Water towers and the skyline (photograph by Yoni Brook)
Scanning the night skyline of New York City, thousands of pointy silhouettes poke out from the rooftops. So essential are water towers to the visual landscape of the city that they often fade into the background, no longer seen by familiar eyes. This is a mistake.
For the last six weeks something truly amazing was taking place inside one of these water towers. Guests first climbed 12 flights of stairs through an abandoned building in midtown Manhattan. Once on the roof, disoriented attendees found themselves looking up at the bottom of a wooden water tower, a long ladder leading from the roof up to a small trapdoor. What was being proposed seemed all but impossible.
Climbing the ladder, which flexed somewhat disconcertingly under each guest’s weight, one entered through the trapdoor into a space transformed. The inside of the cedar water tower was aglow in candlelight, with a bar and five small tables constructed from disassembled pianos, along with shelving for empty bottles (the number of which grew dramatically over time). A tiny stage was built halfway up the interior to hold the band. A bartender (the fantastic Lindsay Arden Cooper) took drink orders. The experience was less of gaining access to a secret speakeasy and more of finding the door to Narnia in the back of the wardrobe. Guests would swear it was bigger on the inside.
This was the Night Heron Speakeasy created by N.D. Austin, and Atlas Obscura was lucky enough to be able to take part in its incredible six week run. For one glorious evening, the Night Heron played host to a group of Atlas Obscura followers who took a leap of faith and followed us into the unknown, some with as little as a tweet to go on. (They would have plenty to go on now, as the Night Heron — now closed — has been featured in the New Yorker, New York Times, the Atlantic, and Laughing Squid.)
Inside the Night Heron (photograph by Yoni Brook)
While there was raucous music for many of the evenings, the Atlas Obscura version of the speakeasy was decidedly nerdier, though no less boozy, featuring talks on the history of prohibition, speakeasies, and water towers, given by the Night Heron’s creator N. D. Austin, and his wonderful collaborators Myric Lehner and Mike “Dirby” Luongo. For Atlas Obscura and all who attended, it was a transformative journey, a wonderful adventure, and the best kind of night spent at the bar.
Music and dancing in the Night Heron (photograph by Yoni Brook)
Together, N.D. Austin and creative partner Ida Benedetto are Wanderlust, dedicated to “transgressive placemaking through adventure, intimacy, and exploration.” We could not be prouder to have them in residency at Atlas Obscura. (Ida Benedetto also heroically co-ordinated the Brooklyn Field Trip Day event last September.)
Night Heron (photograph by Yoni Brook)
Beyond the magical events Wanderlust puts on — and they truly are magical (I had the the honor of helping with the Illicit Couple’s Retreat held at an abandoned resort) — they have a larger vision of cultural excavation. In Ida’s words, it’s “spending time in a place and following our curiosity by listening to how the location makes us feel.” Cultural excavation in this sense is about honoring a place, of finding its hidden stories, with the aim of, as Ida puts it ”reanimating a space or getting it back into circulation.”
Illicit Couple’s Retreat (photograph by Tod Seelie)
This vision could not be closer to Atlas Obscura’s mission. At the Atlas Obscura, we often describe what we do as finding hidden wonders. This is true, but a better, deeper, description of what we aim to do is find wonder in places where it was previously hidden. We do this through stories, photos, and the collaborative power of the internet. With Wanderlust, Ida Benedetto and N. D. Austin do this in beautiful, intimate ways, and we could not imagine a better fit for the Atlas residency.
Illicit Couple’s Retreat (photograph by Tod Seelie)
With this in mind, we are thrilled to announce the “Wanderlust School of Transgressive Placemaking,” an intellectual follow up to the Night Heron, presented by Atlas Obscura at Acme Studios (63 N. 3rd Street, Brooklyn):
June 4 - Broken Legs, Surveillance Cameras, and Black Mold: Safety & Security Off the Grid with speakers Mark Krawczuk & N.D. Austin & Myric Lehner
June 11 - Go Directly to Jail: Trespassing & the Law with legal tips from speakers and attorneys Wylie Stecklow & Patricia A. Wright
June 18 - Getting In Is the Easy Part: Site-Specific Experience Design with speakers Nick Fortugno & Jeff Stark
June 25 - “For The Little Old Lady In Japan”: Documentation & Legacy with speakers Stephen Duncombe & Annie Correal
These events are all examinations of the practical questions, ideas, and execution of the beautiful transgressive experiences Wanderlust creates. Make sure to sign up for their mailing list to keep informed on Wanderlust, or just send them an email.
We are also thrilled to announce that our evening at the Night Heron was the first of what represents a new and very exciting series of events for us. We call them our “Black Box” events, where participants enter with no knowledge of where they are going and what will happen. A leap of faith for all involved. To hear about these events, sign up for our general Obscura Society event emails and for city specific emails in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
We can’t wait to step into the unknown with you.