Hidden Cities: A Memoir of Urban Exploration
by Moses Gates
“Whenever I turn the corner, there are little surprises,” enthuses Moses Gates, a 37 year old author, professor, and urban planner. A self-described “mild-mannered midwestern Jewish boy,” Gates possesses a penchant for a unique kind of adventure. In his debut travel book Hidden Cities: A Memoir of Urban Exploration, he details his global exploits from wandering through the catacombs of Paris to narrowly avoiding prison in Russia to scaling the London Stock Exchange building. Gates and his fearless partners in crime notice places others only pass by—and embrace the urge to go for a closer look.
Illegal? Sure. Dangerous? Sometimes. Exhilarating? Always.
Hidden Cities recounts Gates’s travels primarily from 2001 through 2010. Though his adventures often are bold, daring, and sometimes spontaneous, they are not all without forethought. He brings a detailed map into the catacombs to ensure a key element: being able to find his way out of the maze-like tomb. “The catacombs are like a camping trip for urban explorers.” He carries an air meter to determine if the atmosphere ceases to be safe while underground in Rome’s Cloaca sewer. “Where you feel safe is a personal thing,” Gates asserts during a recent interview in New York City.
Such precision reduces the likelihood of physical injury, but not the risk of being caught or arrested, two very real concerns as he learned after walking under Red Square in Moscow in 2009. After trekking through the underground storm drains of the Neglinka River, which once served as the Kremlin’s moat, he and his friends emerge through a manhole seemingly undetected. Moments later, they are surrounded by four uniformed officers with machine guns as Gates scrambles to recall if he has his passport with him.
Part of the allure for Gates is the experience of breaking out of his comfort zone again and again. “A lot of stuff that has turned out to be super-chill has felt the riskiest. It’s all just how far beyond your current comfort zone you are. As your comfort zone expands, things seem less risky,” he explains. “Going into the catacombs the first time was probably the scariest thing I’d ever done. The catacombs are somewhere thousands of people have gone and in the international urban exploring world, are not considered any kind of hardcore trip. But, it was the biggest leap out of my comfort zone I’d made to that point—or maybe ever.”
Though he has travelled everywhere from Cairo to Rio de Janiero to Tunisia, Gates still delights in finding adventures closer to his current home of New York City. Of a hidden art gallery under an abandoned subway station, he says, “I have always been attracted to the idea of spaces like this one as uncontrolled, outside the everyday rules of the city. I like that people can do what they want with them: put art in them, write graffiti, hang out, set up a home, even. I love the general concept of the art gallery, the idea that people are creating something from scratch in this place not for a show, not to try to sell the works, but just because it’s a cool thing to do.”
The same could be said for the motivation behind Gates’ desire to explore what most people never notice. “Everyone who likes cities likes exploring them– it’s just a matter of how far they’re willing to go with it.”