Travels to the Secret Corners of the World's Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration
In this fascinating glimpse into the world of urban exploration, Moses Gates describes his trespasses in some of the most illustrious cities in the world from Paris to Cairo to Moscow.
Gates is a new breed of adventurer for the 21st century. He thrives on the thrill of seeing what others do not see, let alone even know exists. It all began quite innocuously. After moving to New York City and pursuing graduate studies in Urban Planning, he began unearthing hidden facets of the city—abandoned structures, disused subway stops, incredible rooftop views that belonged to cordoned-off buildings. At first it was about satiating a nagging curiosity; yet the more he experienced and saw, the more his thirst for adventure grew, eventually leading him abroad. In this memoir of his experiences, Gates details his travels through underground canals, sewers, subways, and crypts, in metropolises spanning four continents.
In this finely-written book, Gates describes his immersion in the worldwide subculture of urban exploration; how he joined a world of people who create secret art galleries in subway tunnels, break into national monuments for fun, and travel the globe sleeping in centuries-old catacombs and abandoned Soviet relics rather than hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. They push each other further and further—visiting the hidden side of a dozen countries, discovering ancient underground Roman ruins, scaling the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, partying in tunnels, sneaking into Stonehenge, and even finding themselves under arrest on top of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Ultimately, Gates contemplates why he and other urban explorers are so instinctively drawn to these unknown and sometimes forbidden places—even (and for some, especially) when the stakes are high. Hidden Cities will inspire readers to think about the potential for urban exploration available for anyone, anywhere—if they have only the curiosity (and nerve!) to dig below the surface to discover the hidden corners of this world.
How did you initially get into urban exploring?
I’m an Urban Planner. I love cities, and I especially love big, complicated cities. I want to see what makes them tick, and I want to see that for myself. I moved to New York in the summer of 2001, and on a whim went up to the Observation Deck of the World Trade Center. I thought I’d have the rest of my life to see everything I wanted to see in the city. That September, I really learned that that time to see what you want to see is finite and unknown. Everyone in New York eventually experiences that moment of something important to them or loved by them in the city vanishing in some way or another, but my first reminder came very quick and very starkly. That’s really what drove me to start taking more risks and putting more energy into seeing and discovering New York for myself.
What do you think the appeal is of visiting off-limits places – i.e., what drives urban explorers to stretch the boundaries of travel again and again?
What I really noticed over the years is that everybody has different motivations. Some people are looking at it from an artistic or photographic perspective, other people are looking for adventure, other people just seem to have a visceral connection with some of these kinds of places. For me, it’s simple curiosity about something I love: cities. Everyone understands wanting to fulfill curiosity, even if they don’t necessarily agree about the subject of the curiosity, or lengths and risks one will go to fulfill it.
“What’s the appeal of this?” is actually never a question I’ve ever been asked in real life– the same way nobody really every asks a mountaineer, or sailor, or any other person who likes interacting with nature,e “what’s the appeal of this?” Everyone understands the appeal intuitively – people like to interact with the world around them, and they like to do it on their own terms.
What are the top three most exhilarating destinations that you’ve visited?
I’d have to say the Eagles on the Chrysler Building is one. They’re just so beautiful and iconic, and being alone with just them and the view is incredible.
I love climbing bridges, and there’s so many great ones, but I think the Firth of Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, might be my favorite. It’s a unique structure, a triple cantilever that’s a giant beastly web of iron, 123 years old. I traversed it over the top from north to south once – great fun.
The Catacombs of Paris will always have an outsized spot in my heart. They’re the first place outside of the United States that I explored. They’re so huge – almost 200 miles of tunnels – with so much history. It’s like this complete shadow city right underneath one of the world’s most famous metropolises. I always go when I’m in Paris - I can’t imagine ever visiting not spending some time in the catas when I’m there.
You talk about how some cities are more open to urban explorers than others. What makes a city more accessible and which cities are ripe for urban exploration now?
Everywhere is “ripe” for urban exploration, and everywhere has been “ripe” for it since the activity was founded. A week after the subway opened in New York, a person was documented walking in (and being killed in) the tunnels. People have been climbing the bridges of New York since they were under construction. Victor Hugo wrote about the catacombs of Paris 150 years ago, and Antonio Bosio wrote an entire book about exploring the catacombs of Rome in the early 1600s. Urban exploration isn’t new, and I don’t think there’s a city on earth that hasn’t been explored. I’d tell people the ripest place for urban exploration, no matter where you live, is probably right down the street.
Different cities do have different attitudes toward trespassing, but, interestingly, that doesn’t necessarily translate into more or less trespassing. London and Moscow are probably the two most officially restrictive cities in Europe – and they’re also two of the most thoroughly explored.
As far as people looking for a less stressful experience, Paris is probably the best place to start – as long as you don’t actually damage anything, they’re pretty forgiving. I’ve been caught coming out of manholes by the police twice in Paris, both of which resulted in a bored admonition to not do it again. I got caught on top of the Notre Dame after climbing it, and the result was a couple hours in a holding cell and the police chief wishing us a nice vacation. A Latin culture is, many times, a big help in being able to explore a city, and Paris is a very Latin city. I’ve also found that cities that are generally cosmopolitan, and don’t have too much of a negative history associated with a losing control over public space (like New York does with crime and disorder in 1970s and 1980s), also make for an easier time exploring. Paris fits both of these criteria pretty well.
What are a few tips for getting official access to interesting, generally off-limits places?
Well, first of all, I’ll tell you the way not to do it – don’t try to do it the way you’re told: get referred to the public relations office and try to jump through the hoops they set up or whatever. That almost never works unless you happen to be rich and/or famous. A much better way is find the person, or one of the people, who can just unlock the door, and make friends. This might be anyone from a janitor to the mayor. It’s way, way easier to check out a tunnel project, for instance, if make friends with one of the workers and tag along with them rather than trying to call up the MTA and secure official permission. Now, just how you make friends, of course, is different for everyone.
It’s also worth noting that oftentimes the term “off-limits” is sometimes used, improperly, as a synonym for “without a formal tourism structure.” Just because something doesn’t have opening hours and admission charges posted doesn’t mean you can’t just knock on the door and have someone answer who’s more than happy to show you around. “Just try asking” might not be a revolutionary new tactic for getting what you want, but it really is my best advice for those who are looking to get to places without trespassing.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading HIDDEN CITIES?
I really just hope that they’re entertained. I have some good stories, and I think they make for fun reading. If people are inspired to do some exploring of their own, that’s great, but not necessarily the point. I loved The Right Stuff, for instance, but I’m not going to try to become an astronaut.
I think one of the main points of the book is that no matter what you’re trying to do in life – go somewhere, be someone, accomplish something – you’ll encounter boundaries. And many times we take those boundaries as solid, because that’s what we’re told. We don’t test them for ourselves to find out if they’re actually real. So no matter what your goal is, never accept that there’s a boundary between you and it just because someone else tells you it’s there. Always test it for yourself. More often than not, it’ll be an illusion.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: