'Atlas Obscura' Tour Of Manhattan Finds Hidden Wonders In A Well-Trodden Place | KERA News

'Atlas Obscura' Tour Of Manhattan Finds Hidden Wonders In A Well-Trodden Place

Sep 20, 2016
Originally published on September 21, 2016 3:05 pm

Sometimes the world can feel a bit uniform: the same department stores in every shopping mall, the same fast food chains on every corner. The website Atlas Obscura will make you reconsider that sense of monotony.

"The world is still this huge, bizarre, vast place filled with astounding stuff," says co-founder Dylan Thuras. "And if you sort of tilt your view a little bit and start looking for it, you start finding it everywhere."

Thuras' new book, also called Atlas Obscura, is a guide to the world's hidden wonders — like a ventriloquist dummy museum in Kentucky or a 230-foot-wide hole in Turkmenistan that's been on fire for 40 years.

"That's an amazing place," Thuras says. "And it's kind of one of these places that when you find out it exists, you're a little bit surprised you didn't know it existed before."

But you don't have go all the way to Turkmenistan to see these places; Thuras says there's plenty of wonder in your own backyard. To prove it, he took NPR on a tour of the wonders in his backyard: Manhattan.

Thuras starts his tour on the 6 train. "Basically, you stay on the 6 train after its last stop [Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall]," he says. "You're able to look out the subway car windows and see the City Hall station, which is one of the most beautiful subway stations ever created. It's been shuttered since 1945, but it is this immaculate space. It's this little piece of lost New York grandeur."

The station has hanging chandeliers and arched ceilings that are covered in green and white tiles. (For the best view, Atlas Obscura recommends sitting in the 7th, 8th or 9th car.)

The next stop is an artwork by Walter De Maria. It's called the Earth Room, "which is what it sounds like," Thuras says: "It is 280,000 pounds of dirt that has been sitting in a room in a SoHo loft."

A little sign outside instructs visitors to buzz in and walk up to the second floor. There, they'll find a loft in which the entire floor is covered in "rich, nicely groomed-looking dirt," as Thuras describes it. Somebody has raked and misted the dirt every week since De Maria created the work in 1977. "It's got the real smell of a forest floor," Thuras says.

Spanish tourist Juan Carlos Fernandez's visit coincided with NPR's. He says he's wanted to visit the Earth Room since 1986, "but for different reasons every time we were here in the city, we couldn't." Was it worth the 30-year wait? Fernandez says yes. "I am so thrilled right now."

After the Earth Room, it's time for lunch at the kind of restaurant Atlas Obscura loves. "We are going to El Sabroso, which is a small South American lunch counter in a freight elevator entrance," Thuras says.

The restaurant is in Midtown in a sort of loading dock. Behind the counter, a cook tends to eight pots bubbling on a small stove. Seating consists of a long folding table with plastic chairs.

Thuras says, "In a way, there's a history here because Midtown has always been home to garment workers and people, you know, who were kind of working on a tighter budget, and that's still true today. So there's a few remaining ... old school lunch counters where you can get a great meal for like $6. ... And it's killer. It's like super killer." (He's not kidding. It was the best $6 lunch this reporter has had in a long time.)

Thuras is the kind of traveler who will pack every minute of a day with experiences. After lunch, he leads NPR to mysterious tiles embedded in the roadway, a shuttered art deco skywalk that is completely sealed off to the world and the Conjuring Arts Research Center, one of the world's largest collections of books about magic.

The last stop on his tour is an easily overlooked wonder in the middle of Times Square. It's called Times Square (Times Square Hum), or just the Times Square Hum, and it comes from under a metal grate on a pedestrian island. (You can hear it for yourself in the audio story above.) An artist named Max Neuhaus created it almost 40 years ago.

"It's this kind of sonic secret, just tucked away," Thuras says. "Almost nobody stops and says, 'What is that strange noise?' " Because, of course, the Hum is surrounded by noise: car horns, street performers, crowds, squeaking brakes.

"For me, it sort of serves as this wonderful reminder that in the middle of all this madness — in what I think most people would find the most commercial, least sort of whimsical or magical place in Manhattan — is this kind of little gem waiting for you if you're willing to sort of slow down, look around, listen and kind of start asking questions."

Does he ever worry about Atlas Obscura running out of wonders to write about?

"We asked ourselves this question at the start," Thuras says, "and so far the answer seems to be: It is infinite."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometimes the world can feel a bit uniform - the same department stores in every shopping mall, the same fast food chains on every corner. Atlas Obscura yanks the rug out from under that sense of monotony.

DYLAN THURAS: The world is still this huge, bizarre, vast place filled with astounding stuff. And if you sort of tilt your view a little bit and start looking for it, you start finding it everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Dylan Thuras co-founded the website Atlas Obscura, and now he has a book by the same name. Atlas Obscura is a guide to the world's hidden wonders, places you would not find in a typical guidebook.

THURAS: You know, very small museums - the ventriloquist dummy museum in Kentucky - or sometimes they include sort of wild places, very far-flung, like in the Turkmenistan desert there's a 200-foot-wide hole that has been on fire for 40 years. That's an amazing place. And it's kind of one of these places when you find out it exists, you're a little bit surprised you didn't know it existed before.

SHAPIRO: You don't have to go to Kentucky or Turkmenistan to find these places. Dylan Thuras wants you to find wonder in your own backyard, so he took us on a tour of some of the wonders of his backyard - Manhattan.

