In recent years, Fort Tilden State Park has gone from being an obscure stretch of sand on the far end of New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula to a favourite among beachgoers, its wild dunes and unkempt beach a rarity in a city of millions. Closed since November 2012 due to severe damage from Hurricane Sandy, the Queens park is set to reopen at some point during this summer’s public beach season, which begins Memorial Day weekend – good news for sunbathers, and for intrepid adventurers keen on accessing the abandoned US military fortifications nearby.
You see, most beachgoers tend not to notice the true treasures at this former US Army Coast Artillery Post, which was established in 1917 and used until its weaponry – including smooth-bore cannons, 16in naval rifles and Hercules air defence missiles – became obsolete in 1974. A few steps from Fort Tilden’s beach sits a blue rectangular concrete shell, roughly 10ft high, displaying the first verse of My Country Tis of Thee (a US anthem sung to the tune of God Save the Queen) hand-painted in red-and-white. A ladder on the roof leads down to a concrete stand for machine guns; a narrow, eye-level slit looks out onto the sea.
The WWII-era pillbox, as it is called, was built to defend the United States from enemy boats that, thanks to war remaining at a safe distance, never reached its shores. But despite its proximity to the beach, it goes mostly unnoticed, said Geoff Grandberg, who runs the urban adventure tour company Spelunk NYC. “People walk past this all the time. Nobody thinks it’s anything,” Grandberg said. “The most beautiful places are right in front of you, but who looks back?”
Urban exploration, or urban spelunking, has become a blanket term for the act of adventuring to normally unseen parts of a city. Often such places are abandoned or off-limits, and gaining entrance can mean running across subway tracks, crawling down storm drains or climbing up bridges, illegally.
Grandberg, a tech professional and avid urban explorer, wanted to give people the opportunity to see hidden New York without the risk of arrest, injury, or death. So he started Spelunk NYC, a company that gives legal tours of lesser-known places across the city. On each of his tours, which generally have around five stops at varying sites, visitors can both enjoy the adrenaline rush of accessing a rarely seen place – and ensure that they are neither breaking the law by trespassing, nor putting themselves in danger.
“I’m in it for the ornate structures, something that breathes energy from another era,” he said at the beginning of our tour. “And we’re going to find that in where we’re going today, not by tearing open fences or climbing a bridge.”
Tours start in the morning at low tide, when the water remains shallow enough to stroll through the muck at Staten Island’s Witte Marine Scrap Yard.
At the boat graveyard, as it’s commonly called, the mammoth corpses of about 100 extinct vessels rest in relative peace, half-sunken and slowly deteriorating. Wandering through this industrial wasteland of giant freighters and wooden hulls is more than eerie and imposing; without a guide, it could be treacherous. These once powerful forces of industry sit on an unstable marsh, and if you don’t know which way you’re going, one wrong step can mean slicing yourself open on one of the countless sharp objects, or worse, getting stuck and finding yourself in an inescapable situation when the tide comes in. That’s not to mention the legal dangers: Grandberg makes sure to stay in the public section, but a few steps in the wrong direction could mean trespassing.
While one stop on the tour is where machines come to die, another is where they return to life. Hangar B at Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field is like a living museum, home to a full-time aircraft restoration project where aging WWII veterans make 60-year-old aeroplanes look brand new. Particularly lucky guests might even get to hop inside a 1950s aeroplane or helicopter for a photo op.
With Fort Tilden’s re-opening, Grandberg plans to once again make the park the tour’s final stop, taking groups through an artillery shed, a massive concrete gun emplacement and the pillbox, catching sight of M-16 racks inside freshly graffitied walls and deteriorating ceilings. All of the stops on a Spelunk NYC tour are completely legal – they’re just hidden in plain sight from a city that moved too fast for the structures to keep up, and people who move too quickly to look at what’s right in front of them.
Perhaps when beachgoers start to rediscover Fort Tilden this summer, they’ll uncover what’s been there all along.