URBAN EXPLORATION: HIDDEN CITIES, OFF-LIMITS SITES
URBAN EXPLORATION: HIDDEN CITIES, OFF-LIMITS SITES
Indiana Jones pounded through a library floor to head under Venice in his search for the holy grail; Haruki Murakami’s book, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, takes place largely in an anachronistic sewer network under Tokyo; the Bat Cave can be found under Wayne Manor. However you look at it, hidden cities, off-limits places, and underground constructions are pretty cool – in fiction.
There are some who seek out the hidden corners of cities, attempting for example, to find the Cloaca Maxima(the world’s first sewer) underneath Rome, or mapping abandoned subway stations in New York. These “urban explorers” often risk life and limb – as well as hefty fines and sentences for trespassing – to find and photograph cramped catacombs, forgotten façades, and industrial relics. But how can the average traveler – encumbered by hum-drum safety, monetary, and legal concerns – get into these places? It may not be a purist’s definition of urban exploration, but here are some (mostly) legal and (probably) safe ways to see the other side of cities and places you thought you knew.
Seattle’s Underground City
Beginning as a rough-and-tumble logging town, Seattle was not originally constructed with concepts like urban planning and civil engineering in mind. Because Seattle was built on flats along the Pacific shoreline, the first Seattleites had to contend with tidal flooding, often wading through inches of muck on the streets and sidewalks, losing shoes, personal articles, and possibly small children in the mire. Another dingy drawback was that toilets would not flush – and would often back up – at high tide.
The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 put an end to the first Seattle, with civic leaders making two important decisions. The first was a building ordinance specifying that all new constructions must be of brick or masonry. The second was to elevate the new city above the tideflats, effectively turning the second story of buildings into the new ground floor. Shop-keeps quickly rebuilt, and sidewalks and streets were planted one story higher than before, creating underground passageways lined with the original storefronts.
Today, walking around Pioneer Square, you wouldn’t even notice that you’re treading on the remnants of old Seattle. Take the Underground Tour, however, and you’ll experience the dank, muddy, and downright stinky Seattle of a hundred years ago.
Catacombs and Mines of Paris
There’s nothing like a catacomb to pique the interest of any self-respecting urban explorer, and indeed there are uncounted “cataphiles” in Paris and around the world, all vying to get into the maze of mines and ossuaries sitting just below Paris. The catacombs have been partially open to the public since 1867, with tours every day taking the curious visitor through the macabre ossuary packed with the bones of centuries of putrefying Parisians.
The stone mines are a different story. Because of extremely dangerous conditions, the abandoned mines of Paris – the birthplace of plaster of Paris – are off limits to the public. That doesn’t stop intrepid cataphiles with a flashlight and a penchant for subterranean architecture from trying, and sometimes succeeding, to get in. Maybe not the day trip of choice for the tourist with a money belt and a pressed suit, but definitely a unique view on the City of Light… in the dark.
New York’s Abandoned Subway Stations
There have been quite a few incarnations of the New York subway system in its more than 100-year history. Tracks have been moved, lines altered, and stations demolished or left to rot. Fortunately for urban explorers, this means lots and lots of leftover infrastructure to explore, photograph, and map.
Among the jewels of New York’s many forgotten sites for the ferrophile is City Hall station, originally built as the southern terminal of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) system and a showpiece of New York’s spanking new subway in 1904. The station sports intricate tiled designs along the walls, elegant archways and stairways, and even expansive skylights.
Although all of New York’s abandoned subway stations are closed to the public, there’s a slight chance that the New York Transit Museum will be operating a tour of City Hall station when you’re in town. But don’t hold your breath: post 9/11 security concerns have halted all but the most important events at City Hall station. The last time it was open to the public was after a VIP ceremony held for the 2004 IRT Centennial celebration.
