue, the still-unfinished residential skyscraper that is set to become the tallest residence in the Western Hemisphere.
“One day me and my friend saw the building and decided to climb it a little later. Together Demidism and another young explorer known as night.shift trekked upward for an hour and a half through the skyscraper's hollow concrete shell. They scaled countless stairs, and then, finally a ladder to the roof. “I couldn’t walk for three days after that,” he told me, grinning.
Demidism has reason enough to smirk. The photos that he took from the top of 432 Park are stunning nighttime long exposures that show Manhattan’s skyline draped in clouds from 1,396 feet off the ground. “It felt fucking amazing. The weather was just perfect that day, it was breathtaking,” he says.
"I'm not an outlaw, and I'm not an Instagrammer," he said. "I would say I'm a street photographer, not an urban explorer."
Like many other young New York urban explorers who’ve illegally summited buildings, Demidism posted the photos to his personal Instagram account. Immediately the images from 432 Park were reposted by numerous media outlets, including Gothamist, and weeks later the teen was brought in for questioning by the NYPD and subsequently arrested. “My wife really loves your photos,” one detective told him as he was being booked.
His posts made waves in what's now an ever-widening sea of conspicuously young adventurers who see Instagram as the essential platform for showing off their exploits. "Instagram honestly completely changed my life," he told me. In the weeks following his climb, his account racked up over 16,000 new followers.
Photos like Demidism's have exploded across the platform. With DSLR cameras, tripods, and photo editing software, many young explorers have have made posting to Instagram a daily routine—as such, a scene has developed, a subset of urban exploration as a whole with qualities borrowed from street, architecture, and skateboarding photography. The medium's old zines, forums, and blogs seem quaint by comparison.
Another Instagram user with a passion for off-limits areas is New York's most famous young "urban explorer celebrity," an 18-year-old named Humza Deas. A glance at Deas's profile reveals photos similar to Demidism's, but served with a very different attitude. Deas's photos are sleeker, more stylized; his captions convey a heightened self-confidence and the hashtag #CreateYourHype rests below most of his photos like a brand-boosting boast.
Deas was profiled at length by New York Magazine in a piece that labeled him an "outlaw instagrammer," but in conversation the teen flatly rejects that title. "I'm not an outlaw, and I'm not an Instagrammer," he said. "I would say I'm a street photographer, not an urban explorer."
"Giving depth to the environment we live in, and being in love with the city is what actually makes this worthwhile."
Many of Deas's photos tell a different story. Instagram posts depicting the tops of bridges, dark subway tunnels, and rooftops pepper his feed. Deas fed New York Magazine quotes on how to access restricted areas for an article entitled "The Everything Guide to the Urban Daredevil," and in late 2014 one of his images— a dizzying aerial shot of his feet dangling over Midtown—graced the cover of New York Magazine's "Reasons to Love New York" issue. "It makes a great trophy for 2014," he admitted.
Deas's blend of crisp photography, alluring vantage points, and cooperation with the media has made him a star. But the hype he's created has also led to problems. "People would literally follow me around to locations," he said, explaining that he's had to ward off multiple fans who attempt to sneak along on his escapades. Deas has also been accused by other explorers of blowing up spots, and his interviews may very well have exposed infrastructure vulnerabilities.
Back at the coffee shop, I ask Demidism about Instagram's place in urban exploration and he sighs. "I try to find a balance between making myself look good and being myself. You have a ton of people doing the same thing, and it takes the fun out of it sometimes." He said he and Deas used to be close, but have drifted apart since the New York Magazine piece was published. "I've met so many good people, and not so good people," he says, before picking up his backpack and buttoning his coat.
For all their varying approaches, Demidism, Thomas, and Deas share a common hero. "If I were to die tomorrow, five years from now people wouldn't remember my name," Deas said. "But if you asked, 'Who's Steve Duncan?' everyone would still know. He's like a legend."
Duncan comes from a past generation of urban explorers and has closer ties to historians and urban planners than he does street photographers. Beginning in the late '90s, he started taking trips through tunnels, up bridges, and into sewers. "Giving depth to the environment we live in, and being in love with the city is what actually makes this worthwhile," he told me.
Duncan is best known for a 28 minute video entitled Undercity, a high quality, expertly edited short film that follows him up the Williamsburg Bridge and through sewers and subway tunnels underneath the streets. When it was posted online in 2011, it made Duncan something of a star. "From my own perspective, it took off like crazy," Duncan said. "There was so much more viewership and interest than I had expected."
"I think the celebrity is the city. The photographer is actually the foil."
Undercity has racked up over two million views across Vimeo and Youtube. The film is incredibly popular amongst younger urban explorers—its footage of tunnels and bridge climbs has been reprised on the Instagram feeds of many. "That video," Thomas told me, "It's the best thing I've ever seen."
But unlike his young fans, Duncan mostly rejects Instagram; he keeps his best photos private unless publications come with offers of payment, and his drive to explore has always been more intrinsic.
"The reward of a few thumbs up on any kind of social media or even the potential of getting rich and famous, that’s not at all what makes it worthwhile," Duncan said when I brought up usernames and hashtags. "But giving depth to the environment we live in and being in love with it, that's what actually makes this sort of shit worthwhile."
Beyond any desire for jaw-dropping photos, a quest for knowledge fuels his explorations. In conversation he's quick to run off on tangents about the intricacies of storm drains and the need for a more engaged public. "Over the past 75 years or so, more and more citizens have become separated from the actual functionality of urban environments and how they work at a deep level," he says.
"Taking good pictures is a great motivation to go and do stupid shit that's hard to justify otherwise. But I don't think the celebrity is ever the urban explorer. I think the celebrity is the city. The photographer is actually the foil."
Bradley Garrett earned his PhD in urban exploration. His dissertation, entitled, "Place Hacking," frames the hobby as a political act.
"We can't have people for evil purposes or just for fun trespassing on vital parts of our infrastructure that we know are terrorist targets."
"All of these corporate spaces are being constructed around us all the time, and we have no stake in them," says the American expat and professor of human geography at the University of Southampton. "People feel the city is a place they can look at but can't touch."
In 2013 Garrett splashed the Internet with images of himself at the top of London's Shard skyscraper and deep underground in an old World War II-era shelter—acts that ultimately drug him through both legal woes similar to Demidism's and the kind of posturer pariah status that Deas wrestles with.
The controversy around Garrett's photos has since died down. "The publicity didn't change anything. It really comes down to just competing egos and people feeling a sense of ownership over a location they've explored."
The London authorities' reactions—their swift prosecution in the wake of his media buzz—is what's most interesting to Garrett. In his book, Explore Everything, he writes that the hobby regularly "uncover[s] the places and histories that those in power would prefer remained hidden."
As New York's real estate market continues to favor the super-rich, urban exploration is a kind of equalizer. 432 Park is the ultimate example: in January the Wall Street Journal praised the building's views as something "only money can buy." But Demidism, a teenager, made those vistas egalitarian.
"We have this paradigm where we think of everything as private property—that if something isn't mine, I shouldn't be there."
Authorities often invoke the specter of terrorism as grounds to punish urban explorers. The United States National Counterterrorism Center included both Garrett and Duncan's websites in a report on urban exploration's threat to critical infrastructure, and in the fallout from 2014's Brooklyn Bridge "White Flags Incident" and Demidism's 432 Park climb, Senator Charles Schumer called for harsher punishment of urban explorers, asserting, "We can't have people for evil purposes or just for fun trespassing on vital parts of our infrastructure that we know are terrorist targets."
"There's a real investment by the city in the perception that they have control of everything," said Moses Gates, another veteran explorer who often accompanied Duncan on his trips above and below the streets. "People like that just can't stand the thought that they're not all-powerful."
Duncan agrees: "We have this paradigm where we think of everything as private property—that if something isn't mine, I shouldn't be there."
A few weeks after our first meeting, Thomas and I convened outside Manhattan's bright new Fulton Center subway station. "My feed's been going crazy," Thomas told me, grinning at the praise he'd been receiving for his latest Instagram posts of the tunnels and theater we'd accessed together.
With backpacks full of camera gear, headlamps, and flashlights we rode the train to Brooklyn and met Demidism and his friend, James Lanning. "James has a place for us to go," I was told. "We're going up the elevator."
"The urban environment is just as interesting as it has ever been in 2015, in New York and anywhere else in the world."
From Carroll Gardens the four of us strode down increasingly darker streets until the Gowanus canal came into view. Another ten minutes of walking along the murky water brought us to our destination: the immense Red Hook Grain Terminal, a 12 story high cement monument to urban decay that's been attracting New York's urban explorers for decades and stands crumbling on Brooklyn's waterfront. Built in 1922 and abandoned since the 1950s, the terminal has been the subject of numerous redevelopment schemes, all of them fruitless.
Up creaky stairs and past holes that threatened a 120 foot free-fall into one of the terminal's 54 empty silos, Lanning led us slowly up toward the roof.
"The urban environment is just as interesting as it has ever been in 2015, in New York and anywhere else in the world," Duncan had told me earlier that day. But as I stood on the terminal's roof, covered in soot and sweat, gazing out as Manhattan twinkled from across the East River, it was Gates, Duncan's former cohort, whose words best fit the moment.
In his book, Hidden Cities, the now-retired explorer describes rooftops and bridges as "a refuge and a vista together, a story both personal and universal, and a place that's completely devoid of monetization." I looked out and inhaled cold air while the others began setting up cameras.