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Notes from the underground

Anqi Zhang interviews Montreal’s sewer spelunker

Look at your city – look now, out your window – what do you see? Sky, ground, and buildings that mold the horizon into a somehow recognizable form. But there is more to our little corners of the world – things we do not see, either because we do not look, or because they were designed to be hidden. There are the abandoned warehouses and modestly-covered sewer systems that are as much a part of our cities, and as much a clue to our pasts, as the skyscrapers and multi-story shopping centres and residential brownstones we see on our walks home from school. There are tunnels, connecting subway and train stations, which can act as places of refuge. These are among the elements that urban explorers seek to find, see, and illuminate.

Toronto-born graphic designer Andrew Emond is such an urban explorer, and for six years, his goal was exactly that: to illuminate the rich history of Montreal and its citizens based on below-ground evidence. His now-dormant blog, Under Montreal, documented through photos and stories the time he spent exploring and learning about the city upon moving here. A photographer, Emond told The Daily in an interview that, driven as he was by curiosity and a desire to explore, he probably wouldn’t have gone underground if it weren’t for the camera. He views photography as integral to his goal of finding history and illuminating architecture hidden underground, the telling imprints of the past that he felt he had limited access to aboveground. “Part of the process of being underground is being able to document and relay my experiences,” he stressed.

Underground is where Emond spends most of his time exploring. He concedes on his website that “most wouldn’t consider being inside something like a sewer to be their idea of a good time,” and when asked, stated that “we take it for granted.” A large part of this, he thinks, has to do with simply not being able to see what is underground. Labelling structures such as sewers as off-limits or dangerous ultimately inhibits people from wanting to know more about them, reducing them to simply a utility that facilitates our lifestyles; Emond wants to show the public that this can be challenged. “I like the idea that the city is open ended in how it gets used; certain areas are designated for recreational or pedestrian use, and I’d like to show that those divisions can be elastic,” he stated, seeing uses for elements of the city that the planners did not intend.

Emond finds the research that follows his exploration of these tunnels to be equally, if not more eye-opening: “It’s easy to go down there and think that ‘I’m the first one.’ You think, ‘well I’m in this magical world and discovering something for the first time.’ But there’s a long history of people down there.”

Though it originated as a photo blog, Under Montreal quickly grew to include maps, archival photos, and of course, stories. Emond noted that “a lot of urban exploration websites write in a way that other urban explorers would understand,” but attempted instead to remain conscious of people who did not have a basic understanding of the system. The necessity of remaining accessible is perhaps tied to Emond’s overall desire to illuminate what is perpetually dark, and often ignored by society at large.

Interested in researching the history of Montreal and its systems as much as in photography, he noted that the sewers, though unsurprising in themselves and their construction, give clues to the evolution of the city above. “You look at how [the sewer] was built, when it was built, what was happening aboveground at the time,” said Emond. Through blog posts like “Underground People,” “Pipe Dreams,” and “A History of Problems,” Emond exposes the intricacies, problems, and historical background of the sewer systems he explores. To see his photos and read his prose is to challenge preconceived notions about the foulness of sewers. The stark beauty of the sewers shines through the  flashlight-illuminated images, which Emond sometimes sets in parallel with archival photos of the same sewer bend, or the same tunnel section when it was initially constructed and inspected. Historical anecdotes and images of people who have worked in the sewers or passed through them help to humanize the tunnels that pass below our feet. Under Montreal succeeds at uncovering both the physical and historical layers of Montreal’s substructure.

But exploring the city’s underbelly and using sewers for a purpose that is unheard of by much of the population can lead to confusion and alarm. On Easter weekend in 2010, Emond and a friend – a fellow explorer of Toronto’s underground – were arrested for trespassing after entering a sewer system in one of Toronto’s residential areas. The case brought a considerable amount of media attention to the urban exploration culture. Though they were released and the charges were ultimately dropped – largely, it seems, because it was clear from their cameras and blogs that they were exploring, rather than something more ill-intentioned – Emond alluded to the general difficulty of getting into sewers in the first place. Given that manholes are often in the middle of the street, or in busy areas where their activities might be noticed and misinterpreted, Emond is looking for other sources of information as well. Residing in Toronto, he is now far enough away from Montreal that he feels comfortable reaching back to people from Municipal Works for more information on the city’s systems. When asked about the culture of urban exploration and its future, Emond sounds cynical, seeing a shift toward a mentality of “thrill-seeking” from urban explorers. “Eight years ago,” said Emond, “it had a lot to do with gaining a better understanding of your own city. Nowadays it’s synonymous with going to abandoned buildings and taking some photos.” Though photography was what initially brought Emond to the activity, he seems adamant that this should not be the ultimate goal – or the only goal – of urban exploration. There are, he noted, fewer and fewer people making blogs and writing; instead, sites such as Flickr and Tumblr encourage people to post photos and do nothing more. Indeed, a search for “Montreal urban exploration” leads to a Flickr group filled with beautifully constructed but barely contextualized photographs.

For Emond, his project feels unfinished. While he still explores in Toronto, he tells me about the sewers he couldn’t get into during his years in Montreal. Though he says he has no end goal in mind, and has not updated the site in over two years, Emond hopes to continue sharing his stories and experiences, and present different angles of the city. Moving away from an online medium, though leaving Under Montreal as a valuable resource for those interested, Emond has looked to public speaking and events such as Nuit Blanche 2011, TEDx, and an upcoming documentary, Lost Rivers, which is to be screened in Montreal this coming spring. Whatever the medium, one hopes that the urban exploration culture and community will continue the attempt to bring to light the world we were not meant to see.

To see more of Andrew Emond’s work, go to