Places of the World's Great Cities
Moses Gates is not your typical tourist with a passion for cities.
He is an urban planner, a licensed New York City tour guide, and a visiting assistant professor of demography at Pratt Institute.
He has an adventurous streak that leans more towards Indiana Jones than that of a starry-eyed Smartphone carrying photo-snap-happy tourist from the Midwest where he grew up.
Gates is not searching for the Ark of the Covenant or evading Nazis like Jones, Harrison Ford's character in the movie Raiders of the Lost Arc.
He is not satisfied sauntering across the Brooklyn Bridge to marvel at its beauty and enjoy the views of the New York Bay and the lower Manhattan skyline. It is just as hard to picture Gates entering the magnificent Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, or any other noted world destination in as a normal tourist.
Why? Gates thinks differently. While most people are content to walk across a famous bridge, Gates wants to climb it. He wades, no he dives head first into the underbelly of the cities he visits and unveils their hidden secrets and shares his stories with us.
In his book Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises; A memoir of Urban Exploration we learn Gates is a thrill-seeking urban adventurer with a wanderlust for going where very few people have ventured before him.
In the first sentence of page one of his insightful and humorous memoir he writes,
“I have just rung the bell of Notre Dame.”
Gates and several companions, including his best friend and the ultimate urban explorer Steve Duncan, are drinking at a Paris bar when they decide to investigate the city’s 1200-plus miles of underground canals. After squeezing through a locked gate they walked for a mile and-a-half before they stopped realizing it is tough to wade through a sewer without rubber boots and an air meter (this is an adventure for another day). They exited the sewer by popping open a manhole cover. Next they opt for the Cathedral of Notre Dame and its bell tower. They reach the bell not with a tour guide or by ascending the 387 steps of its narrow spiral stairwell but by scaling its exterior. They climb its gargoyles; flying buttresses and a makeshift ladder at night, in the rain, and tipsy.
His adventures span four continents. He has dodged third rails in five of the world’s ten largest subway tunnels including New York, Stockholm, Paris, London and Moscow. He has roamed the catacombs, water and sewer tunnels of these cities as well as Naples, Rome, and Odessa. Besides the Brooklyn Bridge he has climbed the George Washington, Williamsburg, Manhattan, Hell’s Gate Bridges (Gates calls it a beast of a bridge and a direct inspiration for the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge) and the Moscow Bridge in Kiev. Climbing is challenging and dangerous, especially at night, his preferred time in order to lessen chances of getting arrested.
There is only one way up the Brooklyn Bridge he writes: “climb the suspension cables, navigate around the suicide guards – metal gates on the cables designed to keep people from scaling them…then balance on the cables, hang on to the guide wires for dear life, and hope a gust of wind doesn’t come along.”
Gates writes about these dangers and his adventures in a casual matter-of-fact style like someone visiting the Statue of Liberty or the pyramids for the first time. His tales are funny. He writes about his “Sex on the Bridge Club” and his own rendezvous on the Williamsburg Bridge, of getting karate kicked in the face by a homeless woman named Brooklyn at 2 in the morning at her birthday party in the train tunnel under Riverside Park in New York City, and walking the streets of Rio de Janeiro dressed in drag and losing his negligee after getting drenched in a downpour.
Gates gives us the history of the places he visits and he sheds light on his world one of squatters living in a vacant mansion in San Paolo, teenagers occupying Cold War bunkers under Odessa and much more. He writes about an informal network of students, travelers, historians, adventurers including legends with names like Dsankt and Siologen, members of Cave Clan, a group formed in Australia whose purpose is to climb urban storm drains. He writes about graffiti artists some of who have created masterpieces in the catacombs of Paris and in the train tunnels and unused subway stations in New York.
With Gates we enter ancient Roman ruins in the sewers beneath the Capitoline Hills in Rome, and German bunkers in Paris. We explore the city’s catacombs and wind past ossuaries filled with skulls and bones neatly stacked together. We discover the tomb of Philibert Aspairt who disappeared in the Paris catacombs in 1793. Legend says his torch expired while searching for the wine cellars of the Chartreux monks. We travel through many rooms and a cave several stories high, and sliver through two-foot-high tunnels.
This is the ultimate reference book for those travelers whose curiosities know no boundaries. For the rest of us it may not inspire us to risk our lives climbing famous landmarks but it will certainly stir our interest to learn about the secrets of our hidden cities.
Buy his book: Hidden Cities: A Memoir of Urban Exploration
Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, Paperback Edition 2013
Follow Moses Gates on Twitter.
•His notes at the end of the book are an invaluable resource. His black/white and color photographs are priceless.