As we’ve seen in the Welikia Project and the book Hidden Waters of NYC there’s multiple ways to approach the investigation and documentation of hidden hydrology in the same city.  Next is a hybrid photography, infrastructure history and adventurous drainer in the form of Steve Duncan.  Since the 2010s, he’s been featured often, the theme similar to these stories from NPR “Into The Tunnels: Exploring The Underside Of NYC” as well as the New York Times (here “The Wilderness Below Your Feet” with Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge).

Duncan, here smiling after the third night camping underground, is a graduate of Columbia University and is working on his doctorate in urban history at the University of California. via NPR

His photography is pretty stunning, (links to the original photography site seem down, but you can buy a print here) and more than a few articles feature his explorations and work, including this New York/London feature in the Daily Mail, “A tale of two underground cities: Urban explorer’s stunning photographs of the subways and sewers of New York and London”  Here’s Duncan at work:

His photos are featured as well in National Geographic “11 Rivers Forced Underground” which include New York as well as other cities around the world.  A few of the shots:

Sunswick Creek, New York City (Photo by Duncan)
Tibbets Brook, New York City (Photo by Duncan)
River Sheaf – Sheffield, England – Photo by Duncan)

My favorite below as the idea of canoeing this hidden streams is a bucket list dream for me.  This one is of the Park River in Hartford Connecticut.  From the NatGeo article: “Today, a few intrepid urban explorers paddle canoes down the buried river. John Kulick of Huck Finn Adventures, who has guided float trips through the subterranean section, told the New York Times he has seen eels, carp, and stripers in the dark water. Kulick joked, perhaps at least half seriously, that a burst of water gurgled into the river because “someone flushed a toilet.”

Park River, Hartford Connecticut (Photo by Duncan)

The site Watercourses provides the more academic side of this inquiry, dating back to 2008-2010 with a goal of “Looking for the lost streams, kills, rivers, brooks, ponds, lakes, burns, brakes, and springs of New York City.” As much of it isn’t regularly maintained, it’s still great repository of info, maps, photos, and lots of good links.  Organized into regions and sites, with a sidebar around “Named Streams, Ponds, & Springs” it’s a wealth of info to dig into and some great, NY specific info.  As mentioned in the introduction:

“Almost all of the the streams, ponds, swamps, tidal inlets, flood plains, springs, etc that once dotted the fertile land seem, at first glance, to have disappeared underneath the tide of New York City’s urbanization. This is not completely true. In many cases, the city retains the imprint of these features; in the shape of a road, for example, like Water Street in lower Manhattan, that used to follow the edge of a stream or river; or sometimes just in the name of a neighborhood or street.”

For instance, one of the posts on Minetta Brook yields a snip from the Viele Water Map (more on this in an upcoming post) showing the course:

Plus this great 1901 article from the NY Times on excavating the creek.

Undercity is the other side/site of Duncan with posts ranging from 1999 through a sporadic fits and an end in 2015 with a focus on the “Guerrilla History & Urban Exploration” side of things.  These posts offer a great array of topics, like how 9/11 impacted urban exploration, the lives of the Mole people, and even a blurb in the difficult to reproduce on black pages local NW Design mag Arcade.

Like many websites of a certain vintage, there’s plenty of broken links (unfortunately the Explorations tab being one of them) but still lots of great info – also a gruesome shot of Duncan’s hand and after story when he slipped and sliced it open during one of his explorations.  Sifting through the links, there are some really hidden gems, inlcuding a book link I’d not seen before for New York Underground: Anatomy of a City, and some great posts about England and Rome around March 2009.

My hands down favorite is this link to a Life Magazine story from November 7, 1949 on ‘Underground New York’, which featured some amazing cutaway images like this one on the complexity of subsurface infrastructure:

For some additional reading by Duncan himself, there’s a thoughtful essay on from 2012 “An underground explorer discovers his city’s lost lifeblood” in which he discusses the importance of the historic streams in New York, their eventual destruction:

“With further development came the burial of Tibbetts Brook, and many of the other streams. In some cases, putting them underground was merely a way to create more buildable land above. In others, the streams that once supplied drinking water or fish were converted into sewers and drains. Today, the lineage of many of the major sewer lines in New York City can be traced back to streams and rivers that flowed unfettered for centuries and even millennia before the city matured around them. Today, their past is all but forgotten.”

He continues the essays through some exploration of Tibbetts Brook, and discussion of the Canal Street sewer, New York City’s first, discussing many of the creeks, through actually following their current form. Many of them as he mentions, are too small to explore underground, being only a few feet wide, but “it is impossible to completely parse out the old “natural” Minetta Brook, or the Tibbetts or the Sawmill, from the urban landscape and sprawl of the modern-day “Big Apple”—but that doesn’t mean they’re gone. Far from it.” 

There’s also a great video by filmmaker Andrew Wonder from 2010 called UNDERCITY which follows Duncan underground.

UNDERCITY from Andrew Wonder on Vimeo.

Some great background on a pioneer in the urDuncan on Twitter @undercitysteve where he’s giving tours around the city.  He’s also on FB, which i am not but probably easy to find via a search. There’s a link on Twitter to another site but it wasn’t working for me.

HEADER IMAGE:  “A self-portrait taken by Steve Duncan in New York City’s Croton Aqueduct, 2006” Photo By Steve Duncan, via NPR

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