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

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 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.