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The Everything Guide to the Urban Daredevil

Those Germans who pulled the white-flag stunt atop the Brooklyn Bridge this summer aren’t the only rush-seeking lunatics pushing the legal limits of this city. Here, first-person tales of derring-do from those who spend their free time sneaking into old psych wards and Instagramming from the top of the Queensboro. Plus, a few less-life-threatening thrills that (probably) won’t get you arrested.

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For a certain fearless class among us, New York is a dense obstacle course waiting to be climbed, graffitied, spelunked, or—in the case of those crazy kids who snuck up One World Trade Center—BASE jumped. What follows are the stories (and go-to bridge ladders and de-sealed windows) of some of these adrenaline addicts, along with more microrushes for those who’d prefer to give the edge a wide berth. (Though if you happen to get busted at the shuttered trolley terminal under the J train, the rap is on you.)

Parachuting
Don't Try This: From a Building
(But here's how Jeff Provenzano, professional BASE jumper and skydiver, takes his leaps.)


“I’ve done hundreds of BASE jumps, and some are best kept as secrets. BASE jumping in New York City is almost impossible to pull off these days, with the exception of those guys who did it from One World Trade Center, because of all the security cameras in the big towers. And, of course, there are the obstacles. If you have line twists or the parachute doesn’t open totally straight, you might find yourself aimed right at another building—you want to use a ram-air parachute that you can steer, not a round one that just takes you where the wind blows—or you might have to time a jump precisely to the streetlights so you don’t get hit by a car when you land. Unlike in skydiving, where the noise of the aircraft drowns out your thoughts, BASE jumping is so quiet. You can hear the birds, the wind, the people moving below. You can hear your heart beat.”


Illustrations by Kagan McLeod  

Try This: From a Plane

Experts recommend that—before even thinking about the much more advanced art of BASE jumping—you do well over 100 skydives from the relative safety of a chaperoned plane. The city’s seasoned parachuters train at Blue Sky Ranch ($219 for first tandem jump; theblueskyranch.com), a skydiving facility in Gardiner, New York, about an hour north of the city.


Trepassing
Don't Try This: Inside Abandoned Mental Hospitals
(But here's now Will Ellis, creator of abandonednyc.com, snuck through an opening.)


My favorite abandoned space is Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s Building 25 in Queens, which apparently closed in the ’70s and is full of darkened windows and surrounding trees growing uncontrolled. There’s no reliable way to get into places like this, and openings that explorers use often get patched up. But a few years ago I actually found a ground-level window that had its boarding ripped off; I opened it and found myself on the first floor. It was pitch black. That’s normally the case with these kinds of abandoned buildings, so I always bring a flashlight. I proceeded slowly, floor by floor, past a kitchen overflowing with years’ worth of garbage, a room scattered with hundreds of D batteries, and dusty furniture everywhere. There were all kinds of weird noises—slamming doors, metal clanking, a big boom overhead. I passed a squatter who was asleep on a hospital bed; it felt like invading someone’s home. But what’s amazing is the top floor: It’s been populated by pigeons for probably 40 years, and their droppings have accrued into these gigantic mounds two or three feet high. It looks like a cavern. Totally surreal and disgusting and beautiful.

Try This: Inside Equally Creepy Mausoleums


First things first: Get a library card. Says Allison Meier of the travel site Atlas Obscura: “I look through newspaper archives at the New York Public Library, or the archives of the cemeteries themselves. You might find out about, say, a mausoleum built as an exact replica of a chapel designed by Leonardo da Vinci, or one that holds a pet parrot which the owner buried in a glass-top coffin, so you can see little bones on a pillow.” Start schmoozing. Form a connection with the cemetery, whether that’s through a historic society, church, or caretaker. Explain your interest in the place as a part of the city’s history; they’ll likely be willing to just give you the keys, which are often at the cemetery office. Hold your nose. Sometimes a decomposing corpse will leak through the burial space. “When the body breaks down, you have all this gas being released,” Meier says. “And since you have an airtight coffin, there can be a gross explosion.”


Free-Climbing
Don't Try This: To the Top of a Bridge
But here’s how Humza Deas, student and Instagram king, overcame vertigo.


