Moses Gates is a self-professed lover of big cities. He loves them for their underbellies and overstories, forbidden infrastructures he trespasses upon to explore. In his new book, Hidden Cities: A Memoir of Urban Exploration, Gates takes us to places that can’t be found on Google Earth or in Lonely Planet guidebooks, in cities including New York, Moscow, Paris and São Paulo. In each he is drawn to the off-limits: abandoned subway stations, aqueducts, rotting catacombs and storm drains, and illicit panoptic viewpoints atop churches, suspension bridges, skyscrapers and even pyramids.
Exhilarated by his first impulsive ventures on foot through Manhattan’s subway systems, Gates falls in with a loose community of like-minded adventurers drawn from what he describes as “a branch of greater nerddom” (the “most common day job…is far and away computer programmer”). Though the group is apparently motivated by a chance to show off, a desire to photograph, or even "a visceral love of tunnels," Gates argues their deeper impetus is the “creative problem-solving aspect, the search for small holes in security to exploit and infiltrate.” They refer to their particular form of urban exploration as reality or place hacking.
While the urban sites Gates targets are part of the public realm, access is prohibited. Some are publicly funded structures that were once accessible or central to an understanding of the civic world. In Rome, Gates wades through raw sewage in an attempt to find the Cloaca Maxima, the drainage system that made the Roman Forum possible. Others are landmarks, like the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge and the spire of Notre Dame. The places explored are not always grand, but almost all are a necessary byproduct of metropolitan ambition.
To justify his adventures, Gates questions whether trespassing is always immoral. He suggests that the sites he visits should be available because they are part of the public realm, critical to a deeper understanding of history and place. But, on a personal level, he gets satisfaction from seeing things few others have and crossing barriers others would not. If these spaces were open, much of the thrill of visiting would be lost.
Still, it's easy to sympathize: the urge to explore is human, and sometimes motivated by discontentment with society. Gates laments the monetization of public spaces and the ongoing documentation of the world. "The more you can find out about everything, the less there is to discover for yourself,” he says. “The barriers to that personal discovery become harder and harder…where you really have to go off the beaten path to the point where it is completely illegal and dangerous.”
Gates' comment explains his choice of destination. Though already discovered, they are still hidden. His adventures, then, are a form of soul-searching. "None of us are discovering anything, we're all just discovering things for ourselves, and that's the fun part of it," he says. In the end, it's not entirely about the destination, but the process of getting there. Exploring helps Gates find peace in a world in flux.
For much of this travelogue-cum-memoir, Gates holds a day job as a Manhattan tour-bus guide. Through his urban exploration he comes to know a different city. But the riches of this expanded metropolis are personal. For Gates, small acts of rebellion are part of what it means to take part in society, but they are not always so easy to accommodate. "I now get so many requests for tours to go somewhere unknown and off the beaten path,” he acknowledges, “but ‘it has to be in Manhattan, and it can't be dangerous, and we can't get arrested.’ That middle ground does not exist."
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.