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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Duncan grew up in the Washington suburb of Cheverly, Maryland. His mother was a practicing Catholic and took in stray animals. The house was filled with dogs, cats, birds, ferrets. As a kid, Duncan read heaps of science fiction and cleaned a lot of cages. There was no television, no junk food, and, at St. Anselm’s Abbey School in D.C., where Duncan spent his high school years, no girls. “My mother dragged me to church every Sunday,” Duncan says, “and the one thing I was ever really solid and strong about as a young person was that I was not going to be an altar boy.” That was about the extent of his youthful rebellion. Never did he sneak into the boiler room of St. Anselm’s. “I was too timid to get in trouble,” he says.

Riverside Park Tunnel, ManhattanIn the shelter of his childhood, Duncan was captured by the fantasy worlds of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Roger Zelazny, and Douglas Adams, so that when, at 17, after being accepted to Columbia, he came to New York for the first time, it was as if the most elaborate cityscapes of his imagination had met their match. “I fell in love from the moment we crossed the George Washington Bridge,” he says. “I was blown away by the engineering and physical complexity of New York, partly because I’d read about these imaginary constructs in books.”

Columbia would prepare Duncan for his own journey to the center of the earth, supplying him with the crucial event that, like Peter Parker’s spider bite, or the bat coming through Bruce Wayne’s window, allowed him to become — Tunnel Man!

It was at the end of his first semester, during finals week. Duncan, who planned to major in English and engineering, had just learned of a study project that could only be done on a computer program at the math lab. He ran to Mathematics, but by then it was midnight and the building was locked. Frustrated, Duncan returned to Carman Hall and sought out a fellow student, “one of those crazy, jaded New York kids who seemed to know everything about the campus,” and asked him if there was a way to get into the math lab after hours.

There was.

Hellgate Bridge, view toward Queens“I’d heard these bits of gossip or myth about the Columbia tunnels, about the Manhattan Project,” Duncan says of the systems of utility conduits beneath Columbia’s campus, “and I knew they had some kind of reference in reality. I just wasn’t sure exactly what.”

The kid led Duncan to an entrance at one of the physical plant areas and said, “Go in that direction and you’ll come to the main tunnel. Take that, and follow the steam pipes.”

There’s always a dragon to be slain. Peter Parker was bullied as a teenager. Bruce Wayne lost his parents to a killer. Steve Duncan, lanky and mild-mannered, stood at the threshold of the Columbia tunnels, gazing into the blackness. He was, and always had been, afraid of the dark.

The hard part is trying to find a different perspective.

“I figured if I could venture alone into this dark and terrifying tunnel, I could be proud of myself,” Duncan says. “There was the sense that if I didn’t push through with it, I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye.” Duncan reached Mathematics a changed man. He returned to the tunnels again and again.

“The tunnels are a wonderful microcosm of the built environment,” he says. “Exploring them was a hands-on way to understand things that are part of New York and all cities.”

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