Exploring Off-Limits New York

April 8, 2014 | Marina Galperina

“I don’t really associate with urban explorers, but I think I do more than photography,” 2e says. It’s midnight, snowing a bit, and 2e is biking towards the abandoned warehouses in Greenpoint. Later that night, he’ll climb a smoke stack on top of the Domino Sugar Factory and poke around the Underbelly Project. But at midnight, the route feels organic, free-flowing, like gliding though a hidden grid of New York where every turn may reveal a secret rooftop or subterranean passage.

2e steps lightly, listening for footsteps, watching out for flashlights. “As far as I know, I’ve never done anything illegal,” he says, but there are reasons why we’ve altered his face and voice in our video and why he goes by the moniker “2e” and the handle @gothamr on Instagram.

Urban exploring has been making headlines. Recently, artist Judith Supine was arrested for trespassing on the Queensboro Bridge to install artwork. After a teenager snuck into 1 World Trade Center and some people base-jumped off it, the NYPD condemned the “dangerous” activities and Senator Chuck Schumer held a big press conference, vowing investigations and increased security.

“World Trade? That was bad-ass but a bad idea,” 2e says. He has no interest in that building, embarrassing National Security, or compiling bombastic conquests. 2e is a connoisseur. He savors those places you never see. Sometimes, he won’t even bring equipment, but when he does, he captures beautiful photos of grungy places, skylines from the tops of bridges and long-exposures in the subway tunnels.

Trackless tunnel (Photo: 2e)

For five years or so, the twenty-something-year old studied this hidden New York. He knows the history and the anatomy of every spot. Stepping into the Greenpoint Terminal warehouse, he talks about the rope, jute and hemp moved through it until the big fire gutted everything. He steps over that one loose step in a dust-covered staircase. He weaves, climbs, burrows in smooth, practiced motions.

Half an hour later, he’s at the base of the Williamsburg Bridge. The East River reeks of floating shit, but above, the clamoring traffic shines through the grates. From the crashing bank of the river, there’s a kind of view you will never buy with your Dumbo condo. The Manhattan skyline is laid bare. 2e is quiet and calm now, for a minute or two. “Yo, if shit goes down, we fucking run.” 2e scampers over a broken bricks, towards the Domino Sugar Factory. This all will be demolished soon, he says, even the building with the “Domino” sign. It’s one of his favorite spots to photograph.

Domino Sugar Factory (Photo: 2e)

It smells like a cabin in the woods, all rotten wood and rusty bricks. The air is brittle and sharp. It is very dark and very quiet. Every footstep crunches with piles of stale sugar, lead paint and metal chips, then sticks to the floor like molasses. 2e’s footsteps are cautious, calculated, vetted, through the sky bridge, over shattered concrete, to the long-dead factory dials. “Let’s make sugar,” he cracks in a whisper. “Doesn’t work. Surprise.” He dives lovingly into a gunk-covered metal artery and takes a sick photo of its inner ridges of pointed teeth.

“I want to climb the smoke stack,” 2e says on his way out. “I think it’s time.” He’s tried before, but it was too windy. 2e leaves the jacket, the backpack, and the camera and scales the six-story-tall smoke stack in four or five minutes, pausing, considering. Then, he disappears over the edge. After three minutes of chilling blissfully on the peak, he climbs back down in two. 2e laughs at a picture of himself up there as a tiny silhouette, “like an ant!” In, out, like a ghost, and he’s off deeper into Brooklyn.

Williamsburg Bridge (Photo: 2e)

“The bridges are pretty exhilarating but nothing beats running tunnels looking for REVS pages,” he says. He’s usually alone, but he does run into people sometimes. “Only in abandoned buildings, really. I’ve met REACH8, ABUSE, STAE, MAST, and many other writers in Brooklyn warehouses and factories. Also, I’ve come across squatters, track bums, photographers and skaters but rarely self-titled urban explorers.”

2e knows his graffiti, and the cops know about the Underbelly Project. A while back, this abandoned train station was covered in street art, murals and tags for a now infamous project. Then it was bombed and ragged all over, “by some jealous assholes.” There are tags scattered around the work and throughout the raw concrete shell. Sometimes, the cops sit inside, waiting to catch visitors.

The Underbelly Project (Photo: 2e)

2e identifies with graffiti writers above street artists — even in this very unauthorized art gallery. It’s 3:30am and everything feels much more exposed. 2e is extra careful, a little tired, a little bored, but excited to point out the artifacts inside.

“SMITH, it’s the oldest thing in here… Damn, all that shit got fucking ragged — the Roa, TrustoCorp. That’s my boy ERTH’s collaboration with Ron English. There’s some cool art, but I’m more about guys like REVS, and hardcore graffiti dudes in the tunnels.”

He wants to show everything, but he has to get up in two hours and attend his day life. “I hope I can do this forever,” he says. “That was fun. Later.”

13 minute exposure in the Bronx tunnels (Photo: 2e)

(Video and lead image: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)