As a software designer, it’s in my nature to think not only about surface appearances but how things actually work down deep—the infrastructure, machinery, and bones that prop up apps, machinery, ideas, and even cities. Maybe even especially cities. I confess to a fascination with urban guts: subway lines, sewer tunnels, and all the hidden labyrinths that run under our feet. The older the city, the more curious I am about what’s below.

Canal St. Martin
Firefighters practicing underwater rescues in the Canal Saint-Martin, whose construction was ordered by Napoleon in 1802. Photo by Stephen Alvarez.

So I was totally delighted to stumble upon National Geographic’s feature on the sprawling world below Paris:

The cab glides through Saturday morning. The great avenues are quiet, the shops closed. From a bakery comes the scent of fresh bread. At a stoplight a blur of movement draws my attention. A man in blue coveralls is emerging from a hole in the sidewalk. His hair falls in dreadlocks, and there is a lamp on his head. Now a young woman emerges, holding a lantern. She has long, slender legs and wears very short shorts. Both wear rubber boots, both are smeared with beige mud, like a tribal decoration. The man shoves the iron cover back over the hole and takes the woman’s hand, and together they run grinning down the street.

Paris has a deeper and stranger connection to its underground than almost any city, and that underground is one of the richest. The arteries and intestines of Paris, the hundreds of miles of tunnels that make up some of the oldest and densest subway and sewer networks in the world, are just the start of it. Under Paris there are spaces of all kinds: canals and reservoirs, crypts and bank vaults, wine cellars transformed into nightclubs and galleries. Most surprising of all are the carrières—the old limestone quarries that fan out in a deep and intricate web under many neighborhoods, mostly in the southern part of the metropolis.

Into the 19th century those caverns and tunnels were mined for building stone. After that farmers raised mushrooms in them, at one point producing hundreds of tons a year. During World War II, French Resistance fighters—the underground—hid in some quarries; the Germans built bunkers in others. Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. They’re called cataphiles, people who love the Paris underground.

The Beach
In a sandy chamber known as “the beach,” a wave rolls across a wall painted (and repainted) by cataphiles in the style of Japanese printmaker Hokusai. Photo by Stephen Alvarez.

Love it. It reminds me of the recent stories at NPR and at the New York Times about underground explorers Steve Duncan and Erling Kagge, and their 25-mile expedition below New York City. From the New York Times:

It must have been the third or fourth day — time, by that point, had started to dissolve — when I stood in camping gear on Fifth Avenue, waiting as my companions went to purchase waterproof waders at the Orvis store. We had already hiked through sewers in the Bronx, slept in a basement boiler room, passed a dusty evening in a train tunnel; we were soiled and sleep-deprived, and we smelled of rotting socks. Yet no one on that sidewalk seemed to notice. As I stood among the businessmen and fashionable women, it dawned on me that New Yorkers — an ostensibly perceptive lot — sometimes see only what’s directly in front of their eyes.

I suppose that’s not a bad way to think about the urban expedition we were on: a taxing, baffling, five-day journey into New York’s underground, the purpose of which, its planners said, was to expose the city’s skeleton, to render visible its invisible marvels.

New York City Tunnel: Steve Duncan
Photo by Steve Duncan.

New York has always been an ambitious city. Its infrastructure has churned as rapidly as its commerce: tunnels open and close as quickly as that restaurant on the corner. The city has a short memory, and even entire subway stations can disappear into oblivion. The secret City Hall subway stop, for example, is on my short list for a near-future visit:

City Hall subway station
The City Hall subway station. Photo by John-Paul Palescandolo.

The City Hall Station was closed on December 31, 1945. The skylights were covered over and the station was boarded up. Although it would spend the next few decades closed to the public, the tracks were still used as the turnaround point for the IRT 6 after its final Brooklyn Bridge stop. So while the station was lost to the ages, it was not forgotten. …

But today there still is a way to see this wonder of the New York underground. The IRT 6 used to make all passengers leave the train at the Brooklyn Bridge stop, but not any longer. Those with a little extra time can stay on the train and view the City Hall Station as it is used as a turnaround. This is a little forgotten piece of New York that makes the city seem a little more intimate.

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