A canal did indeed run along present-day Canal Street when the Dutch ruled New Amsterdam, but the thoroughfare is noteworthy for something else: It was the city’s first sewer tunnel. Dug in the early 1800s, the open trench became so fetid it had to be covered by 1819.
Historian, photographer and urban explorer Steve Duncan has documented its forgotten brick arches and stone slabs, now mixed with concrete, utility lines and subway lines. He’ll share tales and pictures from hidden and forgotten spaces of New York and elsewhere as Friday’s keynote speaker of the seventh annual Conflux Festival, which celebrates art, technology and the creative investigation of urban public spaces.
“I try not to do anything illegal, but sometimes a man’s got to peer down a manhole,” said Duncan, 32, a native of Maryland who started his urban exploits poking around Columbia’s old steam tunnels as an undergrad there.
Trolling sewers, Duncan wears a protective suit and often carries gas and oxygen meters. He has landed in the hospital from an infection and almost drowned in a drain near Jamaica Bay.
“The biggest risk and the one I’m most unhappy about … people suspect you’re up to no good,” said Duncan, who has been arrested on the rooftop of Saint John the Divine. Fearing he was a sniper, someone called the cops.