Delving Deep And Climbing High In Search Of 'Hidden Cities'

Oct 18, 2013
Originally published on October 14, 2013 4:08 pm

Moses Gates like to see all of a city, not just what’s available to tourists.

So he’s climbed Notre Dame after hours and rung the bell, prowled through the Paris catacombs and climbed the Egyptian pyramids.

He writes about his journeys in the book “Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Greatest Metropolises.

Whenever people ask Gates why he does these dangerous things, his answer is often, why does it matter?

“We’re just indulging ourselves — for lack of a better term — and indulging our curiosity, and we do that not necessarily because it has a point, but because it’s a human condition,” Gates told Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson. “Finding these little hidden things in these otherwise inaccessible or untraveled places is really one of the most rewarding things in the world.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Greatest Metropolises’

by Moses Gates

Paris, December 2007

I have just rung the bell of Notre Dame. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.

It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, because I haven’t paid an admission fee and queued up to get to the bell. You can’t—this isn’t the part of the building they let tourists into. I’m not a historian, or preservationist, or bell tuner invited up by the cathedral. I’m not a priest, or docent, or security guard with keys and curiosity.1014_hidden-cover

No, I am a dead-drunk New Yorker accompanied by a French preppy named Nico I met three hours ago and my best friend, Steve Duncan, a guy whose favorite place in the world is a two-hundred-year-old sewer tunnel underneath Lower Manhattan. And how we have managed to access the bell tower in the spire of Notre Dame is by using a combination of gargoyles, flying buttresses, and a makeshift ladder to scale the outside of the cathedral in the middle of the night. In the rain. For no particular reason other than we were down there, and the spire is up here, and this just seemed to be the best way to get from point A to point B. And after finally making it up, just can’t resist the urge to play Quasimodo. Now I’m hearing “Bonsoir?” from one story down below.

Over the last few years I’ve been to a lot of places, in a lot of cities, where your average tourist shouldn’t be—and many more that your average tourist doesn’t even know exist. I’ve become part of the world of people who break into national monuments for fun, put on movie screenings in storm drains, and travel the globe sleeping in centuries-old catacombs and abandoned Soviet relics rather than hotels or bed-and-breakfasts. A world where I party with people living in the tunnels under New York, squatters in an abandoned São Paulo mansion, and Ukrainian teenagers in Cold War bunkers and partisan hideouts under Odessa. Where I discover ancient Roman ruins in the sewers beneath the Capitoline Hill, dodge trains and the third rail in five of the ten largest subway systems in the world, and manage to avoid entrance charges for landmarks from Stonehenge to the minarets of the Bab Zuweila gate, built over nine hundred years ago to guard the city of Cairo. I’m part of a loose-knit worldwide network of artists, historians, adventurers, and other assorted nutcases sometimes called “urban explorers.” All of it has been fascinating. And all of it has been completely illegal. And now I’ve gotten caught. I take a moment to assess the situation. I’m about to get arrested. In a foreign country. On top of the most famous cathedral in the world. Drunk.

Excerpted from HIDDEN CITIES: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises; A Memoir of Urban Exploration by Moses Gates with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright Moses Gates 2013.


  • Moses Gates, urban planner, licensed New York City guide and author of “Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World’s Great Metropolises.” He tweets @MosesNYC.
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Have you ever been in a subway station, looked down the tracks and wondered what it's like in those tunnels? Or have you ever been on a bridge and thought about climbing up to the top? Well, Moses Gates doesn't just wonder about those things. He does them.

Gates is an urban planner, a licensed New York City tour guide and an assistant professor at the Pratt Institute. He's also an urban explorer who travels around the world, finding secret nooks and beautiful vistas in hidden places, often in places that are off limits to the public.

He has prowled around Roman sewers and the Paris catacombs. He has climbed Notre Dame after hours and rung the bells. And he's written a book about all of it called "Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World's Greatest Metropolises." Moses Gates, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

MOSES GATES: Hi. How are you doing? Thanks for having me on.

HOBSON: Well, thanks for being here. And I guess, first, I want to ask you why you do this. What is the thrill that you get about going into subway tunnels, going up to the top of bridges, doing things that we're not supposed to be doing?

GATES: Whenever I get asked this question, why do you do this, my answer is why does it matter? Different people have a lot of different hobbies, and the urge to explore is really engrained in folks. I think it's a pretty intuitive thing as to why exploring the natural environment and exploring the great structures in hidden corners of the built environment is a really interesting and really a fun thing to do.

HOBSON: Sure. But you put yourself at risk in many cases. And you have been, as you point out in the book, caught many times all around the world for doing this by the police.

GATES: I've been caught a few times. I don't know about many times. But yes, everything is a calculated risk, you know, and a lot of times, life is a risk-reward ratio calculation. You want to cross the street, it's a little bit of risk, but it's a reward of going about your day.

HOBSON: But even you point out - and I'm reading from your book here - you ask yourself in one of your expeditions, what was I looking for? What did I hope to accomplish to prove by this? Did any of this mean anything at all? So you yourself have questioned the reasons for doing this.

GATES: Oh, absolutely. And I think everybody really questions life at some point and questions their passions and questions why they're doing what they're doing. And a lot of times, you don't necessarily need to come up with a real rational answer because a lot of stuff isn't rational. You know, wanting to go explore the Paris catacombs maybe isn't rational. Wanting to climb up the pyramids maybe isn't rational. But rational things aren't always the things that drive us.

