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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Fleet River sewer, LondonDuncan delved into other structures in the Columbia area, and became increasingly drawn to urban history as a field of study. He stood at the front of subway trains and peered out at the rusting anatomy and grand murals of Subterranea. He infiltrated the abandoned subway station at West 91st Street, and dug himself into the Riverside Park tunnel, which was built by Robert Moses in the 1930s, populated by hundreds of homeless people in the 1980s, cleared of human dwellers in the early 1990s, though not entirely, and is now used by Amtrak. (“I went through this little hole in the dirt, just squirmed through, and then suddenly found myself in a space the size of a cathedral.”) He got his boots wet in the canal under Canal Street, and shone his headlamp into the oblivion of the Knickerbocker Avenue Extension Sewer, built over a century ago to divert sewage from Bushwick into the East River.

Back on campus, Duncan took Kenneth Jackson’s class, The History of the City of New York. Jackson’s dynamic storytelling inspired the young spelunker to go deeper into his subject, in every sense. Duncan switched his major to urban history, and is now pursuing his master’s degree in public history at the University of California at Riverside. But the classroom, for Duncan, has no particular walls — or rather, those walls can sometimes be 50 feet below the sidewalk. Duncan recalls riding the subway in his early New York days: “I wanted to be able to put out my hand and touch the tunnel walls rather than just see them through a window. Things are more meaningful when there’s something you can touch or feel.”

Victorian-era storm drain, LondonThe hard part is trying to find a different perspective.

In 2003, Duncan was hiking in Yosemite National Park when he had a minor fall. He injured his right hip. When the pain didn’t go away, he went for X-rays. He thought it was a pulled muscle, but it turned out that the hip was cracked. Additional tests revealed something more: an extremely rare, cancerlike syndrome called vanishing bone disease, in which the bone is mysteriously eaten away. At 25, Duncan had a new set of fears to wrestle with. He received radiation. His family prayed. The treatments were effective, and Duncan recovered normal functionality. “Nothing like spending a week on a pediatric cancer ward to make you realize how lucky you have it,” he says.

Duncan is now considered cured. The hip will have to be replaced in a few years — the lost bone does not regenerate — and Tunnel Man needs to be careful not to jump down from high places. “People tell me I shouldn’t do some of the stuff I do because it might get me killed, but I thought I was going to die from cancer. So if things are that arbitrary, why not do it?”

To which some might say, “Because it’s not always legal, sir.”

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