Gunkanjima (Hashima Island)
Off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, Gunkanjima (“Battleship Island,” in Japanese because of its high sea walls and profile) was once the most densely populated place on Earth, and is today completely abandoned. Mitsubishi bought the island at the end of the 19th century for its coal deposits and operated a mine there until 1974. Miners and their families, along with Mitsubishi brass, lived and worked on the windswept rock during the life of the mine, eventually reaching a population density of 835 people per hectare in cramped concrete quarters towering above the coastline.
Living conditions were deplorable, weather conditions rough, and working conditions unimaginable on Hashima Island. The current ghost town is a reminder of the lasting destructive impact of industrialization. And today, you can visit the site where it all happened! Tours of the island have been operated since 2009, and include a cruise to the site and guidance in Japanese. However, the legally operated tours only allow visitors to walk on a newly constructed concrete pier on the coast of the island, for fear of the dilapidated and highly unsafe buildings. Talk to a Nagasaki local with a boat to get the insider tour.
One of the antiquated oddities of modern American transportation infrastructure, the Cincinnati subway system was constructed in the early 20th century, but never opened due to post-World War I inflation and rising building costs, leaving the largest abandoned subway tunnel in the United States to molder. There are three uncompleted stations, and some entrances spread around downtown Cincinnati, but no tracks have ever been laid. The subway remains nothing more than a rumor even to native Cincinnatians to this day.
You can tour the tunnel through the Cincinnati Museum Center‘s talk and walk tours, the only way to legally get in. However, the tours are extremely limited, with only one tour offered in 2008 and 2009 and no specific plans for tours in the future. But hey, you could try emailing the city fathers to get on a waiting list.
Nothing more than a way for college kids to kill time by getting into the hidden maintenance passageways and roofs of their beloved campus, vadding – known today as “roof and tunnel hacking” – has been a tradition at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for decades. Often the activity results in pranks designed to amuse and bewilder in classic tech-geek style: a true revenge of the nerds.
New York’s Freedom Tunnel
Underneath New York’s Riverside Park, this Amtrak train tunnel was originally intended to expand park space for the neighborhood’s residents when it was built in the 1930s. With the growing popularity of cars and trucks, however, the tunnel quickly fell into disuse and in subsequent years was best known for its gigantic homeless shanty town.
Today, however, the shanty towns are gone and the tunnel is a destination for some of the city’s most notable graffiti artists, on top of the stray urban explorer, of course. The privacy and security granted by the tunnel mean that graffiti artists like Chris “Freedom” Pape can take their time to create more daring pieces. Natural light streams in from the rare ventilation grate or doorway, spotlighting artists’ work. It’s an ideal gallery in a city known for its sometimes shady street art.
The site of the worst nuclear accident in history is dilapidated, dangerous, and desperate for some tourist dollars! So maybe Chernobyl doesn’t hit you as a “hot spot” (for tourism, at least), but it’s the ideal destination for the urban explorer on the lookout for industrial ruins; they’re Soviet-era ones to boot.
The power plant’s cooling towers (still partially standing) overlook a still-radioactive but surprisingly intact nuclear wasteland. Studies of the area have found Chernobyl’s flora and fauna largely unaffected by the radiation, and the absence of any human presence has made for an unexpected resurgence in the region’s wildlife. Radiation levels are also low enough to be safe, as long as you stay in designated areas.
The nearby town of Pripyat, also evacuated and abandoned after the meltdown, is a ghost town monument to the thousands of people who survived the disaster. Soviet apartment blocks, still brimming with personal effects left behind in the hasty evacuation, give an idea of what is was like to live and work in communist Ukraine. Tours guide visitors through the power plant and the city, and include transportation and a lunch.
The Jorvik Viking Centre
A relocating confection factory spurred the discovery of ancient Viking ruins under a street in central York, England during excavations between 1976 and 1981. Over 40,000 objects, including ruins of houses and other buildings, as well as everyday articles, were dug up. What could the York Archaeological Trust do with such a monumental find? Clean up the debris, restore the artifacts, and open up a family-friendly Viking-themed park, of course!