Passion, a lot of times, is the things that drive us, and sometimes it's hard to put our finger on it. And, you know, I still question it. I don't think that it really, you know, contributes anything great to, you know, humanity. We're not curing cancer. We're just indulging ourselves, for lack of a better term, and indulging our curiosity. And we do that, you know, not necessarily because it has a point but because it's a human condition.

HOBSON: Well, tell us about the first time you ever did something like this. Do you remember what it was, the first time you went and explored a place that was otherwise blocked off to the rest of society?

GATES: Yeah. The first time I ever did this was when I went on the old High Line in Manhattan, which was an abandoned rail trellis that runs down the west side of Manhattan that was really beautiful. It was abandoned since about 1980. And it kind of runs about 20 feet or so above the streets of the West Side. And it's just...

HOBSON: And just to be clear, you're talking about long before this was a park that is filled with tourists as it is now.

GATES: Oh, yeah. Exactly. Long before that. I was, you know, I've been several times, and I was always the only one there. I never ran into anybody. You'd run into a few little surprises. One of the people who lived next to the High Line put a Christmas tree on it. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And finding these little hidden things in these otherwise unaccessible(ph) or untraveled places is one of really the most rewarding things in the world.

HOBSON: I remember the first time I found out when I was living in New York that there was a subway station at 18th Street on the East Side that was abandoned, I was very interested in it and I looked out the window as we were passing through that area and I could see it there covered in graffiti.

I remember reading your book and hearing about you climbing up to the top of bridges and thinking, wow, that would be cool to do that. Until then, I looked up the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and thought, I'm not going around that gate. There is a danger aspect to this that must be really, really attractive to you.

GATES: Actually, it's not attractive. I hate the danger aspect. I wish it was all much easier and much less dangerous. Anything that's terribly - I mean, I'm a fairly good climber. I'm in fairly good physical shape. I kind of know my limits. I know what I can do and what I can't do and what's safe and what's not safe. So I've never really terribly felt in a great deal of danger doing anything. That being said, I've made some moves, you know, that aren't for my grandmother to make, or things like that.

But I think exploring the city, you know, whether that's walking down the street to, you know, going into a hole in the ground, I think exploring our city is becoming increasingly more and more accepted in every aspect of it and every one of its forms. It's becoming a hobby that most people understand, most people want to do.

I mean, you had exactly the reaction that everybody has when it's climbing bridges or going in subways. You know, the first question was, well, what's the appeal of that? And then later on in the conversation, you're like, wow, that's so neat. I would love to do that.


GATES: And that's how most people react. I think it's a really intuitive thing, and I think it's something that is only going to get more and more accepted as more and more people do it.

HOBSON: We're talking with Moses Gates. His book is "Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World's Greatest Metropolises." And you're listening to HERE AND NOW.

And, Moses Gates, I have to say I would not want to traipse through the sewage in a tunnel underneath Rome to find some historic sewer as you did.

GATES: Well, I mean, the sewers are nicer than you might think they are. I'll just put that out here. A lot of them are really lovely. They're, you know, a lot of them are constructed in the 19th century; have beautiful brickwork. It takes a little bit of getting used to. That said, there's also - a lot of times, the things that urban explorers go into aren't actually sewers. They're either storm drains or a combined storm drain sewer system, which is a very different thing. It's - any kind of storm drain or combined system let's rainwater flow through it so it's much cleaner than something that's actually only the sewers.

HOBSON: Although you say in the book, when it rains, don't go in the drains.

GATES: Yes. That is a number one most important rule of exploring storm drains, is never, ever, ever, ever go into a storm drain when it is going to rain. That is a very bad thing to do. It's not a complete recipe for absolute death, but it's certainly a probable death, I would say. It's - if you're in a storm drain when it's raining, it's a real bad situation.

HOBSON: What is your favorite exploit so far?

GATES: In terms of, you know, the kind of real goal-oriented, epic kind of stuff, I would have to say I was very happy I made it up the Pyramids last February. That was an absolutely amazing time. I love getting on top of things, and getting to the top of the pyramids is kind of getting to the high point of an entire era of civilization. So it was a pretty neat time.

After I did that, we tweeted in Facebook some photos, and then some crazy Russian climbers saw it and decided to do it. And then the crazy Russian climbers sold their photos to Gawker, and the Egyptian foreign ministry sent an extradition letter to the Russian foreign ministry. And it was a whole big thing for something that until the mid-1980s was encouraged by the Egyptian authorities and until into the 1990s was not a big deal to do.

So it really says a lot about how, as tourism grows and as things become more and more accessible, there's also this real impetus to kind of close stuff off to people that's really sad. And a lot of urban exploration is just a desire to see and experience things firsthand for yourself in an age where a lot of times people don't like to open things up to the public.

There's no real value like there used to be in allowing public access, which I think is a real shame. And I think to the extent that urban exploration can change that paradigm and can encourage a little bit more free and open access to a lot of the amazing places in your city or around the world or just wherever you want to go, I think, is also a really valuable thing.

HOBSON: Moses Gates, his book is "Hidden Cities: Travels to the Secret Corners of the World's Greatest Metropolises." Moses Gates, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GATES: Thanks for having me on, Jeremy. It was a lot of fun.

HOBSON: And some incredible stories of his expeditions in that book, including some that were not quite appropriate for radio. But if you want to read them, go get the book.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.


I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.