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Exploring an Active Amtrak Tunnel Under the Upper West Side

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger does some urban exploration with author Moses Gates.


[Hidden Cities, a memoir written by NYC Urban Explorer Moses Gates, is out today. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

"Urban Exploration is a lot less weird than it was 10 years ago," says Moses Gates, looking around at the small crowd of visitors exploring inside an active Amtrak tunnel underneath the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "Everybody thinks Urban Exploration is cool." Gates would know. He is the author of a new memoir titled Hidden Cities that documents five years of illegal adventures in cities around the world. The book, out today, is a fast-paced travelogue that takes readers along on his journeys with a loose-knit international group of Urban Explorers, who explore off-limits parts of the built environment. Gates includes stories of having sex on top of the Williamsburg Bridge, being arrested after climbing up the side of the Notre Dame Cathedral, partying in the Parisian catacombs, visiting Brazilian squats, and mucking through the sewers underneath Rome, London, Moscow, and numerous other cities. "When you are writing a memoir," says Gates, "it's kind of about what you leave out, not what you leave in."  

Moses Gates is standing inside the Freedom Tunnel, a covered train line underneath Riverside Park. He is here to show a group of visiting Urban Explorers around, and to drop off a copy of his book with a friend named Brooklyn, who has lived in the tunnel for decades. "When friends from out of the country are in town, I shove them through here," said Gates, who has lived in New York for over a decade. His deep attachment to the tunnel stretches back for almost as long. The final chapter of Hidden Cities details an overnight trip to Brooklyn's home in the Freedom Tunnel, and takes place a few weeks past Gate's 35th birthday, at a time when he was considering retiring from the Urban Exploration life. "I thought it would be a good place to end."

The Freedom Tunnel, a three-mile-long active train tunnel under Riverside Park, was once abandoned, and is now one of the most popular destinations in New York for fledgling Urban Explorers. "When I come down here on a weekend, I always run into one or two people," said Gates. 

"The first time I came here was 2003 or 2004," said Gates, several years after the tunnel was re-opened by Amtrak, and after most of the homeless people who were living in the tunnel were displaced. Gates has returned to the tunnel many times since. 

The Freedom Tunnel was named after the artist Chris Pape, aka Freedom, who spent decades creating graffiti pieces here, including this version of the Venus de Milo.  Besides attracting Urban Explorers, the tunnel remains an active canvas for graffiti artists. 

"Ed Koch dies on a Friday morning and Saturday afternoon, someone has done a piece," said Gates, standing in front of an recent portrait memorializing the mayor. "I love Koch. He's my favorite mayor. He did the most with the least to work with in the history of the city."

Gates, who works as an urban planner, sees value in projects that reuse abandoned, off-limits parts of the city, like the High Line and the Lowline. He believes it could be possible to open the Freedom Tunnel to the general public. "This should be more accessible to everybody," said Gates. 

He envisions viewing platforms built at the edge of the tunnel, or a protected walkway next to the tracks. But years of experience have taught him that gaining official access to vital infrastructure is difficult. In the Freedom Tunnel, opening the space to the public "is tough, because it's an active train line."  

"It's definitely a goal of mine to get more people more access to the city," said Gates, who serves on the Volunteer Board of Open House New York. "Maybe someone will figure out how to make [the tunnel] accessible."

At the southern end of the tunnel, authorities recently focused on a different project, spending countless hours and dollars painting over some of the largest graffiti pieces in the tunnel. "What's the point?" asks Gates, whose book includes a story about running into Amtrak's paint crews in the tunnel. 

"The reason New York will never get rid of graffiti is that everyone writes graffiti in New York," Gates writes in his book. This wall once featured the most iconic piece in the Freedom Tunnel, which was painted over by Amtrak with a fresh canvas of grey paint. A newer piece - a portrait of Robert Moses, who built this tunnel - was painted on the wall in December 2011. 

The Freedom Tunnel is still home to several long term residents, including Brooklyn, who wasn't at home during this visit. Gates left her a signed copy of his book. "I always have a lot of love for people I meet in tunnels," he said. 

After the launch of this book, Gates plans to continue as an author. "I want to write a book about being a tour guide?being a double decker tour guide. I did it for over two and a half years." In the meantime, he is not sure when he will next visit the Freedom Tunnel, where the "rabbit hole" entrances are often blocked off.

Gates does not expect any serious repercussions from the candid nature of his current memoir.  "It's not a secret," said Gates of his exploits as an international Urban Explorer. "It's ridiculous to try to use a pseudonym in 2013. If someone wants to try to find out who you are in 2013, it's not going to be hard."

"I want to retire, but I can't," Gates writes in his book, comparing Urban Exploration to an addiction. He adds, however, "I don't want to turn 40 and find myself hanging out in a steam tunnel."
· Hidden Cities [Penguin]
· Nathan Kensinger [official]
· Camera Obscura archives [Curbed]

Riverside Park, New York, NY