“In January, I saw a video of these Russian guys climbing a skyscraper in Shanghai and thought, Hey, I could do that. It usually starts with me calling a friend and being like, ‘Yo, let’s climb a bridge tonight.’ And they’ll say, ‘Cool.’ But then the time comes and they say, ‘Nah, actually, I’m scared.’ So I usually go myself. I’m 17 and know it’s dangerous. One time, I was lying prone atop the Williamsburg Bridge and started sliding off. I had to grab a beam to stop myself. And the Queensboro Bridge? A ladder there takes you halfway up, then you have to walk across these beams, which means looking down and seeing the traffic below you. Then you get to a ladder that takes you to the top. It’s scary, but the views are worth it. In the past, I’ve borrowed my friend’s old Canon Rebel DSLR; I like to shoot my feet dangling from the edge. I know it’s dangerous, but, like, no one else is going to have that photo.”


Try This: Along the Walkway of a Bridge
You can do a Tic Tac, a basic parkour move, off any tall, solid obstacle (like, say, a wall), but bouncing your body off a bridge’s pedestrian walkway can up the thrill level. (Just make sure there’s high chain-link fencing and no chance of ending up in the East River.) Here’s how to pull it off, according to Brooklyn Zoo’s Geronimo Frias.


(1) Back up a few feet from the fence and position yourself at an angle—imagine an inverted V; you’re at the bottom right—and then jog toward the tip.

(2) When you’re about one long stride from the rail, launch off your inside foot, with your outside leg bent up to chest height, shin parallel to the ground. “You want to hit the rail with your outside foot,” says Frias. To absorb the shock, “make sure it’s the ball of your foot that comes in contact with the railing—not your toes, not your heel.”

(3) Meanwhile, in one fluid motion, while you’re still a few feet in midair, angle your shoulders, head, and inside leg toward the other side of that V. Your inside leg will come down first, knee bent to soften the landing, and your outside leg will come around to land neatly beside it. The goal is to end facing the terminus of the V’s second leg, with your knees bent and together.


Spelunking
Don't Try This: In an Amtrak Underpass
(But here’s how Jeff Stark, artist and editor of Nonsense NYC, slipped past security.)


“I’ve held 40-person dinners in abandoned power plants, church theaters, hospitals. I scope out the area multiple times beforehand to make sure, say, I haven’t picked the time a security guard makes his rounds. I have people help me escort the guests in, in groups of 12 to 15; at that size, they can move relatively quickly. I once held one at the Freedom Tunnel [the Amtrak underpass in Riverside Park]. You can enter through a rarely used access door, and there’s no regular security in the tunnel, so we just made it a point to not be seen by passing trains. I assigned each guest a dish to bring, and I had two musicians, eight dancers, an actor, and a sculptor who assembled and hoisted a chandelier for decoration. For music, we had everyone play a piece of music from their phones at the same time, and the dancers, from a company called Guerrilla Dance Team, did a proper modern dance. We also had a two-person band with a banjo and an accordion—they played very quietly.”

Try This: While Waiting for the J Train


Bob Diamond, chairman of the Brooklyn Historical Railway Association, has a few tips for casual subway snoopers willing to risk a trespassing summons. At the Essex Street J stop, for instance, he says, “walk to the middle of the platform and head down the stairwell that has a gate at the base—it’s usually unlocked. You’ll find yourself in a 5,000-square-foot abandoned trolley station with the original wiring system overhead.” You can also try your luck at the Nevins Street station: “Walk down the stairwell in the middle of the center platform for a glance at the secret lower level,” he says, adding: “It’s best to try this at night.” Amateur spelunkers, be warned: Exploring along live tracks is ill-advised.



Tagging
Don't Try This: Graffiti at Seven Stories
(But here’s how DCEVE, member of the Smart Crew collective, made his mark.)
“The craziest spot I’ve ever tagged was the top front face of a seven-story building on Canal Street. It’s a famous spot to graffiti artists, but no native New Yorker, like me, had tagged it. The only place to stand up there is a ledge that’s smaller than my feet. So first I took a photo of it and blew it up on my computer and plotted out where I’d paint; there are some archways that I could push up against for support. Then, early morning, I put some paint in a bag, climbed up the fire escape, and got to work. It only took about 20 minutes, though it was cut a little short: Toward the end, I dropped my gray paint. It just fell, like I would with one wrong step. I was just up there thinking to myself, What the fuck am I doing with my life?

Try This: Graffiti at Street Level
Blake Lethem, a.k.a. KEO, a.k.a. Scotch 79, a.k.a. brother of Jonathan, grew up in Brooklyn in the ’70s, where he learned to tag on subway trains. Now he teaches eight-week graffiti classes (from $480; keoart.com for info), covering everything from basic lettering to developing personal tag styles.

Additional reporting by Emma Whitford


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