URBAN UNDERWORLDS: Life inside the Paris and NYC subway systems


Image from “Undercity” Documentary


Paris Catacombs from bbc.co.uk

I find I’m often drawn to the hidden side of things. What makes this work? What invisible systems are supporting our very existence? Or, in this case, what worlds exist literally underneath our feet?

Urban exploring, boosted by media features and internet expose’s, is increasingly becoming less invisible. In my own childhood I spent many days exploring the copper mining infrastructure of my hometown, and friends have explored extensively the abandoned copper mines that riddle area. But they would never consider living in there. Well, some residents of Paris and New York would.

Like most cities, the land under Paris is woven with systems of tubes and tunnels- quarries, metro lines, infrastructure. The deepest levels underneath the city house the ‘catacombs’, ancient burial grounds filled with the bones of yesteryear. Within this system, over 186 miles, is extensive ground for urban exploration and covert hiding.  A movie theater once operated using siphoned electricity,  and caverns have in been used for super-exclusive parties. Parties so underground they were literally underground.

Abandoned subway tunnels in NYC house an annual graffiti show. But perhaps more interesting are those who have actually made these tunnels their home. This is the topic of the recent film “Undercity” documenting a village of formerly-homeless individuals who have co-opted individual rooms, complete with electricity and even TVs, within the abandoned tunnels.  I find this appropriation of abandoned urban (sub-urban?) space fascinating- but I can’t help but wonder about the impacts of rising sea levels and increasing storm surges on these subterranean homes.


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