A Talk With Steve Duncan: Brooklyn’s urban explorer, daredevil and sewer man
Speaking with Steve Duncan, it’s hard to keep up with all of his exploits. Whether he’s causing a traffic jam by climbing a New York City bridge or being swarmed by military police outside the Moscow Kremlin, one thing is for sure: his life is anything but ordinary.
A typical weekend for Duncan, 37, involves climbing bridges, scaling skyscrapers, sloshing through sewers, exploring decrepit mental hospitals and rummaging in many other dilapidated buildings.
This is the exhilarating life of an Urban Explorer. Urban Exploration is a hobby where individuals or groups of people explore the lesser-known parts of an urban environment.
Thought by many as an activity reserved for mischievous teens, Urban Exploration is a dangerous hobby that poses various risks, including incarceration and death.
Duncan, a sandy-haired boyish figure who lives in Crown Heights, has a long list of accolades. He has climbed to the top of every East River Bridge, scoured Brooklyn’s sewer system, climbed to the top of the 1964 World’s Fair Observation Towers and explored innumerable abandoned buildings.
Worldwide, Duncan has been in the Paris catacombs, under St. Peter’s Basilica and he has explored sewers and tunnels beneath Paris, London, Milan, Rome, Naples, Stockholm, Berlin, Moscow, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles. He also hosted a television show on the Discovery Channel in 2005.
The Brooklyn Eagle had the pleasure of speaking with Duncan about how he got to some of the city’s most coveted locations. Following are edited excerpts from the Eagle’s conversation with Duncan.
Eagle: What prompted you to come to the city?
Duncan: I had applied to a few different colleges. Rice rejected me. Columbia accepted me. I was lured briefly by the sundresses at Duke, but I came to Columbia instead, and then when winter set in, it became miserable outside. Like everyone else, I had to figure out something to do inside, which I guess, led to tunnels and bridges.
Eagle: Were you into Urban Exploration before you came to the city?
Duncan: My mom didn’t let me out of the house when I was a kid. I had a very sheltered childhood. I was a little nerd let free in the big city. I don’t know if Urban Exploration was much of a thing either.
Eagle: Do you have a community of people that you share your experiences with?
Duncan: I have an incredibly wonderful network of people I trust intimately because there’s nothing like getting arrested together that creates a deep-rooted bond. In Urban Exploration, there are no guarantees of safety. You have to keep your own watch where you’re putting your feet. The rewards are that you get to learn about your environment in new and exciting ways. The downsides are it’s not a safe path.
Eagle: What was one of the first places that you went to?
Duncan: At Columbia, I found out that the university was kind of a microcosm of a city. I heard that somewhere underneath Columbia are the remnants of some secret government project where they were building the atomic bomb. I heard that football players were hired to move the radioactive stuff and then later on they got cancer. I love the idea of 1950s jocks suffering for their sins later on in life or possibly mutating into orcs deep in the bowels of Columbia.
So, poking around these tunnels, eventually I found out that yes, there is, underneath the physics building, the remnants of the giant electromagnet from the primitive particle accelerator that had been used in 1939 to first split an atom in America. From there, I started going out into the city and poking around abandoned subway stations.
Eagle: What attracted you to Urban Exploration?
Duncan: There’s a visual beauty in places that are falling apart. There’s visual beauty in everything, but I think a lot of Urban Explorers go to places that are abandoned because they are places that are stopped in time and the historical layer is much more clear.
One thing that I found really interesting is that the biggest barrier by far, and sometimes the only barrier, is a little voice in the back of our head, screaming, “you shouldn’t do that!” … even when there is a much bigger voice in the front of our head saying, “I’ve thought about this, and I think I should.” In short: fear. And the problem with fear is that it removes the ability to think logically.
Eagle: What bridges have you climbed?
Duncan: Every bridge around Manhattan: the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and Queensboro Bridge. I met my first girlfriend on the Queensboro Bridge. I don’t say this to brag. Bridge climbing is one of those interesting things. It’s actually easier to climb the girders most of the time than the stairs. They make the stairs less accessible than the girders. Fortunately, for a 19th-century bridge, it’s like a giant monkey-bar set.
I’ve also made love on two bridges.
Eagle: You made love on the top?
Duncan: Of course on the top!
Eagle: Was there ever an instance where you thought you might die?
Duncan: Yes. The thing about falling from high up is you don’t really get a second chance. I really, really, really recommend being super, extremely safe. None of our great bridges around New York have been built without the deaths of between several and several dozens of people. You can’t do great things without risks. Risks are quite serious. I mostly go underground; in some ways, those are just as unforgiving environments. Things that have most nearly killed me are infections.
Eagle: Have you ever been arrested?
Duncan: I’ve been arrested four times in four different countries. They have let me go each time because I look trustworthy. I recommend being arrested in Canada or France. When I was over in France they brought me to a police station where one guy only had a little bit of English and wanted to practice it. He kept on coming by our cell and saying, “off with their heads!”
Eagle: Can you tell me a little bit about your Europe explorations?
Duncan: I’ve been to the Paris catacombs. In Berlin, I toured a secret door from a subway station into a Cold War bunker.
Brescia, Italy is a hidden treasure. Brescia is one of the few towns in the world that is paving the way for the glorious revolution of Urban Explorers. A group called Brescia Underground has set up tours of underground streams, which [were] important to the city in its medieval years, and it’s a little town that is charming.
In Rome, I finally got into the Cloaca Maxima, which is the oldest — or a small part of it is the oldest — active sewer that I know of as a manmade sewer. It’s still a part of the modern sewer system of contemporary Rome, and I’ve also been in the tunnels under the Vatican that hold the bones of St. Peter.
Eagle: What was your favorite place that you’ve ever explored?
Duncan: Maybe when I was in Moscow. Moscow is along the Moscow River, but it was originally built at the intersection of the Moscow and the Neglinnaya rivers. Originally, Moscow developed around the Kremlin, which was built at the intersection of those two. There are some tunnels now. I got to finally explore them, but because we thought a flood was starting and we were afraid we were going to die, we ended up having to pop out of a manhole just outside the walls of the Kremlin, where shortly thereafter we were discovered by Russian military police.
It was the most terrifying moment of my life. I’m an American popping up out of the ground by the walls of the Kremlin. I know no Russian. I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life in a Russian gulag full of drug resistant tuberculosis.
Eagle: Any favorite places in Brooklyn?
Duncan: My biggest victory in recent years was in Brooklyn in a massive storm drain that connected to the head of the Gowanus Canal. It was probably 15 years ago that I first started hunting for it. I searched for manholes like a lonely lost soul at night.
Eagle: What was the first thing that came to your head when you got to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge?
Duncan: Sometimes it takes a little risk to appreciate things. But getting to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge, I can very clearly say was a tenured dream. I did it on my 29th birthday. My first date with the first girl I fell in love with was my second semester. I would have already been 18, and we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge on my first date, and I think my dream of climbing all of the bridges around Manhattan dated from that moment. I think that I looked up at the bridge and I said, “I want to be on top of that some day.” And 10 years later, I was.
Watch Steve Duncan’s documentary “Undercity” below:
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