As if urbanists needed another reason to heart New York, I recently came across Access Restricted, a free mobile lecture series that brings prominent speakers to rarely frequented or normally exclusive spaces in Lower Manhattan for site-specific lectures on architecture, planning and related topics. This year's theme, Capital of the World, explores the "temples" of Wall Street, from penthouses to private social clubs to corporate skyscrapers. The next event on April 28 focuses on possibilities for grassroots urban planning in the real estate capital.
This type of series is so appealing because it gives the average Joe (well, more likely the not-so-average urbanist Joe) the chance to penetrate spaces in the city that are typically shut off from view. As Where noted in a post on the role of gender and class in determining geographic access in Chicago, people who live in the same city — even those who work in the same building — actually inhabit separate, insulated paths and bubbles within that city. Depending on the degree of spatial segregation, two people on opposite sides of the spectrum may never even have occasion to cross paths.
When you think about it, "Access Restricted" is a term that applies to the city at large. Very little urban space — land and what's built upon it — is actually accessible to the general public. Even that which is technically open is usually restricted in some other way: a park closes at dusk, a coffee shop requires that you purchase something, a nightclub requires you to wear heels. And then there are tacit barriers of social pressure and stigma. We all seem to be living in a forbidden city.
Some don't wait to be invited to cross prohibited urban borders. A subculture of urban explorers, linked mainly through online networks, intentionally trespass in off-limits urban sites, typically abandoned structures or the inards of the city infrastructure. Abandoned factories, sewer drains, subway tunnels (incidentally, Rochester's subway system is the only abandoned, formerly used system in the U.S.) — all are ripe terrain for expeditions by explorers who, armed with tools and cameras, don construction uniforms, pick locks or climb fences to gain access to closed-off sites.
Urban exploration (sometimes called urbex or UE) is a form of adventurism, but for those in the fold, it is also a science and an art. As covered in this scintillating piece of investigative journalism by an author of great repute, urban explorers are careful to distinguish themselves from ordinary trespassers rebelling against authority or defacing property. Rather, like historians at a ruins site, they consider themselves investigators and documentors of the landscapes that surround us but remain hidden from view. Most explorers write down what they see, take photos and share their findings through self-published magazines or online.
The empiricism of the urban explorer, sharpened by the edge of terror, is a rich, focused record of the forbidden city.
-Psychopathology and the Hidden City, Jinx, magazine dedicated to UE
The first magazine on the subject was Infiltration, published by the explorer Ninjalicious, which launched a worldwide movement. Since then, other groups like Jinx, Cave Clan, and Dark Passage have started up. One website has an FAQ list dedicated entirely to supporting young adventurers to access utility tunnels underneath their university campuses, a popular exploration site (under "tips for finding entrances": "when there is a light covering of snow, look for swaths of bare grass running across campus"). There are now books on the subject (quite a few about New York). (For a brief history of UE check out this timeline).
Most of us won't risk arrest or asphyxiation to break into closed-down plants or underground tunnels. Even if we were willing to don head gear, unless we happen to get on the Access Restricted guest list, we still couldn't invade the off-limits spaces that surround us. So when we speak of the city, how much have we really seen?
(Images from Access Restricted and Dark Passage.)