An Urban Spelunker Pursues His Vision
An underground break-in for the sake of a math assignment led Steve Duncan to the Discovery Channel and a gallery show -- and maybe a new career
It’s 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and Steve Duncan is scrambling. The 30-year-old mapmaker, freelance photographer and self-described urban historian has had a particularly busy week, which has taken him from the train tunnels of Manhattan to an underground river in Yonkers, then back to his alma mater, Columbia University, to shoot photos for a university event.
So he’s running late framing pictures for a show his work is in at a New York gallery. His contributions to the series, “Night Moves,” consist of after-hours shots from some of the most remote parts of New York City—stunning views from the top of the Manhattan Bridge, eerie glimpses into sewer tunnels beneath the city streets.
Duncan is supposed to be at the gallery by 4 to drop off his prints. But as the minutes tick by, it becomes increasingly clear he’s not going to make it.
“I’m not usually this bad at this,” he said, looking up from his work. He paused. “Well, that’s sort of a lie.”
Duncan’s 23-year-old girlfriend, Zan Goldblatt, smiled from across the room as she prepared music for the show. “Yeah, that’s a lie,” she agreed.
Lately, Duncan has lost interest in his map business — and not just because the mapmaking industry, like other tourist-based markets, has suffered in this dire economic climate. Instead, he is more interested in his tunnel explorations, a mostly unprofitable hobby he’s been cultivating since he started at Columbia—where he majored in urban studies—in 1996.
“I had heard that there were these tunnels under the university, and I was fascinated,” he said. But it was an academic emergency that finally led him underground.
“I was procrastinating as usual in this math class I had,” he recalled, “and it turned out there was a big set of stuff that could only be done using programs on computers in the math building.”
It was 11 p.m. The math building had closed at 9.
He convinced another student to take him into a subterranean passageway leading to the math building. “So then he led me into the tunnels,” he said, “and kind of pointed me in the right direction. And then I found myself alone in the tunnels, which was terrifying—exhilarating also, but really scary.”
Then he just kept going.
Duncan’s friend Jacob Press remembers the time Duncan spent eight hours getting into a tunnel by digging through a concrete wall, with a shovel he’d found on the street.
“I’m a little squeamish about tunnels and stuff,” Press admitted. “I never caught on when you started going down those Amtrak tunnels.”
Surprisingly, Duncan said it was his lifelong fear of the dark—“not just the dark per se, but a fear of things jumping out at me”— that drove his desire to go underground.
“Actually I kind of lost the whole fear of the dark thing after a while of going around tunnels, and I was sad,” he lamented. “I lost that sense of going into something…that sense of discovery that I had at first, and that I really loved.”
His expertise was recognized when he worked as an on-air urban historian for a truncated Discovery Channel series called “Urban Explorers.” Five episodes – about Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver and Milwaukee – ran in 2004 and 2005.
He continues to research the history of underground spaces in New York and other cities, and he and Goldblatt, who met while rock-climbing in Maryland last year, are working on a book meant to document Duncan’s urban explorations.
In contrast to Duncan’s chaotic, almost stream-of-consciousness approach to life, Goldblatt is organized and straightforward. Their complementary personalities help move the project along, she maintains.
“He’d wanted to write a book about what he loves, which is underground cities, for a long time,” she said, “and it’s really starting to come together. The problem is it doesn’t pay right now to write a book.”
So Duncan relies on freelance assignments and income from Opus Publishing, which he runs with partner Arthur Gorelik. The two founded the company in 2002, after noticing a significant gap in the map market.
“A lot of big map publishers had taken a long time to adapt digital files for cartography,” he said. Working with digital data, Opus could update maps much more quickly.
This kind of frenetic, can-do spirit seems to characterize Duncan’s approach to work and life. After dropping his prints off just before 5 p.m., he climbed into his Mazda Accent, and began what at first seemed like a meandering ride back to the office. But then he abruptly stopped the car, and ambled over to a sewer grate in the middle of the street.
He’d been down this tunnel before, he said, looking down.
As he waited for a car to pass, he turned and began describing the histories of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, both visible in the waning glow of late afternoon light.
“It’s not so much that I’m a good historian,” he said, “it’s just that it doesn’t really matter how good a historian you are if you’re not communicating it.”
He knelt down and shoved his flashlight through one of the round holes of the sewer grate. He put his eye right up to the grate and peered down into the tunnel, pointing out the flowing river down below.
“And you can smell it too,” he said, hopping back up, his eyes alighting on a sewage construction project down the street.