Complete with lifelike figures of Viking inhabitants in their homes and workshops, the Jorvik Centre might not technically be a destination for the hardcore urban explorer, but hey, the fun-house feel of the place is great for the kids. Perfect for those times you want to explore an underground city, but have diapers to change.
This one is the stuff of legends for the urban exploration set. Steeped in decades of rumor, hearsay, and innuendo is possibly a kernel of truth: a top-secret subway system built below Moscow‘s already massive metro. Codenamed D-6 (by the KGB, no less), the project was purportedly started under Stalin and exceeds the Moscow subway in length and depth, connecting the Kremlin with a government airport, FSB headquarters, and an underground city, along with other strategically important places around and beyond Moscow.
The idea was, apparently, to give top communist leaders at the Kremlin an escape route in the event of a coup or political unrest. Nobody has ever come forward with solid evidence of Metro-2′s existence; all the more reason to book a ticket to Moscow for your shot to be the first.
Beneath Naples runs an underground geothermal zone called the Campi Flegrei (fiery fields). The geothermal activity and later mining operations have opened up wide caverns and passageways that have been used over the centuries by those crafty Romans and the like as sewers, cisterns, and aqueducts. Maybe more interestingly, you can also find places of worship, cult burial chambers, and ancient tunnels buried in the volcanic sandstone making up the Campi Flegrei.
Tours can be arranged through the Southern Speleological Association, and cover the vast area’s natural formations, ancient infrastructure, and more modern innovations, like an air raid shelter built by Mussolini.
Secret passageways, hidden chambers, and rooms built to dissuade sword-wielding assassins. What else could the architecturally minded urban explorer ask for? Myoryuji, built in Kanazawa, Japan during the Edo period, was never actually associated with ninjas per se, but has earned the nickname Ninja-dera (ninja temple) because of its many cunning innovations designed to deceive and conceal.
You need to make a reservation for the tour, conducted in Japanese. There are some excellent English materials available as well. Not included in the tour is a rumored underground passageway that extends from the bottom Myoryuji’s deep well all the way into Kanazawa’s castle, at least half a mile away.
Titan Missile Silos
Scattered around the Midwest and western states, Titan I and II missile silos housed one of the most powerful weapons in the United States’ Cold War arsenal: nuclear warheads capable of unleashing a blast 20 times more powerful than Hiroshima. Sobering to think about such destruction, yes. Since the end of the Cold War, these silos have thankfully been out of commission. More sobering today is the idea of actually entering an antiquated, rusticated missile silo spanning subterranean miles chock full of hazardous materials left to stew for decades.
The Titan silos remain, each facing very different plans for the future. Some have been sold to civilians, who have put them to a wide variety of uses, from unique homes to LSD factories to indoor climbing gyms. A quick scan of the blogosphere indicates that urban explorers are finding their way into these silos, equipped with respirators, flashlights, and safety equipment of course. Arranging a tour should be as easy as getting in touch with one of the private owners of these silos. Good luck.
Catacombs of Rome
The original home of the catacomb is Rome. Some only found recently, the Catacombs of Rome currently number about 40, housing the remains of ancient Rome’s Christian, Jewish, and Pagan populations. They began as a secret place for adherents of banned religions to bury their dead in consecrated grounds, and evolved over the centuries into expansive underground networks, sometimes with up to four layers of crypts.
Today, the Roman Catacombs are important sites for studying the history of the persecuted peoples of the Roman Empire. Much of the frescoes and sculptures adorning these tombs still remain, providing art history buffs with a valuable resource. Tours are operated often and can be easily booked.
In preparation of the outbreak of WWII, Hitler’s personal architect, Albert Speer built 200 bunkers around Berlin to protect Nazi leaders and civilians from the ravages of war. Needless to say, many of them survived the worst that the Allied Forces could dish out and remain poignant reminders of the war today.
War bunkers can be found all over Berlin, with entrances sometimes in the most obvious places, like subway stations, native Berliners passing them by every day. Some are very much intact, still housing tools and furniture. Many tours of these important sites are operated throughout the city.