Place and Access (or the Lack Thereof) in Moses Gates’ ‘Hidden Cities’

A review of Moses Gates’ Hidden City, a memoir of ignoring “Do Not Enter” signs, and what urban exploration (read: trespassing) implies about access to great spaces.

The “Freedom Tunnel,” an abandoned Amtrak tunnel beneath Manhattan. Credit: Wikimedia user Futurebird

It’s a common feeling: You’re walking through a city at night, doing something banal, thinking you might like to be doing something cooler. And then you think that somewhere, probably not too far from you, a bunch of people are having a really amazing time, and if you only knew what it was and where to go you’d be welcome. But you don’t know. You don’t even know what that amazing something is, but in a city there’s always something.

Get ready to feel that way on a whole new level when reading Moses Gates’ Hidden Cities, a memoir of ignoring “Employees Only” and “Do Not Enter” signs, from New York to Moscow to São Paulo.

The book gives you Gates’ personal history of trespassing, from when he started doing it as a way of exploring New York City to the point in his mid-30s when he decided he had gotten a bit too old for (so much) tomfoolery. No doubt others will have a lot to say about his many stories of “extralegal” activities, but the part that should interest urbanists is what his book illustrates about access to great spaces in an ever more populated world. Placemaking requires designing for a lot more resilience than it might have needed in earlier times, and many truly great places can barely handle the crowds anymore.

Because as I read Hidden Cities, I kept thinking to myself that, sure, it is a bit warped that the authorities close quite so much space off from us. Once upon a time the countryside was a public right of way in the U.S., but that isn’t true anymore (unlike in the United Kingdom). So while I found myself agreeing with Gates — mostly, philosophically — I found myself asking, pragmatically, what if everyone ignored all the “Keep Out” signs?

It would be a mess.

Yet, Gates’ desire to see everything he could see has led him to some interesting observations about place. First of all, he has worked up his own hypothesis about what makes a favorite place. He writes that it probably has five qualities: It’s not monetized, has its own story and means something to you, functions as a getaway and it has a view. Not a bad list.

Later in the book, Gates begins to reveal various places that once could have fit these criteria for a lot of people, but are no longer publicly accessible. For example, early in chapter two you learn that in the early days of skyscrapers in New York City, architects would build them with public observation decks. The owners wanted to show off what they had made and share something with the city.

Gates writes that he knows of more than a dozen such places that still exist but have long been closed to the public (some say there are many more). He visits one in the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower that is now an amenity for a condo apartment.

Later in the book Gates lays out what he calls the “access curve,” which tracks how many people get to see a place as interest in it rises. At first, hardly anyone visits a place, simply because no one cares. Then, as perceptions begin to change, the owner gets social or PR benefits from opening the place up. Then enough people show up that it becomes a pain, and the owner starts to scale back access. That is, until that very lack of access makes the place so attractive that — one way or another — the owner turns the space into a moneymaker.

This process certainly seems to describe what’s happened with the observation decks in New York, anyway, but what about other great places have been closed off?

The Internet has been abuzz about these photos illegally taken atop the Great Pyramids of Giza, but the Pyramids were once free to climb. Even Mark Twain described climbing them in Innocents Abroad, but go there now and you’ll find the site besieged by countless tourists. Even the Pyramids can only take so much, so the government put an end to climbing. It’s a joke these days that things stop being cool when too many people get into them, but the fact is that certain things — particularly places — only have the capacity for so much interest. I know that in my limited travels around the world, I’ve taken a pass on some spots I might have liked to see, because it just wasn’t worth the bother.

So what do you do about it? Well, how about create more awesome places?

The cities that need to expand their supply of great spaces the most are also the ones where doing so would be the most expensive. It’s hard to imagine American policymakers today finding ways to open up a closed space and then going a step further to make it awesome. Though they’ll do the opposite, of course.

But there’s another part of the book where Gates describes Naples, and I couldn’t help but wonder if part of the problem with access to great places doesn’t, in part, come down to official obsession with total safety in all public areas. I am not writing of the “hidden city” here, but of the ways in which the public gets access to great spaces, how access is controlled and how that itself might be part of the problem.

In Naples, as Gates describes it, safety comes from the chaos. His description of the infamously helter-sketler city made me think of Jeff Speck’s Walkable City (which I reviewed in November), and how Speck argued that policymakers should open up cities to a bit more chaos because people behave better when they believe they need to look out for themselves.

Gates visited a lot of places most of us will never see. It didn’t even really convince me I should want to. At one point, he writes that he usually never has any interest in returning to a place once he can say he’s been there, which made me wonder why he would want to go in the first place. And a hundred books like this aren’t going to convince me that I should go out of my way to see sewers. I’m sure they are fine.

But some places are so locked down and curated that it’s a bit laughable, while others have so many visitors that it’s silly how the authorities don’t find a way to conduct rather than condemn them.

While reading Hidden Cities, you are sure to wrestle with two main questions: Where should the edge of public space really be, and who gets to be in on that decision? But reading the book had me thinking about a much more urgent question. How can cities adapt when a growing world yields out-of-control demand for access that becomes too much for a finite supply of globally great places?

Find Brady Dale on Twitter.

Brady Dale is a writer and comedian based in Brooklyn. His reporting on technology appears regularly on Fortune and Brooklyn.

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Tags: public spacepublic safetyplacemaking

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