The Night Hunter

Urban explorer and photographer Steve Duncan approaches history from a different perspective.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2010
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Portrait of Steve Duncan by Sacha Maric, Brooklyn; all other photos by Steve DuncanIn the comic book version of Steve Duncan’s life, Duncan, aka Spelunkin’ Duncan, aka Tunnel Man, aka the Scholar of Subterranea, would have powers of X-ray vision: he could climb to the top of the Manhattan Bridge, look out over Gotham, and see right through the streets, the slabs of rock, into the ancient underbelly of subway tunnels, sewer lines, steam pipes, ghost stations, aqueducts, and buried rivers.

It’s not far-fetched. Duncan has indeed ascended the Manhattan Bridge (“It’s graceful, it’s beautiful, but there’s no easy way to get up it”), for that matterall the bridges around Manhattan, and is on a mole man’s terms with the netherworld of arteries beneath New York, London, Paris, Odessa, and Naples, among others. “It’s easy to find history,” goes his mantra. “The hard part is to find a different perspective on it.”

Duncan, 31, is an urban explorer, a guerrilla historian of infrastructure, for whom the multicolored layers of paint peeling off a beam on a subway platform, or the bright orange water oozing up from a track bed, provides the urban variant of Emerson’s “wild delight” that fills one in the presence of Nature. Nocturnal by temperament and expediency, Tunnel Man waits until the express trains stop running to slip around the end of a platform and into the unlit caverns of an abandoned transit project whose substance confers meanings that a book cannot. In spirit, he’s kin to those carefree wildlife adventurers who get up close to grizzly bears, his rugged enthusiasm cloaking the seriousness and volition of the solitary seeker. His nemeses are rain, tides, certain bacteria, the third rail, cops, and gravity. Once, in a storm drain in Queens, he got caught in a hurricane-driven tide, was permeated by pathogens, and almost lost his hand. He has been face-to-face with hordes of rats, cats, and cockroaches. He has used grappling hooks to surmount the crumbling superstructures of world’s fairs, has felt the cushion of wind, that warning breath, that precedes the sound of an approaching train, has emerged at night from heavy-lidded manholes into the middle of city streets, and, at sunrise in Paris, in the belfry of Notre Dame, was present at an unauthorized bell tolling that brought a swift visit from la police nationale.

Underground spring in the Kissena Corridor Drain, Queens“When I started exploring, it was all about the thrill,” Duncan says with a mellow southern lilt, “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.”

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