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Society Adventures: A Clandestine Catacombs Affair with Philippe Petit

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in BrooklynThe dark beauty of Green-Wood Cemetery’s catacombs at night
(all photographs by Steven Acres, visit http://stevenacr.es to view more of his work)

Last week, the New York Obscura Society and Riverhead Books invited 40 guests to join us on a mystery excursion to an undisclosed location. A small crowd braved the night’s heavy downpour to gather at Madison Square Park in the early evening hours, where a charter bus was ready to whisk them away to a top secret destination, with a very special guest awaiting their arrival.

The rain and fog obscured our route to the extent that when we arrived at Green-Wood Cemetery’s towering gates our location was still a complete puzzle for many of our passengers. The bus slowly made its way through the windy cemetery roads to our final destination: the Green-Wood catacombs.  

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in BrooklynA flooded burial vault

Aglow with candles and lanterns, and with streams of rain finding their way through the burial chamber’s 19th century skylights, showering into great pools of dark water on the floor of the various vaults, the hillside catacombs were at their very best: moody, atmospheric, and eerily beautiful.

Guests filed down the illuminated passageway, already a bit in awe, but following our guidance to make their way to the very back of the catacombs, at last the reason for our secret excursion was revealed. At a small table the infamous highwire-walker Philippe Petit awaited. He greeted his audience warmly before delving into a whimsical, intimate performance of close magic, conversing with us about his personal creative process and sharing excerpts from his new book, Creativity: The Perfect Crime.

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in Brooklyn
Our guest of honor awaits

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in BrooklynPhilippe Petit enchants the crowd

With the aim of conveying a sense of Philippe’s outlook on creativity as an often illicit, even criminal endeavor, our original itinerary for the evening involved a beautiful, abandoned structure just outside of the city limits. Unfortunately, a completely unrelated occurrence involving some pretty heinous animal sacrifice in a nearby vacant lot drew an onslaught of law enforcement to the area just days before our big event, forcing us to make a hasty change of plans.

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in BrooklynPhilippe’s lucky audience

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in Brooklyn
A lesson in sleight of hand

Although the transgressive element of the night had to be scrapped, the catacombs made for a pretty incredible substitution. Following Philippe’s presentation, experimental harpist Ellena Phillips performed and several of the burial chambers were opened to reveal hidden cocktail bars. One of our guests even started his own pop up tarot reading station on a dry section of the catacombs’ floor.

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in BrooklynThe beautiful Ellena Phillips on the harp

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in BrooklynImpromptu divinations

As our night came to a close, Philippe bid us adieu. Our guests loaded back onto the bus to return to their various boroughs, signed books in hand, leaving the catacombs behind like awaking from a strange and beautiful dream.

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in BrooklynA quiet still life in a vacant burial chamber

Philippe Petit in the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs in Brooklyn
A final glance goodbye


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The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!

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