THURAS: So we're going to do a really fun thing that I think a lot of New Yorkers don't - I don't think they realize you can do this, but we are going to take the 6 loop, which - basically, you stay on the 6 train after its last stop. You're able to look out the subway car windows and see the City Hall Station, which is one of the most beautiful subway stations ever created. It's been shuttered since 1945, but it is this immaculate space. It's this little piece of lost New York grandeur.

SHAPIRO: Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Brooklyn Bridge City Hall is the last downtown stop on this train.

SHAPIRO: We're the only people left on the train. Like a small child, I want to kneel on the bench with my nose pressed to the glass.

THURAS: You should, it's the way to do it. Wait, here it is.

SHAPIRO: OK. Oh, cool.

THURAS: So there's all this, like, green and white Gustavino tile work, there's hanging chandeliers, and that's it. That's it. It's 20 - not even 10 seconds of, like, what was that world we just went through? That's the whole thing.

SHAPIRO: That old abandoned subway station was incredible. Where are you taking us now?

THURAS: So we are going up to Bleecker Street to a place called the Earth Room, which is what it sounds like. It is 280,000 pounds of dirt that has been sitting in a room in a SoHo loft.

SHAPIRO: Why?

THURAS: It is the artwork of Walter De Maria. I think it's going be fun.

SHAPIRO: A little sign tells us to buzz in and walk up to the second floor. Before we reach the stairs, we run into a tourist from Spain named Juan Carlos Fernandez.

JUAN CARLOS FERNANDEZ: Well, to tell you the truth, I want to visit this space since 1986.

SHAPIRO: For 30 years you've wanted to see this room?

FERNANDEZ: Yes, but for different reasons every time we're here in the city, we couldn't. I'm so thrilled right now. You - can you feel it in my - the tone of my voice?

SHAPIRO: You must have had such high expectations.

FERNANDEZ: No. I'll explain why. I'm a clinical psychologist. And I know if I have such high expectations, the experience, it doesn't work really well.

SHAPIRO: Was it worth the 30-year wait?

FERNANDEZ: I will say yes.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

FERNANDEZ: Thank you very much.

THURAS: It's got, like, the real smell of, like, a forest floor.

SHAPIRO: How would you describe this room?

THURAS: So it's, like, a full floor of a SoHo loft, but every inch of the floor is covered in this, like, rich, kind of nicely groomed-looking dirt.

SHAPIRO: Somebody has raked this dirt and misted it with water every week since 1977. After the Earth Room, it's time for lunch at the kind of restaurant Atlas Obscura loves.

THURAS: We're going to El Sabroso, which is a small South American lunch counter in a freight elevator entrance.

SHAPIRO: Explain that. Or would it be better for us to just go experience it?

THURAS: We should go check it out.

SHAPIRO: We head to Midtown and walk into a sort of loading dock. There's a counter, and behind it the cook tends to eight pots bubbling on a small stove. Seating consists of a long folding table with plastic chairs.

THURAS: In a way, there's, like, a history here because Midtown has always been home to, like - to garment workers and people, you know, who were kind of working on a tighter budget. And that's still true today. So there are these sort of - there's a few kind of remaining little hidden basically, like, old-school lunch counters where you can get a great meal for, like, 6 bucks.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Chicken stew, $6. Roast pork, $6.

THURAS: And it's killer. It's, like, super killer.

SHAPIRO: Let's do it.

He's not kidding. It was the best $6 lunch I've had in a long time. Dylan is the kind of traveler who will pack every minute of a day with experiences, and that's how we treated our exploration of New York, too. He took us to see mysterious tiles embedded in the roadway, a shuttered art deco skywalk that is completely sealed off from the world and the Conjuring Arts Research Center, one of the world's largest collections of books about magic. Finally, our tour concluded with a hidden discovery that is audio only.

THURAS: An easily overlooked little wonder in the sort of exact epicenter of Times Square, Midtown Manhattan.

SHAPIRO: It's called the Times Square Hum. It comes from under a metal grate on a pedestrian island in the middle of Times Square. An artist named Max Neuhaus created it almost 40 years ago.

THURAS: It's this kind of sonic secret just, like, tucked away. Almost nobody stops and says, what is that strange noise?

SHAPIRO: Well, because we're surrounded by a million strange noises. We're in Times Square.

THURAS: For me, it sort of serves as this wonderful reminder that in the middle of all of this madness in what I think most people would find the most commercial, least sort of whimsical or magical place in Manhattan is this kind of little gem waiting for you if you're willing to sort of slow down, listen and kind of start asking questions.

SHAPIRO: OK, so we're going to let you hear this hum. Ignore the honking horns. Ignore the drummer. Ignore the crowds. Ignore the squeaking brakes. And listen for this low vibrating tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUM)

SHAPIRO: Dylan, do you ever worry you'll run out of things, that at some point the Atlas Obscura will be so full of wonders there won't be any left?

THURAS: We asked ourselves this question at the start, and so far the answer seems to be it is infinite. And I think that's because it's not just about oh, this is a weird place and we're just going to catalog them all and that'll be it. It's - honestly, it's a way of looking at the world.

SHAPIRO: Well, thank you for helping us see the world through this lens. It's been really fun.

THURAS: Thank you for coming on this, like, epic journey today. It's my pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Dylan Thuras is one of the co-authors of the new book "Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide To The World's Hidden Wonders." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.